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Japanese American Internment

Questions to Consider

What did the Japanese American internment camps look like?

What was everyday life like for people in the camps?

How did the internees feel about their lives?

About the images

The images in this group offer a picture of what one Japanese American Internment camp looked like. Paintings, created by internees, depict what it felt like to be interned there. The camp photographs were taken at Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp in Eastern California's Owens Valley, now a national historic site open to visitors.


After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which established 10 internment camps for "national security" purposes. Although most internment camps were along the West Coast, others could be found in Wyoming and Colorado, and as far east as Arkansas. One photo shows Japanese American boys in San Francisco shortly before the evacuation order; another shows a woman waiting for the evacuation bus in Hayward; approximately 660 people being evacuated by bus from San Francisco on the first day of the program; and an aerial image of people sitting on their belongings, waiting to be taken to Manzanar.

The government-sponsored War Relocation Authority (WRA) hired Dorothea Lange and other photographers to take pictures of the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans. Lange’s photographs, some of which were suppressed by the WRA and only released later, often capture the irony inherent in the situation. Although internees were allowed to take only what they could carry with them to the camps, one Lange photo juxtaposes a bus poster "Such a load off my mind — Bekins stored my things" next to a pile of internees' belongings. Another striking Lange image shows a Japanese American-owned corner store with a large "I am an American" banner hanging beneath a "Sold" sign.

Another photograph of an engine's distributor, removed from a car owned by an internee, showed that people were truly prisoners at the camp, unable to drive their own cars away. Several paintings by interned Japanese American artists Henry Sugimoto and Hisako Hibi reflect their emotional experiences and give viewers a sense of what life was like for them. The paintings express the pain, suffering, and anger of those subjected to internment.

Over 100,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were relocated and detained at these camps. Photographs here show people of all ages, including a grandfather and grandchild, and young children. This internment is now recognized as a violation of their human and civil rights. In 1980, the US government officially apologized and reparations were paid to survivors.

See Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive for more images.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Following evacuation orders, this store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor, 3/13/42 Awaiting evacuation bus. Posters in background list names of families, buses to which they are assigned, and departure times, 5/9/42 Hayward, Calif.--Two children of the Mochida family who, with their parents, are awaiting evacuation bus. The youngster on the right holds a sandwich given her by one of a group of women who were present from a local church, 5/8/42
Grandfather and grandson High school boys look over Buchanan Street scene, prior to evacuation of residents of Japanese ancestry, 4/4/42 The Japanese quarter of San Francisco on the first day of evacuation from this area, 4/29/42
Hayward, Calif.--Baggage of evacuees of Japanese ancestry ready to be loaded on moving van, 5/8/42 Japanese-Americans awaiting buses to Manzanar, April, 1941  Evacuees of Japanese ancestry waiting to board buses which will take them to the War Relocation Authority center at Manzanar, 4/1/42
Correspondence from George K. Nakano to J. Elmer Morrish, 28 August 1942 Newcomers vaccinated by fellow and sister evacuees of Japanese ancestry on arrival at Manzanar, a War Relocation Authority center, 4/2/42 Manzanar, Calif.--Memorial Day services at Manzanar, a War Relocation Authority center where evacuees of Japanese ancestry will spend the duration, 5/31/42
Basketball game [Manzanar], February 13, 1943 While military policeman stands guard, this detachment watches arrival of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center, 4/2/42 Manzanar, Calif.--Distributor of one of the 150 impounded automobiles owned by evacuees of Japanese ancestry assigned to this War Relocation Authority center. These distributors are kept in Administration building, 4/2/42
Lapel buttons for Chinese Americans, Dec 22, 1941 San Francisco, Calif. (Sutter and Octavia St.)--Billboard advertisement at edge of Japanese quarter, photographed on morning when 600 persons of Japanese ancestry from this section were evacuated to an assembly center, 4/29/42 IAs evacuation of residents of Japanese ancestry progressed in April 1942, this sign (above), advertising a swimming pool, was posted in many San Francisco districts. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 4/13/42
Documentary, Junkshop Man Took Away Our Icebox, c. 1942 Tanforan Assembly Center, 8/24/1942 A few renovated horse stables, 8/1/1942
When Can We Go Home?, 1943 Goodbye My Son, c. 1942 Bombing of Relative Homeland, 1945

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

Who was Dorothea Lange?

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), a great American photographer, is perhaps best known for her photographs of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression.

General note about Lange’s images

Due to the limits of technology and the scanning process used, the digitized versions of Dorothea Lange’s photographs in some cases do not accurately represent the high quality of the original images.