Japanese Internment Camps

Densho the Japanese American Legacy Project

The Densho Digital Archive holds over 300 visual histories (600 hours of recorded video interviews) and over 9,500 historic photos, documents, and newspapers. The archive is growing as Densho continues to record life histories and collect images and records. These primary sources document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the World War II mass incarceration.


Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives

Historically, these heavily requested materials for research, classroom study, and other uses have been difficult to access physically because they are widely scattered in a number of different collections. The JARDA project was created to remedy this problem. This single point of entry provides access to the rich resources of many diverse California archives, libraries, oral history programs, and museums.

Beginning in 1998, the University of California began digitizing thousands of images and documents, providing a single, easy-to-use entry point for anyone interested in this material. This project was supported by the US Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the state librarian.

Curators, archivists, and librarians from 10 institutions selected a broad range of primary sources from their extensive collections. These were digitized and placed in JARDA. The web site launched in November 2000.


A More Perfect Union Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History invites visitors to explore more than 800 artifacts from its More Perfect Union collection. Archival photography, publications, original manuscripts, artworks, and handmade objects comprise this outstanding collection of items related to the Japanese American experience.


America’s internment of its Japanese citizens during World War II presents ripe opportunities for today’s Americans to consider the inherent struggle between the rights of citizens and the power of their government. Although this event is a keystone moment in the evolution of civil rights in United States history, it can be eclipsed by the history of World War II in its entirety. Growing up in California, this topic was glossed over in my social studies classes by reading a fictional novel depicting life inside the camps. However, this material can be better served by the use of primary source materials, something that a digital history project could possibly provide.
In looking for digital history sites about the Japanese American Internment I wanted to find sites that utilized a variety of documents while placing them in their historical context alongside sufficient informational materials. Surprisingly, my search was not met with an abundance of materials that met these criteria. Denshō, the online exhibition A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution, and the Japanese American Relocation Archives are three websites which attempted to both archive and educate, with varying degrees of success.
Densho Project
Site goals
The Denshō website describes its mission as preserving “the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished. We offer these irreplaceable firsthand accounts, coupled with historical images and teacher resources, to explore principles of democracy and equal justice for all.” Through understanding what happened to Japanese Americans the creators of this site hope to visitors to draw connections between the internee experiences and greater thematic issues like the meaning of civil liberty and equal rights. In this way the site attempts to maintain its relevance and longevity.
Range of materials offered
Denshō is split into five main categories on its homepage: Causes of Incarceration, Learning Center, Archive, and About Densho.
Causes of Incarceration provides supplementary information about the Japanese American experience background information about the social status of Japanese Americans before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U. S. entry into World War II. Split into further subcategories, this section of the website is most helpful for those who are new to the topic by providing a more in-depth look at the reasons for the persecution of Japanese citizens living in the Western United States.
This section of the site is well organized; the inclusion of clearly written introductory text orients visitors to the content of the website and the importance of the material held in its archives. Articles in this portion of the website site their evidentiary sources, giving viewers an opportunity to reference the same material on their own. Interviews, documents, and newsreel footage from the archives accentuate these pages, adding depth to the assertions made by the authors. In a helpful design technique, these resources open up in their own separate box, replete with transcriptions. While the extensive background information and its accompanying components are organized thoughtfully, their density can drag down the ease with which one can navigate the website. In spite of this, the blending of both background and archival material skillfully display both the diversity of the material held in the archives and the importance of documenting these experiences simultaneously.
Learning Center leads to four different curriculum guides, each of which link to their own separate websites with corresponding archival materials and brief explanatory text. These satellite sites follow the same format displayed in the Causes of Incarceration section, preventing visitors from being confused by changing designs. Though you must register to have full access to the Archives section of the site, the creators do allow casual visitors to view photos and videotaped interviews held within the archives. However, access is free and only requires a simple online registration. According to the website, the archives hold 347 interviews, 696 hours of video, and 10,022 photos, documents, and newspapers.
Creators and audience
Denshō is a freestanding non-profit organization led by founder and Executive Director Tom Ikeda. Created as a passion project by Mr. Ikeda, the son of internees, there is no scholarly involvement in the archive project. The site has the explicitly stated goal of “documenting the oral histories of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II…a mission to educate, preserve, collaborate and inspire action for equity.” However, there is not scholarly involvement cited in the development of this website, nor is it affiliated with an academic institution. Since the apparent target audiencesof this digital history project are educators and their students, it would be interesting to know who supervised the creation of the educational content of the site and ensured its accuracy.
How Documents are Treated
As previously mentioned, the documents made available while browsing the site open up in their own window, with the document displayed in its entirety with an accompanying transcript at the bottom. The documents are presented in a high resolution, appearing crisp and legible in each individual window. Oral history videos require RealPlayer, Quicktime, or Windows Media Player, and upon opening, play instantly without any complications. The quality of the videos is excellent and the picture remains clear and in synch with the sound.
The bulk of the website does not provide search capabilities, however, the Archive section of the site provides an intuitive search map which can help users sift through the archives efficiently to find the information they seek. Search categories include: Topic, Photo/Document Collections, Visual History Collections, Incarceration Facilities, and Camp Newspaper Collections. Additionally, users can facilitate their search by using their own keywords.
Rating the sites
A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution
Site Goals
A More Perfect Union similarly wants to draw connections between the Japanese internment and the meaning of civil liberties. The website claims that it: “explores a period of U.S. history when racial prejudice and fear upset the delicate balance between the rights of a citizen versus the power of the state. Focusing on the experiences of Japanese Americans who were placed in detention camps during World War II, this online exhibit is a case study in decision-making and citizen action under the U.S. Constitution.” The curator’s statement emphasizes this belief, asking the audience to consider the implications of Japanese American citizens against the aftermath of 9/11. This connection between the treatment of America’s Japanese community during the 1940’s and the Muslim and Arab communities after 9/11 is particularly useful for drawing in younger visitors. However, the connection between the two events is not explained throughout the online exhibit, and mainly appears as an afterthought.

