The WWII Incarceration of Japanese Americans Is an Environmental Story

Coal worker at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming

Connie Y. Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration (Oxford University Press, 2018)

My grandmother saw snow for the first time as a teenager at Heart Mountain. This idyllic image is tempered by her recollections of sub-zero degree treks to the latrines, mess halls, and school behind barbed wire. She was among nearly 14,000 people of Japanese ancestry imprisoned at Heart Mountain during World War II. Heart Mountain was one of ten War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps in which 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War II.

The cover of the book "Behind Barbed Wire" by Connie Y. ChiangAs Connie Y. Chiang argues in Nature Behind Barbed Wire, the incarceration camps were “deeply embedded in the lands and waters along the coast and the camps further inland.” But the camps’ environments have become, as Chiang points out, “an unexamined backdrop rather than an integral part of this wartime program.” What would it mean to consider the environment as an active player in the camps? How did the environment shape the removal from the West Coast, the construction and administration of the camps, and detainees’ responses to them?

Chiang focuses on four sites that span various ownership and land-use agreements. Topaz combined private, county, and federal land near Delta, Utah. Manzanar was in California’s Owens Valley on land that the City of Los Angeles used for its aqueduct. Gila River was on Gila River Indian Community land south of Phoenix, Arizona, with an average summer temperature over 100°F. Finally, Minidoka was leased from the Bureau of Reclamation on the Snake River Plain’s arid desert in southern Idaho. Chiang excludes Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas because they were located further east and presented “distinct environmental features.”

Chiang points out that the potential environmental impact of the removal alone was massive: Japanese Americans were producing more than 40% of California’s commercial vegetable crop before the war. Had their farms suddenly ceased operation during spring 1942, the agricultural loss to the war effort would have been massive. To avoid this, the WRA ordered Japanese American farmers to continue working until their removal, though they would not see the profits from their crops. The WRA, Chiang writes, “tried to find lessors and buyers for Japanese American property, settled claims for or against detainees, adjusted ‘differences arising out of inequitable, hastily made, or indefinite agreements,’ collected money due to detainees, and determined if property was ‘satisfactorily maintained.’” Even these “equitable” agreements had their limits. My grandmother’s family retained their farm in Fresno until 1943, months after the removal, but eventually sold it for $9,000 in a transaction facilitated by the WRA. They had bought the farm for $13,000 in 1919 and had made many improvements to the site over the years.

Family harvests strawberry fields with evacuation due in a few days, near Mission San Jose, California.

A Japanese American family harvests strawberries with evacuation only a few days away, near Mission San Jose, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1942.

Chiang points out that since landowners only accounted for a fraction of Japanese Americans, the 70% who leased their land lost it outright in the removal. In both cases, property amounted to only a fraction of what these families lost: on paper, my family lost $4,000 off their initial payment and any money they had invested over the years. But they also lost the place where my great-grandparents had raised four children and where they had buried their eldest daughter, who died in infancy. Her remains were still buried on the farm when they sold it, and they could not return to retrieve them.

The WRA preferred sites with “year-round work” for detainees on public lands so that their labor would benefit the public. Many of the camps’ agricultural and irrigation projects implicitly advanced settler ideals about land management and ownership. A WRA press release extolled the potential of the camps to create opportunities for “occupation by white settlers” and “homesteading of desert lands.” Japanese Americans, other people of color, and Indigenous peoples were not envisioned among these sites’ future occupants, demonstrating how the environmental history of the United States is intrinsically grounded in white supremacy and settler colonialism.

The detainees used environmental patriotism to challenge the rationales behind their incarceration.

While the WRA harbored visions of Japanese Americans cultivating desert lands, the environments it selected were often uncultivated because they were prone to harsh weather. Neither the camp administrations nor the detainees were prepared for the weather conditions. By the end of October 1942, the temperatures had dipped to 12°F at Topaz and even lower at Minidoka and Heart Mountain. Coal shortages were common. The barracks were not insulated when detainees arrived. At Heart Mountain, they remained uninsulated until December 1942. Chiang writes, “Detainees experienced the physical environment in the most direct ways: rain falling through unfinished roofs, pungent odors of raw sewage, insects and dust invading their barracks.”

