*Manzanar, Part Two:  The Japanese-American Journey into Wilderness

Manzanar, one of ten internment camps or war relocation centers set up in the United States to contain the Japanese-Americans, the majority of them citizens of the US, was no Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Treblinka.  Manzanar had neither gas chambers nor ovens; in three years, about 150 internees passed away, either from illness or old age.  In contrast, a million died at Auschwitz alone; similarly few walked out of the other camps.  Many people will suppose, not without some reason, that this fact alone distinguishes Manzanar and the other “relocation centers” from Nazi concentration camps.  (Much fewer people are aware of the earlier precedent which gave rise to the idea of the concentration camp, namely the camps into which enemy men, women, and children were mercilessly thrown by the British during the Boer War of 1899-1902.)  Nevertheless, Manzanar was surrounded by barbed wire; eight watch towers, zealously patrolled by military police and fortified by large searchlights, were installed at the camp’s perimeters.

Manzanar agains the backdrop of the Eastern Sierra Mountains. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

Manzanar agains the backdrop of the Eastern Sierra Mountains.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

None of the exhibits at Manzanar’s Visitors Center furnish any clues into the discussions that have animated some scholars, who have asked why euphemisms such as “relocation centers”, even “transit camps” and “reception centers”, were used to describe camps patrolled like maximum security prisons.  Some scholars have thus been prompted to describe the internment camps as “concentration camps”. In this respect, as in many others, Manzanar’s Visitors Center remains entirely evasive about some fundamental questions that touch both upon the entire course of American history and the continuities between European and American modes of colonization of the ‘Other’.

Violently uprooted from their homes on the West Coast, largely from the urban settlements of northern and southern California, Japanese-Americans were sent into the wilderness.  The eminent mid-century Harvard historian of American intellectual history, Perry Miller, had described the Puritan “errand into wilderness”. That was a different sojourn, one undertaken in the name of religious freedom, spurred by the desire to fulfill God’s prophecy and inspired by the desire to populate what was conveniently believed to be barren land.  But it was “wilderness” indeed to which Japanese-Americans were dispatched—and not only because they were herded like sheep or brought to a place that was inhospitable.  When rights are violated, trust is eroded, the ugly specter of treason and disloyalty looms large, and the seeds of suspicion, anger, and resentment are planted, the foundations for the integrity of both self and civilization can be descried as having been seriously compromised.

By September 1942, Manzanar was home to 10,000 internees housed in slightly over 500 barracks organized into 36 blocks.


Every attempt was made to instill “normality”:  with the encouragement of the Wartime Civilian Control Administration, the internees formed a board of advisors amongst themselves. Over time, Manzanar came to have a bank, general store, and barbershop; some of the internees took to gardening, while others took to music, art, theater, and sports.  Some internees raised chickens, pigs, and cattle, others grew vegetables, and yet others tended to fruit trees.  Manzanar’s residents even managed to establish a newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press:  publication commenced on 11 April 1942, and with the issue of September 28, 1945, the newspaper ceased publication.

The site of the Manzanar Free Press. Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

The site of the Manzanar Free Press.
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

The opening issue announced that the camp population stood at 3,302; with some justified flamboyance, an editorial described the four-page newsprint as “America’s youngest newspaper, and in our opinion, one of America’s most unique newspapers.”

Each issue of the Manzanar Free Press was reviewed by government censors, and news of American losses in the first year of the Pacific war, before the might of the American military machine proved to be far too formidable for Japan, was not permitted. The camp was, however, by no means free of political unrest:  rumors circulated about the course of the war, black marketing was not uncommon, and some internees were suspected of being informers.  Differences developed between some who saw themselves squarely as “Americans” and others, many of whom had been born in Japan, who adopted a more critical stance towards their adopted land.  In the Manzanar Riot of December 1942, two internees were killed and another ten wounded when the Military Police unleashed a torrent of bullets to put down unrest.  Nothing aroused more resentment than the “loyalty questionnaire” which was put to the camp’s residents:  “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”  This was followed by another question asking if a person was prepared to offer unconditional allegiance to the United States.

"The Loyalty Questionnaire." Photo:  Vinay Lal, July 2015

“The Loyalty Questionnaire.”
Photo: Vinay Lal, July 2015

To the great credit of some of the internees, they had the courage to reply in the negative.  Some, quite rightly, took it as an affront that they were being asked to give demonstrations of their loyalty when they were not permitted to become US citizens.  The idea that such a ‘litmus test’ was justified when the person had been unlawfully detained behind barbed war was itself offensive in the extreme.  It is striking that in the long course of the war, no Japanese-American was charged with espionage or found giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Manzanar’s exhibits are certainly not short on details of camp life; and the National Historic Site valiantly if futilely attempts to convey the conditions under which internees were housed and the manner in which life unfolded day after day.  As I reviewed the exhibits and toured the grounds, a number of other questions came to mind.  It appears, for example, that internees were “rewarded” for their labor, receiving between $12 and $19 a month:  some wove camouflage nets and produced experimental rubber for use by the military.  Should one view Manzanar, in part, as a labor camp?  Can the state ethically put to use, for purposes of defense, the labor of those very incarcerees viewed as potential traitors?   Should one view the incarceration of Japanese-Americans merely as an aberration, which has been the tendency, perhaps chastened only by the recognition among liberals that constitutional democracies must be ever vigilant to safeguard the liberties which are all too easily abrogated when the country appears to be under threat?  What, to broach an entirely different set of questions, is the politics of such “historic sites” and exhibits:  in what manner do they educate, how if at all are they an expression of repentance, how do they obscure some questions while illuminating others, and what is the relationship of such displays of the past to the task of hegemony?