‘Our job as citizens’: UC Berkeley Library digitizes massive trove of materials on internment of Japanese Americans

Heart Mountain Relocation Center photo
Internees roam the desolate Heart Mountain Relocation Center near Cody, Wyoming, in 1942. Photograph by Tom Parker. (BANC PIC 1967.014 v.59 GB:61-PIC)

The dust howls, or else settles on everything like morning dew.

The sun burns first, then lashes from the wind. There are eight toilets and eight showers to accommodate hundreds. The food, endless cans like dog food, will not go down.

“We had to live like slum dwellers,” writes Yoshiko Uchida — a senior at UC Berkeley at the time of the expulsion — in a 1942 letter, recalling life in the horse stables of the Tanforan racetrack. Toilet paper and warm water were rare, the latrines were unsanitary, and privacy was nonexistent.

In the spring of 1942, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were banished from their homes, shuffled into squalid detainment centers as internment camps were built. Uchida’s letter is one of thousands held in The Bancroft Library, where the memory of a national shame lives on.

John Tateishi
John Tateishi

“Some day, some time, some other may want to read this,” Uchida writes, “these notes of an event which has never before happened and which I hope cannot and will not ever happen again to any other group of people.”

But today, more than 75 years later, new images come to mind: a young immigrant child crying for her parents; tinfoil blankets on a hard floor; refugees on the border packed into cages like fish in a net.

“I said probably 10,000 times that the reason we’re doing this is to prevent it from happening again,” says John Tateishi ’65, a UC Berkeley alum who in the late ’70s led the national redress campaign for Japanese Americans, which culminated in a national apology and reparations for those who had been detained. “I never thought it would actually come to that,” he says.

(This week — on the 78th anniversary of the executive order authorizing Japanese Americans’ internment — the California Legislature passed a resolution to formally apologize for the state’s role in this dark chapter in America’s history.)

Sharing eye-opening records of the tragedy far and wide, the Library has now digitized more than 500,000 materials on Japanese internment, including firsthand accounts and government records. Behind those documents is a tale of evil justified — and what it took to get there.

“The materials we have we consider as evidence,” says Mary Elings, Bancroft’s head of technical services, who has overseen the digitization of Bancroft’s collection of internment-related materials. “It’s part of our job as citizens to understand from where we came so we can hopefully improve where we’re going.”

Internment photos by Dorothea Lange
Photojournalist Dorothea Lange was hired by the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority, or WRA, to document the forced exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans. She photographed many California sites, including the Manzanar camp, left, exclusion orders posted in San Francisco, center, and people awaiting transport to the Merced Assembly Center. “(Lange) shows people in hardship and trial — she shows their integrity and spirit,” says Bancroft curator Theresa Salazar. The Bancroft Library holds 7,000 photographs from the WRA. (Left to right: BANC PIC 1986.012:2--PIC; BANC PIC 1986.012:6--PIC; BANC PIC 1986.012:40 --PIC)

Scratching the surface

The Bancroft Library holds one of the most comprehensive collections of materials on the internment of Japanese Americans in the world.

In September of 1945, the War Relocation Authority, or WRA — in charge of the forced removal and direction of the camps — gave a copy of its extensive records on internment to UC Berkeley. The collection includes community letters, photos, reports, correspondence, and administrative files, as well as writings, art, and newspapers created by internees.

In the late ’40s, the Library received another massive collection: the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study, directed by UC Berkeley sociology professor Dorothy Swaine Thomas. The records include journals and interviews as well as field reports and surveys conducted by students visiting the camps.

“You couldn’t even scratch the surface of what the Bancroft has on internment,” says UC Berkeley lecturer Pat Steenland, who uses the collection in her research classes, with subject matter ranging from internment to the Holocuast to the Iranian Revolution. “It is so deep.”

All told, the documents in the collection tell a few different stories: the mass hysteria and racial prejudice of a nation; the shortcuts and half-truths of the government; the heroics of a citizenry appalled; and the strength, resourcefulness, and artistry of the Japanese Americans at the center of it all.

