America’s Concentration Camps


June 2, 1942 – November 21, 1945

“The first morning … when I woke up and saw what Manzanar looked like, I just cried. And then I saw the high Sierra Mountains, just like my native country’s mountains, and I just cried, that’s all.”
—Haruko Niwa

Manzanar was built in the high desert at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada, not far from Death Valley. In his memoirs, Iwao Takamoto described his first day at Manzanar:

Immediately upon arrival at the camp we were handed a bag-like mat made of canvas and led to a pile of straw. We were told to take handfuls of straw and stuff them into the bag. These would be our mattresses.

Shikata ga nai

Takamoto wrote that the environment at Manzanar “actually became less bleak with time” as the first-generation Issei men in the camp “began to landscape the bare areas, [in] particular the patch of emptiness around the mess hall, where we had to line up day after day for our meals.” Eventually, there were gardens all over Manzanar.

A large proportion of these men had been professional gardeners, landscapers, and nurserymen in Los Angeles. The gardens, wrote Takamoto, “were just one example of how the Issei at Manzanar simply got on with life and worked hard to make things better for everyone.”

Sue Kunitomi Embrey thought that people made the best of things at camp because of an attitude called Shikata ga nai, a saying among the older generation that meant, in Embrey’s words, “Well, you know, it can’t be helped so you have to make the best of it.”

The “Manzanar Incident”

In December of 1942, Arthur Ogami, a hospital orderly, returned from a job at a beet farm, and was told that there had been riots. Angry crowds had gathered at the administration building, prompting the camp’s director to call in the military police. Nervous soldiers had fired into the crowd, killing two young men and wounding nine others. At the hospital, Ogami treated inmates suffering from bullet wounds and the effects of tear gas.

Ogami was aware that this rare instance of protest at the camp stemmed from conflict between different factions among the inmates — between those who “were opposed to … anything that the government wanted them to do,” and inmates who urged cooperation with the administration, people his parents called inus, or spies (literally, “dogs”).

Sue Kunitomi Embrey explained that a group of Kibei, American-born, but educated in Japan

were very anti-administration. And then there was the JACL group, the Japanese American Citizens League group, which had cooperated from the very beginning with the government, and a lot of people felt that they were spying on the community and turning people’s names in [to the FBI for suspected disloyalty]. So all of these tensions began to boil.

In December, a JACL representative who had been given special leave to attend a national conference in Salt Lake City returned to camp, and was assaulted in his barrack room by six masked men. He was hospitalized, and Harry Ueno, the leader of the kitchen workers’ union, was arrested by the administration on suspicion of the beating. A gathering of Ueno’s supporters demanding his release grew into a large protest, inflamed, no doubt, by long pent-up frustrations.

Calm was eventually restored. Ogami remembers some inmates being transferred to Death Valley for their own safety. The inmates thought to be the instigators of the unrest were removed from the camp and eventually sent to Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Quote credits
Haruko Niwa, quoted at the Manzanar Virtual Museum Exhibit at
Iwao Takamoto, in Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters, by Iwao Takamoto, Michael Mallory, Willie Ito, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Sue Kunitomi Embrey, interview by John Allen, November 6, 2002, Manzanar National Historic Site Collection, Densho.
Arthur Ogami, interview by Alice Ito, March 10, 2004, Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.

Barracks under construction at ManzanarEnlarge
Barracks under construction at Manzanar Charles and Lois Ferguson at Manzanar Farming at Manzanar Inmates beautified barracks at Manzanar Young Nisei men take the Army oath at Manzanar

Barracks under construction. Gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata (93.102.194).