Student Activists Preserve Dark Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration Site
A student club in Colorado is working alongside the survivors and descendants of a Japanese prison camp to preserve the artifacts of this painful moment in U.S. history.
“I thought I was a free-thinking American with the right of a trial before conviction. Only I can’t be convicted because I haven’t done anything unworthy of a citizen.... It’s as Mary Oyama wrote. The only crime was being born Japanese."
Teenager Frances Sasano wrote these words for a high school essay during her incarceration at the Granada Relocation Center in Colorado, a Japanese “internment camp” commonly referred to as Camp Amache.
In the 1940s, Sasano and over 122,000 other people of Japanese descent—both foreign-born and American citizens—were incarcerated and forced to live in 10 camps in mostly Western states as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 executive order. The order came on the heels of the 1941 attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i, which exacerbated existing anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobia in the country. Historically, these camps have been known as "relocation centers" and "internment camps," but those euphemisms do not accurately convey the conditions there. Many survivors and historians now describe them as American concentration camps, incarceration camps, and prison camps. This period of mass incarceration is considered one of the worst violations of American civil rights in the 20th century.
Eighty years later, some Colorado high school students are helping to preserve the words of Sasano and others who were forcibly imprisoned so that their experiences are never forgotten. They’re members of the Amache Preservation Society, a student club at Granada Undivided High School, where 15 volunteers maintain the physical site of Amache and are instrumental in its preservation. The student volunteers attend school just two miles away from the Amache site located near the city of Granada.
For nearly 30 years, students have worked alongside Amache survivors and descendants, learning the power of curating and teaching painful histories. The importance of preserving these artifacts is “so that history doesn't repeat itself,” according to Kaitlin Baca, an 18-year-old student who has volunteered with the Society since her sophomore year of high school.
“Seeing it here, that it was actually so close to us, I think it makes it so much easier to learn about and to share with other people,” Baca said.
Preserving the History of Camp Amache
In 1993, the Society was born out of a history project assigned by a Granada Undivided High School’s social studies teacher and dean of students, John Hopper. He wanted students to document stories from survivors and their descendants and map the camp.
“We were going to get ... live interviews and information to develop a vertical file for our library on primary sources,” said Hopper, referring to the process of archiving news clippings, letters, and other firsthand accounts from survivors. “And I teamed up with a math teacher to make a (scale) model of Amache.”
When the first group of students completed their work, word got around about their resources.
"The floodgates opened, and people started coming out of the woodwork to come see us," Hopper said. "People that came to us were survivors of Amache. It is not until we established a museum (in 1995) that the public started to drop in.”
Schools within Colorado and across state lines take tours, spend the night on site, and study Amache using the primary resources donated to the Society. Since 2008, the University of Denver’s anthropology department has hosted summer field classes in archaeological research for college students interested in the preservation and interpretation of Amache.
The Society has renovated the cemetery and restored key landmarks, including the water tower, a guard tower, and barracks. Students travel throughout Colorado and into Kansas and Oklahoma to speak about the legacy and history of World War II concentration camps in America. For almost a decade, students have traveled to Japan to live with host families and to give presentations to local high schools there.
The students volunteering for the Society also founded the Amache Museum. Students provide hour-long tours on the weekends and summers, displaying the 1,500 personal artifacts donated from the Japanese American community.
“The suggestion was to make a museum, because some of these families have objects from their parents that have passed away,” said Hopper. “They were going to get rid of them and wanted to put them somewhere.” The Society has moved venues three times over the years to accommodate the museum's growing collection.
“I would say my favorite artifact is the kimono,” said Ivan Yanez, 18, a Society volunteer and senior at the high school. “It was part of the Hiroshima bombing, and we've been told that it has small amounts of radiation still; we're informed not to stand really close to it.”
Camp Amache had schools, offering classes from nursery school and kindergarten through high school, as well as classes for adults. The Amache Museum has old lesson plans, essays from students who were incarcerated, school newspapers, yearbook clippings, and letters from teachers. Hopper noted that families made desks and school furniture out of scrap wood from the camp.
Traditions like prom and high school bands existed alongside overcrowded and makeshift classrooms.
“The Amache High School had what most high schools have,” said Hopper. “The problem is that there were eight guard towers with military police, barbed-wire, German shepherd dogs, spotlights, and .50 caliber machine guns.”
Amache High School students also had mandatory harvest breaks from school, a two-week to a month-long period where people of all ages worked to harvest in camp fields. Incarcerees had to grow their own food if they wanted to eat fresh produce. At Amache, more than 80 acres of onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and sorghum were harvested.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Since Hopper's first assignment, Society students have focused on historical research, including recording oral histories. Over the decades, students compiled 46 hours of interviews with former Amache employees, survivors, and their descendants. One of these descendants is Calvin Taro Hada, president of Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado, a Japanese American organization founded in 1907.
Hada has worked with the Amache Preservation Society for more than 15 years. Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado has provided Society seniors with scholarships and funds to repair site landmarks. Students collaborate with Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado, which hosts an annual pilgrimage to Camp Amache, a tradition that started in the 1970s for survivors and descendants to share a potluck meal and memorial service.
