Feb 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

In photos: Japanese American incarceration

A family of three sits in front of the American flag

The Hirano family with a photo of their oldest son Shigera Hirano, a U.S. Army sergeant in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. As he served overseas, his family were prisoners at the Colorado River internment camp. Photo: National Archives

Eighty years ago today, then-President Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order that led to the forced removal and mass incarceration of about 120,000 Japanese Americans into 10 American internment camps.

Why it matters: Powerful archival photos of the mass incarceration provide a vivid reminder of how badly the U.S. government mistreated Japanese Americans.

  • Survivors and activists have also pushed Congress to help preserve this history by designating one of the former prisons — Amache, in Granada, Colorado — as a national memorial.
Two men play a game with suitcases in the foreground.
San Francisco, April 25, 1942. Two friends play a final game, awaiting their forced removal to an internment camp. Photo: Dorothea Lange for War Relocation Authority (WRA) via National Archives
"I am an American" sign in a shop window.
This sign was placed in an Oakland store window on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Japanese Americans could only bring what they could carry to the camps, leaving behind countless businesses, homes and community ties. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via Library of Congress
A woman sits on the stoop rearranging flowers.
Arranging flowers for the last day of service at Japanese Independent Congregational Church on April 26, 1942. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives

Some people were given only six days notice to pack up their belongings and leave their homes and communities.

Crowd of people with luggage trying to board trains.
Los Angeles, April 1942. Families prepare to board trains to the Manzanar detention center, 250 miles away. Photo: HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A woman stands with her luggage in front of signs with lists of names.
Centerville, Calif. on May 5, 1942. A woman waits for the bus to the detention center. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) hired acclaimed photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, to document the incarceration, though many of Lange’s photos were censored by the U.S. army and held until after the war.

Trucks loaded with suitcases.
San Pedro, Calif., in April 1942. The last Redondo Beach residents leave for internment camps. Photo: Library of Congress
People line up on a former race track.
People line up for the mess hall at the Tanforan temporary detention center, a former racetrack in San Bruno, Calif. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives
Horse stalls converted into family housing at Tanforan. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives

The WRA forbade photographers from making images of soldiers, guard towers or barbed wire, but a few photos of the camps’ military presence exist.

Two soldiers stand in a guard tower.
Military police on duty in a watch-tower at the Santa Anita temporary detention center in Arcadia, Calif. Photo: Clem Albers for WRA via National Archives
Camouflage net
Prisoners make camouflage nets for the War Department at Manzanar, one of several War and Navy Department projects carried out at detention centers. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives

Children who grew up or were born in the internment camps — the last people who witnessed the incarceration first-hand — are now elders or have passed away.

Grandfather teaches his grandson to walk.
A grandfather teaches his grandson to walk at Manzanar. Photo: Dorothea Lange for WRA via National Archives
Kids wait in line as an adult man checks their paperwork.
Families wait in line to finally leave the Gila River prison camp as an officer checks the departure list, in Rivers, Ariz. in Sept. 1945. Photo: Hikaru Iwasaki for WRA via National Archives

When President Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066 in December 1944, the WRA began the long process of shutting down the camps.

  • After decades of organizing by survivors and their families, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which gave surviving internees $20,000 and a presidential apology as reparations for the wrongful incarceration — though many elders had died by then.

Editor's note: A caption in this story has been corrected to show the date the sign was placed in the window was Dec. 8, 1941, not 1942.

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