The website is more successful when it presents the materials from the Smithsonian’s exhibition organized around a thematic timeline of the Japanese American experience before, during, and after World War II.

Range of Materials Offered
Since A More Perfect Union is based on an exhibition displayed at the National Museum of American History, the website asks visitors to “Search more than 800 artifacts from the Smithsonian Collection and find related activities, links, bibliography and more.” While in the “Story Experience” portion of the website audiences can enlarge photographs, artifacts along with their official descriptions. Additionally, one can listen to brief audioclips of Japanese Americans, personifying the themes touched upon by the exhibition.

The multifaceted and skillful presentation of the exhibition’s archival materials masks their comparative dearth; however, the detailed information provided for the available artifacts makes up for what is lacking in numbers. Both Denshō and the Japanese American Relocation Archives lay claim to thousands of artifacts, documents and interviews in their collections, causing the Smithsonian’s project to appear slim in comparison. In spite of this difference, 800 digitized pieces is still quite an extensive collection, and A More Perfect Union manages to successfully integrate the existence of these pieces into the online exhibiton.

Creators and Audience
One of the research assistants from the original 1987 National Museum of exhibition, Jennifer Locke Jones is credited as the head curator of this project, ensuring continuity between the original exhibition and its digital form. It is made clear that the website, much like the original exhibition is in no way meant to be an “exhaustive” study on the topic, but attempts to be as informative as possible in its online format.

Created as a “case study” for the understanding of civil liberties and citizenship, A More Perfect Union extends itself to a wide ranging audience, from self-proclaimed scholars to adolescent schoolchildren, much like the original museum exhibition would. By tying the Japanese internment to themes beyond those of Japanese American history the website can reach audiences interested in a variety of topics, including American history, World War II, and Constitutional rights. The resources provided by the website make it clear that the creators expect a significant portion of site visitors to be educators and their students, as two classroom activities are made available to the public. Additionally, the Bibliography page provides a separate listing for Children/Young Adults.

Though attention is paid to younger visitors, the site makes itself accessible to casual users as well. This is evident in the way the site is broken up: visitors can go through the “Story Experience” based on the exhibition, or users can simply search the collection on their own. For those interested in doing additional research, the Resources page provides them with good starting points for their research.

