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  • Captivating Memories: Museology, Concentration Camps, and Japanese American History
  • David Yoo (bio)

Japanese American National Museum. 369 East First Street. Los Angeles, California 90012. 213-625-0414. Hours: Tuesday–Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; Friday, 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.

As a prominent icon in United States history, Pearl Harbor evokes images of war and how those years deeply affected the lives of Americans. Recent commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of World War II have not only called forth memories but also underscored the issue of historical memory—how it is that we remember. In particular, the controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian (1994–1995) exposed a disturbing political trend against anything that might detract from a “patriotically correct” version of the past. 1 At stake in this episode, as with all of history, is the question of how to interpret the past. Clearly reflected in the struggle to shape memories of World War II are present fears about undermining the “good” war. Yet, only by critically exploring [End Page 680] a wide range of events can we strive to make sense of World War II and its lasting influence on the United States. 2

Until recently, full recognition of one episode of the war remained largely suppressed by the federal government and in the memories of its survivors. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II highlights an underside of U.S. history, illustrating how race relations at home stood in stark contrast to the fight for democracy abroad. The campaign waged by former internees and their children to acknowledge and to correct a wartime injustice has shed light on how Pearl Harbor and subsequent events carried special significance for one group of Americans, pitting the affections of ancestry against strong ties to an adopted homeland. For over five decades now, Japanese Americans (or Nikkei) have carried with them the legacy of the camps as an integral and painful part of their life histories.

As part of the process of coming to terms with the past, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), located in Los Angeles, recently hosted an exhibit, “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience.” In reviewing the exhibit and the JANM itself, this essay examines issues of memory and the shifting politics of identity that have been embedded in the construction, interpretation, and presentation of the camps. Internment continues to shape and re-shape the ways that Japanese Americans individually and collectively understand their place in America. As with the war itself, the contests over the meaning of wartime incarceration have drawn many constituencies into the fray. The perspectives of Japanese Americans, U.S. government officials, community activists, museum staffs, academics, and others have demonstrated that the management of memories is a complicated affair. 3

Only in the past twenty years or so have Nikkei been willing to resurrect memories of the most painful collective experience of their history. The influence of the Asian American movement and the successful drive to achieve redress and reparations from the federal government can obscure the fact that Japanese Americans for many years rarely spoke about the war at all, even to their own children and grandchildren. Burdened by shame and guilt, despite their innocence, many survivors chose to bury the past and wanted to protect their children from the stigma of the camps. As sandstorms slowly erased traces of the desolate camps themselves, internees tried to forget their past. Since most Americans knew very little about the plight of Japanese Americans during the war, the end of internment went largely unnoticed. [End Page 681]

For Nikkei, the year 1945 signalled a release from confinement and with it, most men and women focused on rebuilding their lives and went on to finish school, to find work and to start families. The war had accelerated the transition between the immigrants and the second generation (Nisei), and consequently, many Nisei bore responsibility for taking care of their elderly parents as well as providing for their own children. Slowly, Japanese Americans found increased opportunities in post-war America, as the war temporarily boosted the economy and also...

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pp. 680-699
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