Story posted June 11, 2009
There is an overpowering sense of place that underscores the story of the American internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants during WWII.
Most came from Japanese communities on the Pacific coast. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, their presence there came to be seen as a subversive threat to strategic naval areas. In 1942, over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were evacuated to "relocation centers," most of them arid, remote landscapes far from any urban centers.
Many of the Japanese prisoners transformed their barren surroundings by cultivating beautiful and bountiful gardens in the camps. But their relationship to the natural environment went far beyond the boundaries of their gardens, says Connie Chiang, Bowdoin assistant professor of history and environmental studies:
"The physical environment contributed to acts of resistance and shaped the ways the Japanese tried to survive and persist during their incarceration," she says. "In some cases they used their environmental conditions to get actual concessions from the War Relocation Authority (WRA)."
Chiang, an environmental historian, is currently at work on a book tentatively titled, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese Internment. The book looks at the natural environment not as a passive backdrop but as a forceful landscape that shaped relations between Japanese American people and their government during the war.
The government selected 10 remote, rural areas in which to build camps—in California, Colorado, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah. Their location was hardly arbitrary, says Chiang.
"They wanted to make sure they were away from strategic military areas, where they could 're-educate them in democratic principles,'" she says. "Most, if not all, were located a fair distance from any urban area. Agricultural considerations were also very important. They wanted to find places where Japanese could farm so the camps would be self-supporting and not drain war resources. Initially they wanted them to be on public lands so that any improvements made during the war would benefit the general public."
It was a hardscrabble existence, yet one that some Japanese were able to leverage to endure and protest their confinement.
Some internees fished in nearby streams or irrigation canals. Families enjoyed desert picnics to escape the regiment of the barracks. Many of the gardeners incorporated flora and rocks from the surrounding area into their camp gardens.
Chiang also uncovered research that showed how internees at the Minidoka camp in Idaho were able to use environmental conditions to push back against the WRA:
"The WRA cut camp personnel on sanitation crews, which were responsible for firing up boilers, heating stoves and cleaning up," she says. "The cuts were manageable during the spring and summer, but not when cold weather required the tending of the stoves in the lavatories and laundry rooms.
"When the WRA refused to hire any additional workers, the Japanese went on strike. They used environmental conditions to make demands of the administration."
Within a year, the WRA began a resettlement program to encourage the Japanese to settle in the Midwest and East Coast. "Their motivation was to disperse them, break down any ethnic enclaves, and assimilate them," notes Chiang. "But many Japanese remained in the camps until the WRA finally closed them toward the end of 1945.'"
Chiang's 2008 book, Shaping the Shoreline: Fisheries and Tourism on the Monterey Coast, documented the struggle over the magnificent Monterey coastline as it developed from a resort town to fishing village and back to a tourist attraction.
"My research is centered on how the environment has shaped social inequities in the American West," says Chiang. "The internment of the Japanese is part of that story."