Life Inside Japanese Internment Camps

Published September 6, 2016
Updated November 19, 2019

These photographs reveal what daily life was like for the people living in Japanese internment camps of the United States during World War II.

Japanese Internment Family Bags
A Japanese family wearing identification tags waits to be relocated.Dorothea Lange/National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Boarding The Bus Salinas
In 1942, when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the government justified the relocation of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to internment camps as a "military necessity" to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage.

However, according to PBS, the government eventually admitted it "had in its possession proof that not one Japanese American, citizen or not, had engaged in espionage, not one had committed any act of sabotage."

Furthermore, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians wrote that internment was "motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Packed Japanese Internment
Before relocation of Japanese-Americans began, the U.S. government froze the bank accounts of anyone born in Japan, raided homes despite not having search warrants, and allowed internees to bring only bedding and clothing to the camps.

While some people entrusted their possessions with sympathetic neighbors, others would have to leave behind a lifetime of belongings, hoping that their homes would not be vandalized or burgled while they were away.
National Archives and Records Administration; Records of the War Relocation Authority

Relocation Bus Manzanar
Despite such violations of basic rights, Japanese internment was almost universally accepted by the American people.

The government never bothered to explain why Italian and German-Americans were not also sent to camps, and the military was not required or even pressured to provide concrete evidence that Japanese-Americans posed a threat to national security.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Yugosalvian Farmer Centerville
Here, a Yugoslavian farmer stands on the farm he took over from interned Japanese-Americans. Japanese internment gave white farmers a chance to eliminate unwanted competition.

PBS reported that one farmer told the Saturday Evening Post: “If all of the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them… because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows."

In 1942, the agricultural coordinator for the Japanese-American Citizens League warned that Japanese farmers "stand to lose approximately 100 million dollars in investments” if the government confiscated or forced them to sell their land. By 1942, the Farm Security Administration had transferred more than 1,000 Japanese farms, totaling 50,000 acres, to new owners.
National Archives and Records Administration; Records of the War Relocation Authority

Barracks Salinas Assembly Center
It wasn't difficult for Japanese-Americans to lose their possessions and livelihoods.

Once the government announced the internment plan, they gave Japanese-Americans one week to register with authorities, and report to assembly centers, where they would then be transported to the camps.

However, not all the camps were complete, so many Japanese-Americans were held for months in temporary holding centers, usually converted stables at local racetracks, like this one.
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Train Los Angeles Internment
After the holding centers came the internment camps themselves.

In the words of one internee, Mary Tsukamoto, who recalls what it was like to first arrive at the camp: "I never will forget, the train stopped and we got off and they put us on a big truck. It looked like one of those cattle cars. Anyway, we stood up because there were no chairs for us to sit on this pickup and crowded into this truck. They drove us to the Fresno Assembly Center. And then we got off there... I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals...We were going to also lose our freedom."
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Volleyball Game Internment
"Aside from the absurdity of living that way, life went on pretty much as usual," one internee said of life at the camps.

The residents set up newspapers, sports teams, and fire and police departments, though any community organization had to be approved by the War Relocation Authority.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Farm Workers Internment
While life may have gone on "as usual," the government also exploited internees as a source of labor.

David Masumoto wrote that "Japanese-American farmers transformed the barren acres of Manzanar [one of the ten camps]," by farming and irrigating the soil. His relatives, who were interned during the war, "worked the farms, dairy, and produce-shipping operations at Gila River Relocation Center," in Arizona.

Furthermore, the documentary "Passing Poston: An American Story" reveals that at the Poston internment camp in Arizona, residents of the camp created infrastructure like schools, dams, canals, and farms that the U.S. government later used when consolidating Arizona's Native American tribes onto one large reservation.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Living Room Internment
Ralph Smeltzer, who worked at Manzanar, produced his own reports on living conditions there, independent of the War Relocation Authority. He wrote, "The rooms are too small. Two or more families live in many [of the] rooms. An average room is 20 feet by 24 feet," not even twice the size of a parking space. He went on to lament the "poorest lumber is used throughout,” and the “rooms are nearly always cold.”

Even the War Relocation Authority knew that they were subjecting the internees to abhorrent living conditions, writing that, “for the great majority of evacuated people, the environment of the centers – despite all efforts to make them livable – remains subnormal and probably always will.”
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Fetching Water Clem Albers
The water supply at the camps was no better than any of the other substandard accommodations. In fact, it notoriously wrought havoc on the health of the inmates.

According to Smeltzer's reports from 1942, "bathing facilities were quite inadequate, running water was late in being made available and two weeks elapsed before hot water was available.” Later, he wrote that a "serious lack of sanitary facilities” lead to widespread dysentery.

