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
Boarding The Bus Salinas
Packed Japanese Internment
Relocation Bus Manzanar
Life Inside Japanese Internment Camps
View Gallery

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. She holds a Master's in writing from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The Guardian, Yahoo, BBC, HuffPost, VICE, MSN, and Vulture.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Sherman, Elisabeth. "Life Inside Japanese Internment Camps.", September 6, 2016, Accessed June 14, 2024.