The environment inevitably shaped detainees’ experiences and their responses to the camps. For example, Chiang notes that when the WRA attempted to cut the number of detainees who worked as Minidoka boiler room and janitorial staff right as winter set in (and their duties were surging), all but three handed in their resignations. They were responsible for cleaning and heating the lavatories and laundry rooms—crucial work since without them pipes might freeze. Hot water, as one community leader put it, was “a necessity of camp life, as vital as food, shelter and clothing,” and the Idaho winter soon tempered their strike. Ten days later, they returned to work.

These harsh environments fed into a mythic frontier narrative of “roughing it.” The image of the frontier became a way for WRA employees and detainees to assert Japanese American patriotism. Chiang writes that “governmental officials, Japanese Americans, and others demonstrated the intimate connections between nature and nation.” Many families started victory gardens outside of their barracks, using their produce to supplement the diet of detainees during a time of nationwide rationing. Detainees at Manzanar researched how to convert guayule into rubber. Many, released on temporary work permits, provided a much-needed labor force for sugar beet farms.

Japanese American laborers plant fields in Tule Lake Relocation Center in Newell, California.

Japanese American laborers plant fields in Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, California. Photo from the Library of Congress, 1942-1943.

Both the WRA and the detainees employed frontier rhetoric for their own purposes. The WRA used it to suggest that they were “Americanizing” their charges. The detainees used environmental patriotism to challenge the rationales behind their incarceration: “If they could turn desolate land into productive fields, like the white pioneers before them, their confinement might appear all the more undemocratic.” However, these assertions of patriotism were ambivalent at best. Victory gardens were good for the war effort, but they were also a hobby that brought beauty and joy to the camps. The detainees applied for leave permits to work on sugar beet farms because it was an opportunity to get away from camp—not because it helped the war effort.

In foregrounding the interactions between the detainees and the environment, Chiang importantly demonstrates that Japanese American incarceration history is environmental history. But these histories are each as diverse as their landscapes. This leads to some site-specific gaps—most notably, as Chiang acknowledges, in the case of Jerome and Rohwer. It would be impossible for a single project to do justice to the role the diverse and extremely specific environments played in the camps more widely. Still, as a descendant of Gila River, Heart Mountain, and Jerome, I wanted to read more about the latter two—more about the challenges of draining the swamps at Jerome and the 32 schoolchildren arrested by armed guards for trying to go sledding that first winter in Wyoming. Hopefully, Chiang’s work will serve as a call to other scholars doing site-specific analyses to think through the role of the environment in the experience of incarceration at their sites.

Chiang relies on a combination of archival analysis, generally WRA records, and oral histories from the educational nonprofit Densho and other sources. The oral histories make the camp environments come alive and highlight how the detainees experienced the environment as individuals. Their words, and Chiang’s retelling of their stories, made me think more about my grandmother’s experience at Heart Mountain. On my first trip to that corner of northwest Wyoming—and her first visit back to the site of her confinement—I was struck and saddened by the empty landscape. It seemed like the site’s history had been erased in the 60 years since she had left. As we wandered around, she remarked that “the mountain looks smaller than I remember.” But this mountain, though diminished in her memories, was one of the few visual markers of the year and a half she spent behind barbed wire. Clearly, the environment shaped her experience—and yet I had never connected the dots between these stories. Nature Behind Barbed Wire helped me understand just how much of a role the environment played in her experience.

Featured image: Coal worker at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Photo by Tom Parker, January 1943.

Hana C. Maruyama is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her dissertation explores how the U.S. used Japanese American incarceration to further its project of settler colonialism. She previously worked for the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and was the research fellow for American Public Media’s Order 9066, a podcast on the incarceration. Contact.