‘Never again’: Library exhibit tells story of WWII Japanese American incarceration, sounds alarm on importance of remembering

Japanese-Americans with luggage await transport.
Families of Japanese ancestry wait with their belongings for a train to take them to the Merced Assembly Center. (Photo by Dorothea Lange, The Bancroft Library’s War Relocation Authority collection, WRA no. C-492)

Sam Mihara remembers where he was when he heard the news.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Mihara, then 9 years old, had gone to see a movie near his Japantown neighborhood in San Francisco. When he emerged from the theater, the community was abuzz: The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. 

The second-generation Japanese American recounted the bewildering — and seminal — moment in a 2012 interview with The Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center. “(My family was) pretty much caught off-guard,” he said. “And dad’s immediate reaction, by the way, was ‘My god, we’re going to be accused of being sympathizers with the Japanese government.’”

The elder Mihara leapt into action. As a newspaperman, he had a large home library. He had a movie camera, too, and often filmed the San Francisco area. 

“(My father) lit up the fireplace and he burned everything,” Sam Mihara said. “It was running 24 hours a day. He was burning books, photographs. … He destroyed them for fear that the government would catch him and accuse him of being a collaborator with Japan.” 

Those fears were not unfounded. 

Audio file
Former Congressman Mike Honda relates a thought his father shared: “If we were sent to internment camps for our own protection, he used to say all the time, then you have to ask the question, why were there barbed wires with the machine gun posts pointing their machine guns inwards, and not outwards?”

Within days of the attack, 1,200 leaders of Japanese American communities in the United States were arrested. And on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set in motion the forced removal and incarceration of approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast, who on short notice shuttered businesses and abandoned homes. All told, about 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in incarceration camps administered by the War Relocation Authority during World War II. 

Mihara’s family was among the incarcerated. 

His story, and those of countless others, form the backbone of The Bancroft Library’s latest exhibit, Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans, which marks the 80th anniversary of this tragic episode in U.S. history. Part two of the exhibition opens this week, with an expanded scope and additional archival materials, and runs through June in the library’s gallery. 

Co-curator Christine Hult-Lewis, a photo historian and interim pictorial curator at Bancroft, described the exhibit as a “broad-strokes overview” of the Japanese American experience during that time — from forced relocation and imprisonment to life in the camps to resettlement after the war. 

For Hult-Lewis and her collaborators, it’s a story that needs to be told, even after 80 years.    

“I am honestly surprised by how many people I’ve talked to who had no idea that this mass incarceration took place,” she said. “It makes our decision to mount this exhibition that much more important.” 

‘Glimpse into their lives’

The exhibit draws on Bancroft’s voluminous primary resources, which are part of one of the world’s most comprehensive collections on the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Hult-Lewis said the abundance is both a blessing and a challenge.  

“We are privileged and honored to be the repository of and caretakers for this incredible wealth of material,” she said. “But we are only able to share a fraction of the pictures, documents, and stories in this exhibition.”

A large portion of the exhibit documents life in the camps, from Dorothea Lange’s melancholic photos to a video narrated by the incarcerated. The testimonies are drawn from narrators who recorded their personal histories through the Oral History Center.   

In the video, Mihara describes the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. “The layout was a fairly large compound, large area, surrounded by barbed wire fences. And there were guard towers, nine guard towers, (that were) manned with military guards with weapons.”

Man works in a field at prison camp
Detainees grow crops between blocks of barracks at the Manzanar prison camp in 1942. (Photo by Dorothea Lange, The Bancroft Library’s War Relocation Authority collection, WRA no. C-684)

Artifacts created by the prisoners also chronicle daily life. Among the notable items on display are the late writer Yoshiko Uchida’s diary pages. Those writings would become the source material for her pioneering 1971 work, Journey to Topaz, the first children’s book detailing the Japanese American incarceration. 

Co-curator Julie Musson, Bancroft’s digital collections archivist, said she hopes the exhibition shows the resolve of those incarcerated, despite an unjust situation.
“When we view items made by those incarcerated, we get a glimpse into their lives,” she said, “seeing the creativity that persisted — and even blossomed — from behind the barbed wire.” 

