Paper Planes: Art from Japanese American Internment Camps

Hideo Kobashigawa, Manzanar Woodblock (1944), woodcut on rice paper, 12 x 18 inches. Courtesy the National Park Service and Manzanar National Historic Site.

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, fear of Japanese covert action spread through the United States, giving rise to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of 19 February 1942. Designed to protect the nation from sabotage and espionage, the order authorized the secretary of war to designate “military areas … from which from which any or all persons may be excluded.”1 The order did not specify who was to be excluded from which parts of the country, but its primary effect was to authorize the forced relocation of 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry—both citizens and resident aliens—from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps inland. Forty-six years later, in 1988, Congress passed Public Law 100-383, acknowledging the “fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment,” and apologized on behalf of the American people.2

One measure of this bill provides funding to educate the public about the internment; today a number of the camps (variously referred to as relocation camps, internment camps and concentration camps)3 are designated National Historic Sites and have been at least partially restored under the auspices of the National Park Service.  As more information about life in the camps has become public, the role that art played for detainees is becoming increasingly visible.4

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  1. “Executive Order 9066: The President Authorizes Japanese Relocation,” History Matters, accessed 15 July 2015, []
  2. “Public Law 100-383 – August 10, 1988,” Internment Archives, accessed 15 July 2015, []
  3. There were ten camps in all. For further reading on the terminology debate over the language used to refer to the camps and those detained therein see []
  4. Some recent exhibitions of art and crafts in the camp include “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946,” which opened at the Smithsonian in 2010 and “The View From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942–1945,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the internment and opened at the Wright Gallery in Los Angeles in 1992. After a number of stops, it appeared at the Queens Museum in New York in 1995. Karen Higa, who was a senior curator at the Japanese American National Museum, organized the exhibition, which included more than 130 works by 30 artists. []