How Documents are Treated
Whether a site visitor is in the “Story Experience” section of the site or the “Collection Search” section of the site, selected documents or artifacts open up in an individual window. Inconsistencies in editorial policies become apparent here, as some documents come with transcriptions and some do not. These discrepancies could be attributed to the differing policies of the documents’ institutions of origin. In spite of this, the bulk of the digitized artifacts have sufficient credit information, including the size of the document or artifact, the title, original captions, and donor information.

All of the artifacts were obviously scanned at a high resolution, but the images can only be enlarged to a certain size (about 640px × 430px), which at times can dilute the impact of certain images or document. Add something from the reading about different types of scanning that would allow for a better zoom feature.

A More Perfect Union allows users to search by keyword, or limit their search by “Story Experience” theme and internment camp location. While it may seem logical in a website largely about the internment camps to be able to find documents specifically related to each camp’s location, these searches often do result in many matches. When keywords or themes are added to these searches, they often rule out any documents which could easily frustrate users. Since this website has a variety of digitized artifacts besides documents it seems that allowing users to search for a type of artifact (i.e. photo, document) would prove useful, however this is not an option in the search section. Therefore, the seemingly most efficient way to search the items catalogued on this website is by theme, simply because it yields the most results when prompted.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives
Site Goals
The Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives, or JARDA, was created in order to synthesize information held about Japanese Internment from the archives of universities, museums, and libraries all across the state of California. Unlike the previous sites, JARDA is focused more on providing access to these materials, not placing them in context. As a result, there is no real cohesive narrative linking different components of the site, and explanatory text is arranged somewhat haphazardly throughout the website.

Beyond serving as a repository and central access point for documents related to the internment of Japanese Americans, JARDA has no explicitly stated goals, nor does it
attempt to connect the internment experience to greater themes. Compared to Denshō or A More Perfect Union, this digital archive adheres most to what could be considered a “traditional” archival collection. Instead of providing users with an abundance of ancillary materials, JARDA lets their collections speak for themselves.

Range of Materials Offered

According to the website: “Curators from the eight participating OAC members selected a broad range of primary sources to be digitized, including: photographs, documents, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, letters, and oral histories. Over 10,000 digital images have been created complimented by 20,000 pages of electronic transcriptions of document and oral histories.” The variety of documents in this collection is astounding, and as previously mentioned, goes beyond typical documents like letters and diaries to include artwork produced by the interned themselves. These documents add a much more personal side to this digital archive.

A “Background and Timelines” section and a lesson plan section are also two components of the website. Both brief sections provide clear links to the primary source materials that best correlate with the issues presented for discussion.

Creators and Audience
JARDA is a collaborative effort amongst a number of California’s museums, libraries, archives, and universities in order to address the demand for these documents to be used for research and classroom instruction. From the way the website is organized and designed, it seems that the creators assumed the site would be accessed mainly by fairly advanced researchers and educators who would be able to navigate such a vast resource independently. Perhaps because the creators of the websites are scholars and professionals from scholastic institutions, the site speaks to a more mature, academically sophisticated audience.

JARDA’s lack of extensive narratives emphasizes the point that this website was created in response to increasing demand from researchers and scholars for access to materials. It can be assumed that those that JARDA is expected to reach and assist will use the digitized materials to create their own narrative regardless of how much context the website places its documents in.

How Documents are Treated
Documents can be accessed on the homepage by a number of different themes: People, Places, Daily Life and Personal Experiences. All of the digitized documents and images have been scanned in at an unspecified resolution, but their clear appearance suggests a resolution of at least 600 dpi. Images can be blown up simply by clicking on the portion of the image needed to be seen in more detail. However, the larger images do not allow users to see different sections of the image at the same level. In spite of this, the documents can be accessed easily and their credit information is comprehensive, consistent and helpful.

The site’s searchability is unfortunately its greatest flaw. JARDA is connected to a larger digital archival project called calisphere. While this provides access to a wealth of digitized resources, they are not always related to Japanese internment. Therefore, when a keyword is inserted in the search function, tens of thousands of results are returned that do not necessarily correspond to JARDA site. The best way to circumvent this problem is to go to the themed pages linked to the homepage. Each page lists links to documents based on classifications such as “Selected Internee Photographers” and “Internee Artists.” For those less familiar with the topic this is the simplest way to find compelling documents and images.

Site Ratings
Overall, Denshō proved to be the most well-rounded digital archive for those interested in the internment of Japanese Americans.

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