Transcending the exhibit walls

A new addition for the exhibit reopening is a case focused on intake forms. Each Form WRA-26 contains a variety of personal information for an individual held at the camp, including education level, work experience, and interests (with names redacted to protect privacy). 

Bancroft is believed to hold the only complete set of these forms in existence. The forms are currently being digitized by Bancroft to capture details missing from a rudimentary data file that was created from WWII-era computer punch cards. 

Audio file
Eiko Yasutake says, “Well, you know actually, I don’t think I felt Japanese, because I was born here and grew up here. I just thought I was American. That’s why I think I couldn’t quite understand why all of a sudden, I was different. Because I don't think I felt that way.”

“We’re using machine learning — a kind of artificial intelligence — to extract all of the data out of those forms and create a new dataset that is actually more complete, much richer, and more detailed,” said Mary Elings, Bancroft’s interim deputy director, who also heads up the library’s technical services.  

Elings hopes to put the data file online and deposit a copy of the new file with the National Archives and Records Administration, which would be a boon for researchers and families of the incarcerated. But first, her team is working with a community advisory group to decide what should be accessible, and what information is too sensitive. 

The project is made possible through funding from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program and in partnership with Densho, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving these incarceration stories. It’s one of five JACS grant-funded projects since 2011 that have allowed Bancroft to digitize 750,000 items

“We’re providing global access,” Elings said. “This is not a singular time or a singular event in history. … The context of what happened in World War II is an important story to tell, not just for us in the West, but across the country, and across the globe.” 

Preserving stories into the future

In addition, Bancroft’s Oral History Center has been awarded two JACS grants to capture the first-person narratives of those affected by the incarceration. The latest of that grant work is called the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, which currently focuses on the descendants of the prisoners in two camps — Topaz, Utah, and Manzanar, California. 
“There is this phenomenon in which descendants of survivors have been truly impacted by these historical moments, from the stories their parents told them to the racist stereotypes that continued, and really, in some ways, the suppression of the history,” said Amanda Tewes, interviewer and historian for the OHC, and one of the project leads. 

Tewes and colleagues Shanna Farrell and Roger Eardley-Pryor are exploring this intergenerational trauma, and the potential for healing, through interviews with descendants that explore what kinds of stories they were told by their families about the incarceration and whether they learned about the tragedy in school, among other things.

The team uses a “trauma-informed” approach to interviewing, which includes working with a therapist to help ensure that they aren’t doing any harm. Narrators can also choose to participate in a healing circle to discuss the interview experience with peers. 

Barracks at a prison camp and American flag
A windstorm swirls dust around the barracks at the Manzanar prison camp in 1942. (Photo by Dorothea Lange, The Bancroft Library’s War Relocation Authority collection, WRA no. 838)

“We’re highlighting people, stories, and perspectives that don’t always get to have the limelight,” Tewes said, “and in many ways this is what makes oral history a really personal and concrete way to study the past, because you are able to look through someone else’s experience.” 

Preserving and sharing these important stories are the impetuses behind both the Uprooted exhibit and the complementary projects that undergird it. 

Mihara’s story has also come full circle. After three years in the imprisonment camp, he ultimately came back to the Bay Area, where he earned a degree in engineering from UC Berkeley. He had a long and successful career as a rocket scientist. And for the past decade, he’s told the story of his time at Heart Mountain to people across the country, so that no more memories will be lost to the fires of fear — or to the whitewashing of history.  

“My dedication for the rest of my life is to try to educate people,” Mihara said, “and to get people to understand that under certain circumstances, like that which happened to us during World War II, that sometimes these very, very terrible decisions are made and the Constitution … becomes not even worth the paper it’s written on. And that shouldn’t happen. 

“Never again should there be such an event as a mass removal of an entire group of people without due process of law. … I try to pass that message on to as many people as I can.”

Audio clips were pulled from interviews conducted by the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.