In addition, a report from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming said, "The water was terrible because of the rusted and oiled pipes, and it really was not fit to use." At the Jerome and Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas, contaminated milk and water even resulted in an E. coli outbreak.
Clem Albers/National Parks Service

Mud Tule Lake Relocation Center
In addition to physical ailments, the mental health of many Japanese-Americans suffered greatly as a result of their incarceration.

In her paper, "Psychological Effects of the Camps on Japanese Americans" Amy Mass wrote that, "For the honor-conscious Issei [those born and raised in Japan], it was the repudiation of many years of effort and hard work in this country."

Similarly, internees who were American citizens felt as though their very identity was under attack. The camps' residents were subjected to horrifying conditions, witnessed the humiliation of their families, and felt deeply ashamed of their cultural heritage, leaving them depressed, lonely, and confused.
National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Salinas Assembly Center
Internee Masao W., for example, recalls feeling severed from an identity he had fought hard for: "You grow up thinking you're a citizen, and you want to be a part of this society you're in, and then the, let's say the weight of the rejection, is something that was pretty unexpected...I think it bothered a lot of us tremendously. You try to be a good citizen, you try to do what you're supposed to be doing, and the rejection is very hard, difficult."National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the War Relocation Authority

Buddhist Church Internment
In addition to ethnic identity, religion also played a complicated role in Japanese internment.

According to the Digital Public Library of America's exhibit on Japanese internment, "religious organizations advocated for fairer treatment of Japanese Americans, while working to Americanize them through religious indoctrination."

Though Christian churches in the camp provided social services and organized recreation, the camps also saw a resurgence in Buddhist practices, as Japanese-Americans pushed back against Americanization.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Family Internment
Internment disrupted the traditional Japanese family structure, too. Only Nisei, the younger generation of Japanese-Americans born in the United States, were given paying jobs and positions of authority in the camps.

Their elders, who had worked for years to build stable lives for their families in America, no longer enjoyed the positions of respect and leadership they would have in their own homes.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Walking To School
The effects of Japanese internment on family structure further extended to traditional leadership roles.

Traditional Japanese family structures were patriarchal. However, during internment, this changed. Women were afforded independence because marriage and child birth were often delayed in the camps.

In addition, cramped living quarters required shared responsibility of domestic duties. The same jobs were offered to men and women in the camps, and without their previous careers and business, men ceased to be the family breadwinners.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Manzanar Childrens Village Dorothea Lange
Japanese-American children living in orphanages and foster care in California were gathered together in the Children's Village in Manzanar. Children living there attended church service and school together, much like they had before their incarceration. More than 100 children were confined here until the camps closed in 1945.Dorothea Lange/National Park Service

School Girls Internment
Children at least received an education — though the quality of said education is certainly up for debate. While the War Relocation Authority provided schooling for interned children through high school, but classrooms weren't necessarily conducive to learning.

As one War Relocation Authority official wrote: "3,971 students are crowded into makeshift buildings without adequate desk and chair facilities."

To help improve things, some churches and relief agencies donated desks, books, and other school supplies.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Recess Internment Camp
Despite the conditions, revolt was not on the minds of some Nisei.

In the words of Mary Tsukamoto: "We had no thought about defying the government. And of course the Japanese people respect the elderly, and those who are important, the President of the United States, we wouldn't, you know, even if he's wrong, we wouldn't say anything."
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Winter Internment Camp
When Japanese internment ended in 1945, many internees — grappling with poverty and continued discrimination — struggled to rebuild their lives. That's why after the war, many Japanese-Americans did not return to the West Coast, and instead resettled on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Internment Camp House
While the lives of most Japanese-Americans would indeed never be the same, Japanese-Americans abstained from demanding redress.

In an interview with NPR, internee John Tateishi said that after internment ended, "There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way."

Nevertheless, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology to all living former internees and their families. Surviving victims were also paid $20,000 in reparations.
Ansel Adams/Library of Congress

Just two months after the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt succumbed to wartime hysteria and racial prejudice and signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to leave their homes and relocate to internment camps.

Only allowing them to take what they could carry, many Japanese-American families soon sold their farms, homes, and business for far less than they were worth, unsure if they would ever return home or if their land would even be there if they did.

Before even placing people in the camps, the U.S. government would confiscate family heirlooms and freeze assets, leaving many with no access to their income. Government authorities would also haul Japanese-Americans off into assembly centers that were nothing more than stables converted into barracks.

In spite of the fact that the U.S. government had no proof that any of these Japanese-Americans were planning to sabotage the war effort, they held more than 110,000 people at ten official Japanese internment camps in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas, for the duration of the war. Approximately 60 percent of them were American citizens.

Throughout the war -- after which the government closed the camps and released all who were held -- many photographers documented life behind the barbed wire fences of the Japanese internment camps. The photos above give but a glimpse into what this dark period in American history actually looked like.

For more on World War II, read about its eight most bad-ass women. Then, find out how one heroic woman who delivered babies while in Auschwitz.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.