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Environmental Studies

Understanding the Japanese American Incarceration Through Environmental History

Story posted February 12, 2015

Post by Emi Gaal '15

For the past five years, Bowdoin’s Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies, Connie Chiang, has sifted through correspondence, reports, and government documents in archives across the country in preparation for her current book project, “Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the World War II Japanese American Incarceration.” 

While the Japanese American incarceration is a topic that many historians have explored in the past several decades, surprisingly few have approached the discussion from an environmental perspective.

“My approach provides an opportunity to study many of the inequalities Japanese Americans faced as well as the agency and many forms of resistance that they adopted [during their time at the relocation centers],” explains Chiang. “From this point of view, Japanese Americans are active agents in shaping their own lives throughout the incarceration and cannot be viewed simply as victims.”

While many scholars have established the travesty of this event, solely focusing research on a single perspective or on the moral injustice of the incarceration can actually act as a distraction from other important points. Chiang’s narrative establishes nature as a key element and starting point to show how the federal government as well as Japanese Americans negotiated their positions within the incarceration system and how they adapted to and shaped the particular camps.

Construction Begins at Manzanar

What people most envision when picturing the history of this period is life at the camps, but Professor Chiang’s research makes it clear that there is actually a quite robust and important environmental narrative to be told.

“Something that was surprising from my research is how much deliberation went into planning the entire effort on the part of the federal government.” Planners went to great lengths to determine which proposed site’s environment would best carry out the goals of the camps. For instance, it was especially important for each camp site to have ample agricultural land so that Japanese Americans could grow their own food. Chiang explains that the concerted effort to maintain the productivity of Japanese-owned land and businesses on the Pacific Coast during their incarceration proved to be another important environmental aspect in the event’s history that has not been significantly explored in existing literature.  

Before finishing the book, Chiang is hoping to make a trip to one of the annual pilgrimages taken by survivors, survivors’ families, and others to camps around the country. Several of these relocation centers have been made into national historic sites and offer an opportunity for visitors to make personal observations about the environment Japanese Americans lived in during their imprisonment. She plans to draw on the experience of her pilgrimage trip in the epilogue of her book, providing details of the camps in their current condition as well as of their meaning to visitors today.  

Professor Chiang expects to complete this book project within the next couple of years. 

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Images:

Dorothea Lange, "Row of Barracks"
Clem Albers, "Construction Begins at Manzanar"

 

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