A largely overlooked chapter in United States history concerns the forced internment of Japanese-Americans (Nikkei) from the west coast into euphemistically named "relocation centers" during World War II. Collections at the University of Washington Libraries provide glimpses into this history, the saga that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, the "Day of Infamy," December 7, 1941. There are many stories of incarceration of the Nikkei. As the drama and controversy around the imprisonment unfolded after the war, members of the Japanese-American community brought their memories and materials to the University Libraries for safekeeping.
Some of the stories that are documented in our collection had national impact—well known is Gordon Hirabayashi's stand against the curfew and evacuation, his subsequent arrest, and his Supreme Court challenge to the incarceration in Hirabayashi v. United States. But it is in the lesser known stories of children, students, and ordinary folk where the incarceration comes to life. Kenji Okuda's story is told through letters found in Special Collections. Kenji, a friend of Gordon Hirabayashi's, was an undergraduate majoring in economics when the United States declared war on Japan. Through his letters, we follow Kenji's journey to the Puyallup Assembly Center, where he was deemed a troublemaker by the Army, then to the Granada Relocation Center in Colorado ("a paradise for insect hunters"). Kenji's frustrations, anger, and hopes echo through the years:
When am I going to get out of this hell hole? I certainly don't know—I wish I did—but it isn't even certain that we students will be permitted to leave. The picture now is black, but the situation changes from day to day. …hell, we aren't saboteurs or spies!!
Other voices can be heard through the collections. The students in Ella Evanson's class write letters to her depicting the conditions in the camp and plead, "Please write to me…because it is lonely here." Eddie Sato expressed himself through his drawings of everyday of camp life—old men playing mahjong, the ramshackle buildings, a sumo tournament. The love story of a young couple separated by the incarceration—she white, he Nikkei—can be heard in the love letters between Betty Adkins and her fiancé Tom Fukuyama.
The Evacuation and Internment Collection is supplemented by collections in other formats—microfilmed War Relocation Authority records, camp newspapers, University Archives, moving image materials, and a strong selection of secondary sources detailing the history of the incarceration. Online exhibits and digitization projects highlight the collections and provide access to students, scholars, and community members. Many of these resources have been used by scholars writing about the internment experience. The results include works ranging from a child's story about baseball in the camps to one of family life interrupted by separation during imprisonment. Special Collections' partnerships with Seattle organizations such as Densho (the Japanese American Legacy Project), the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and the Nikkei Alumni Association strengthen community ties and bring new opportunities for collaboration and collection building.
Collection Profile and Overview: Theresa Mudrock and Carla Rickerson
Illustrations: Michael Hilliard