America’s Concentration Camps


September 11, 1942 – October 31, 1945

“Our way of life changed. Dramatically. Literally overnight we had gone from being Americans to being the ‘enemy.’”
—Sox Kitashima

Topaz was built in the high, flat Sevier Desert in central Utah, 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Initially, security was tight. Helen Harano Christ’s family lived near the barbed-wire fence, which was “guarded by soldiers who walked back and forth with their guns on their shoulders.”

Years later, in an interview, Christ said that the experience of being kept within that fence made her realize how easily freedom is taken for granted. “Freedom is not just being able to do whatever you want to, but to think outside of the box, to do things that are creative, to go places and see things that are new and learn more of what there is to do in this world, and explore other venues of life. There’s a lot to freedom that we need to appreciate.”

A Fatal Shooting

Six months after the camp opened, a 63-year-old Issei chef named James Hatsuki Wakasa was shot and killed by one of the soldiers while he was walking near the perimeter fence. Ted Nagata remembered the incident: “Somebody said [Wakasa] was hard of hearing, and the guard told him to stop, and he didn’t understand.” Inmates were aghast at the shooting, and work stopped at the camp. As Nagata said, the man “wasn’t going outside the gate. He was just walking along the fence.” About a month later, another guard fired on a couple walking near the fence.

No More Guns

After these incidents, the camp administration began to change its policies. Nagata recalls that within six or eight months, “the security in Topaz was nonexistent. In fact, there were no more guards up there, there were no guns, and nobody was in the guard towers.” Classes were allowed to leave the camp for field trips, and some of the men, including Nagata’s father, worked outside the camp.

Nagata believes that the U.S. government saw its own mistake in the incarceration of Japanese Americans. “I mean, here we were, eight thousand internees in that camp. Were we the enemy? It was pretty apparent that we weren’t. Were we espionage agents? Absolutely not. We were just ordinary U.S. citizens, and I think this became quite apparent to the government.”

Quote credits
Sox Kitashima, Tsuyako Sox Kitashima and Joy K. Morimoto. Birth of an Activist: The Sox Kitashima Story. San Mateo: Asian American Curriculum Project, 2003.
Helen Harano Christ, interview by Megan Asaka, June 18, 2008, Topaz Museum Collection, Densho.
Ted Nagata, interview by Megan Asaka, June 3, 2008, Topaz Museum Collection, Densho.

Hisako Hibi, A Letter, 1945. Enlarge
Hisako Hibi, A Letter, 1945. Hisako Hibi, Laundry Room, 1945. Marion L. Bell, Looking North from Topaz Relocation Center, Winter 1942. National Archives and Records Administration. Seiko Nishiyama, Untitled, 1943.

Hisako Hibi, A Letter, 1945. Gift of Ibuki Hibi Lee (96.601.51)

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