Scenes from the Japanese Internment Resonate Today

When the U.S. government held more than 120,000 civilians captive during World War II, it left an enduring stain on the nation.

In 2013 photographer Paul Kitagaki, Jr., tracked down Junzo Jake Ohara, Takeshi Motoyasu, and Edward Tetsuji Kato, who had been incarcerated as teenagers at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming in the 1940s. They posed outside Kato’s home in Monterey Park, California, to reenact a photo (below) taken of them as boys in 1943.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL KITAGAKI, JR.

Quite by chance, in the small-town public library of Ashland, Oregon, while searching for an engaging book to read, I was confronted by their faces: Asian children, in a black-and-white photograph, smiling incongruously from behind a barbed wire fence.

“Where could this have happened?” I wondered, thinking it was somewhere in Southeast Asia, maybe part of the Vietnam War, as I peered deeper into the pages. That was the moment I first learned, at 17, that civilians of Japanese ancestry had been rounded up and confined in America during World War II. It was even more surprising, as I am the daughter of a Japanese immigrant.

What caused America to lock up more than 120,000 civilians, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, without due process during the war? Even now Junzo Jake Ohara struggles to answer the question. “I think it was probably because of prejudice; I don’t know,” says Ohara, 89, who was confined for three years. “They were afraid of us, I guess.”

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