“We all recognize that as being a violation of human rights,” says Kiyoko Woodhouse, who was 3 years old when her father, Shoho Fujiie, was arrested. “I hope that the memory of this would check the future generations from considering something like this. This is the sort of thing that should not be repeated.”

In 2011, the Library undertook a massive project: digitizing the collection. With funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program, or JACS, the Library has digitized 550,000 items. (Browse the collections on the Library’s digital archive.)

Now, with a fifth JACS grant confirmed, an additional 150,000 items are on the way. The Library will be creating anonymized datasets from WRA identification forms, which include everything from internees’ religions and education levels to their hobbies. The Library, which has the only complete set of these forms, will provide the datasets to the National Archives.

Among the items already digitized is a trove of maps showing the concentration of Japanese people and businesses in the Bay Area before they were stripped of their property and expelled.

(Japanese Americans had about a week to report themselves for deportation after the expulsion order for the West Coast. “Scavengers went into our communities and offered nothing for whatever we had,” recalls Tateishi, the civil rights advocate, who was interned from ages 3 to 6. His father, furious at being offered $5 for the family’s brand-new car, drove it to an empty lot and set it on fire.)

They were first sent to crude detention centers, where they lived for months before filing into camps in mostly barren regions of stifling desert or mountainous cold.

For Theresa Salazar, curator of Bancroft’s Western Americana collection, who has worked with the internment materials for 20 years now, a pattern emerges. Native Americans were also pushed to harsh areas where land wasn’t arable, she points out.

“You go from the 19th century to the 20th, and now this immigrant story is also unfolding,” she says. “There’s lots of parallels between how we detain people and treat them under that detention.”

Art by two internees
At left, Miné Okubo’s drawing of meal time in the Topaz War Relocation Center, in Utah, covers a magazine produced at the camp. At right, a painting by Yoshiko Uchida depicts the barracks at Topaz. The Bancroft Library holds Uchida’s collection of essays, letters, artwork, memorabilia, and more from her time in detainment. (Left to right: BANC PIC 1986.012:45--PIC; BANC MSS 86/97 c, oversize box 12:6) 

The next generation

For the UC Berkeley community, one lesser-known fact about internment is its impact on campus: Among those imprisoned were many professors and more than 500 UC Berkeley students.

Steenland, a lecturer in the College Writing Program, has been teaching about the internment using Bancroft’s collection for many years now. But the experience is different in now, she says, especially as students on campus face the threat of deportation themselves.

“Before, it was, ‘We made a mistake, we learned our lesson’ — there was that distance,” Steenland says. “But then, oh, my God … separating children, immigration bans — all of that all of a sudden made that event really important to look at.

“Given that it was the worst violation of constitutional rights, how did it happen?” she adds.

Last year, students in Steenland’s Images of History class pored over documents, guided by librarians, and mapped out how to bring visibility to the issue.

exhibit in library
An installation in the Environmental Design Library honors student Miné Okubo. Similar pieces paying tribute to Yoshiko Uchida and Monroe Deutsch grace Doe Library and California Hall, respectively. (Photo by J. Pierre Carrillo for the UC Berkeley Library)

“They were there one moment — they were gone the next,” says Julia Tjan ’22, a student in the class. “They were students just like us.”

The team’s research culminated in three art installations currently on campus. Two installations in the Library honor students Miné Okubo and Yoshiko Uchida, both of whom were interned at Topaz, in Utah.

The third piece, in California Hall, honors then-Provost Monroe Deutsch, who helped hundreds of students barred from the West Coast transfer to schools on the East Coast. The installations feature images of Okubo, Uchida, and Deutsch laser-cut into blocks of clear acrylic and lit up at the base.  

The goal was to raise awareness about a topic too often overlooked, says Ryan Searcy ’21, who designed and built the installations. He called the work a “once-in-a-lifetime” project, saying he felt honored to give back to the campus, to the community, and to history.

And — with care — to the future.

“The thing about this country is that it’s just an idea — it’s a concept, and it is easy to destroy,” says Tateishi. “It is kind of a cliche that democracies require vigilance, but it is really true.”

“Truth and fact are what preserve democracies,” he adds. “When you ignore those, what do you have?”