In February, 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor, the United States took unprecedented action
directed at its own population. Executive Order 9066 and Civilian Exclusion Order 5 decreed that over 120,000 Japanese Americans be
removed from their homes in the "western defense zone" of the United States, and
incarcerated in ten "internment" camps, which were located in isolated areas of Utah,
Montana, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Idaho. These ten camps functioned as prison
cities, with populations of 10,000 to 18,000 people in each camp.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans in America were no longer seen by other
Americans as industrious, immigrant neighbors but were transformed into enemy aliens overnight. There
were no trials, no hearings to prove innocence or guilt. They were assumed to be the enemy and made
prisoners, indefinitely incarcerated because of their race. Successful Japanese-Americans were
informed that, according to Civilian Exclusion Order 5, they were required to liquidate all property,
including homes, real estate, business holdings, and anything else that they could not carry
themselves into the prison camps.
They lost their homes, property, and communities. Families were separated. After the war there was a
long silence because of their shame and guilt, not unlike the victims of the holocaust.
"American concentration camps" is about a collective memory of the camps that
"interned" 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II without trial. Its memories are
about the reconstruction of that time and space fifty years later. It is about transition of the
immigrant Japanese American people caught between two countries at war; people caught without a
country that would claim them as their own. It is about their collective voices and memories of that
displacement, and it is about the quiet silence that surrounds the land, those prison cities, and that
Almost fifty years later, Presidents Clinton and Reagan have issued letters of
apology to the camp survivors that are still living. Collective voices now reach beneath the
surface of the stereotypical Japanese American image of passive acceptance, "gamman"
("endurance"), "shikata ga nai" ("it cannot be helped"), and survival.
Their voices call out beyond anger and memory.