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America's Concentration Camps

Exhibition on World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans Featured at California Historical Society

San Francisco

The award-winning exhibition America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience is the featured exhibit at the California Historical Society beginning March 21 and running through June 18, 2000.

The exhibit drew record crowds to its premier at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 1994 and 1995, Ellis Island in 1998 and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta in 1999.

America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience outlines the largest violation of individual’s rights by the United States government of the 20th century. It details the World War II experiences of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forced to leave their homes and businesses on the West Coast and Hawaii, and live in desolate camps located in seven states west of the Mississippi River. Japanese American community leaders were taken into custody without charge and without trial; some were even held on Ellis Island. Ultimately, the FBI concluded that there were no acts of sabotage or disloyalty by Japanese Americans.

The exhibition outlines this experience through historic photographs depicting the forced removal and mass incarceration, home movie footage of camp life in the Japanese American National Museum’s award-winning video, Something Strong Within, as well as collections and personal stories. The exhibit, which was created by the National Museum and designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Inc., the designers of the permanent exhibition for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, represents each camp with a detailed map and statistics. Beyond providing facts and figures, the exhibition focuses on the human experience, told through words, historic photographs and mementos. Some of the pieces exhibited were curated specifically for this exhibit in San Francisco: in January, local former camp internees brought objects they had saved from their camp years. Staff from the National Museum examined and cataloged the objects, then chose a fascinating sample to be included in the show at the California Historical Society.

The title of the exhibition has engendered inquiries about the use of the term “concentration camps.” Some question whether these were indeed concentration camps. Karen L. Ishizuka, curator of the exhibit and Senior Curator for the National Museum states, “We did not make the decision to use these words without serious consideration.” She noted that National Museum staff discussed the issue extensively with scholars and leaders in both the Japanese American and American Jewish communities, which resulted in the following exhibit text:

A “concentration camp” is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term “concentration camp” was first used at the turn of the century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars.

During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions: some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, and Bosnia.

Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.

The California Historical Society and the Japanese American National Museum have worked closely with a Community Advisory Committee, comprised of more than two dozen organizations from the San Francisco Bay Area and surrounding counties in the development and presentation of the exhibition and programs. An attached sheet outlines the public programs that accompany the exhibition.

The exhibition program of the California Historical Society is made possible thanks to the support of Dr. A. Jess Shenson, the Louise M. Davies Foundation, the Osher Foundation, the L.J. and Mary Skaggs Foundation, and Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.

The California Historical Society, founded in 1871 and designated the state’s official historical society, is a membership organization open to all. It publishes the acclaimed scholarly quarterly, California History, now in its 77th year of continuous publication. CHS’s San Francisco headquarters houses, in addition to the museum, a bookstore, the North Baker Research Library (open by appointment only), and most of the Society’s collections of art, manuscripts, and photography.

For this exhibit, the California Historical Society is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday nights until 8 p.m.. Admission is $3 general, $1 student/senior. Admission is free for children under 6 and members of the California Historical Society and the Japanese American National Museum. CHS is located near Yerba Buena Gardens, at 678 Mission Street, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, in San Francisco. For more information, please call (415) 357-1848 or visit the CHS web site at



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