Hearing directly from survivors and their families helps students understand the civil injustices on a deeper level.
“When you talk to a survivor, they'll refer to it as an incarceration site or concentration camp,” Hada said. “Internment is a little bit of a sanitized term. Because it brings to mind some of the apologists for what was done, who said that it was done to protect Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.”
Students use all of the information they collect in their presentations at the Center, in the region, and in Japan. An eye-opening statistic that Baca and Yanez share is that among all American concentration camps, Amache had the most volunteers to fight in World War II. Hada’s father was among the volunteers, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese American unit and the most decorated in U.S. military history. The unit produced 13 Medal of Honor recipients.
The lessons learned while volunteering for the Society stay with students long after graduation, according to Hopper. “I like to think that this program, having to go out, travel around the country, travel to Japan, and do presentations basically all over the world increases their education and their ability to move on to bigger and better things,” Hopper said.
Former Society volunteers have argued cases in front of the State Supreme Court of Colorado, according to Hopper. Alumni have also gone on to become a principal of a school, a U.S. Air Force commander, and a history student earning a doctoral degree.
Teaching Honest and Accurate Asian American History
Other initiatives similar to the Amache Preservation Society in Colorado are continuing to take root with youth nationwide.
The Kansha Project, founded in 2011, is a Chicago program that connects self-identified Japanese Americans, ages 18-25, to the continuing legacy of the Japanese American community’s incarceration through educational trips to Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood and the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Kizuna, a nonprofit organization based in Little Tokyo, has education programming, internships and leadership opportunities for elementary to college students centered on building a foundation of Japanese culture and heritage. Founded in 2011, the organization’s summer camp serves over 500 youth each year with such activities as mochitsuki, Japanese calligraphy, family oral histories, and an interactive escape room to teach children about incarceration camps.
In Hawai’i, the Nisei Impact youth storytelling project, which began in December 2021, had five high school students profile the stories of the state’s nisei or second-generation Japanese Americans veterans who fought for the U.S. in World War II.
These youth-centered initiatives, which are designed to ensure that the history of Japanese American incarceration is not forgotten, come at a time when the Asian American community at large is facing renewed racism and xenophobia.
“All children deserve to know they matter, that they belong, and they too are part of our country and state’s history.”
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to December 2021, more than 10,900 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islander persons were reported. On March 16, 2021, a series of attacks occurred at three spas in Atlanta, killing eight people. The mass shootings, which took the lives of six women of Asian descent, stirred outrage and fear in the Asian American community and was viewed as a culmination of centuries of hypersexualization of Asian women.
Asian American youth have not been spared from an uptick in incidents of anti-Asian hate and xenophobia. About 80% of Asian American teens recently reported having experienced bullying in-person or online, according to a 2021 survey by the nonprofit Act to Change.
This spike in violence has spurred a push in a number of states to expand Asian American history curricula in schools. Last summer, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to require Asian American history to be taught in schools. In January, New Jersey passed similar legislation making it mandatory for K-12 schools to include Asian American and Pacific Islander history in their curriculums, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. Meanwhile, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a nonprofit, has launched the Wholestory Education Campaign to support advocacy for teaching comprehensive and honest histories as legislation in states nationwide threatens classroom lessons on race and diversity.
“Amidst the tide of anti-Asian hate, we found hope in joining a diverse coalition of parents, advocates, students, and legislators to use the best tool we have to fight hate: education,” said Amber Reed and Jeffrey Chang of AAPI Montclair in a press statement about the New Jersey law. “All children deserve to know they matter, that they belong, and they too are part of our country and state’s history.”
Why Preserving Painful History Matters
In February, Camp Amache was finally designated as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service—a designation only three other former camps have. Society students provided comments to the National Park Service Special Resource Study, reached out to Colorado members of Congress, and provided testimony for the Amache National Historic Site Act. They mailed flyers to Amache survivors, descendants and constituents across the United States. Thanks in no small part to this advocacy work, the two bills passed in Congress (H.R.2497 and S.1284).
“This isn’t something that in a traditional high school setting or junior high setting, you learn about history,” said Tanner Grasmick, 27, who teaches social studies to seventh to 12th graders at Granada Undivided High School. Grasmick is an alum of the Amache Preservation Society and will take over the club when Hopper retires.
“It's a black mark on United States history,” Grasmick added. “That was what motivated us; that not a lot of people do know about it. We wanted to spread that awareness that it did happen. Just to make sure that it didn't happen again and that these people did have a voice.”
This includes voices like Sasano’s, who wrote extensively about her experiences living as a teenager in Camp Amache 80 years ago.
“Those crazy guard towers make me laugh,” she wrote. “No, they don’t, they make me hate. I’m no criminal who has to be watched so I won’t escape, nor am I a traitor or the enemy who needs to be guarded.”
Sasano wrote that seeing “the beauty there is in this world,” made her almost forget “the ugliness that signifies confinement—fences, search lights, drab barracks, etc.”
“The war will end someday, and perhaps there won’t be any more wars,” she added. “We’ll have a chance, all of us. The destiny of America is in our hands too. I wonder if there can be a world or even an America without inequality of races.”
The work to preserve the firsthand accounts of survivors like Sasano isn’t just undertaken to educate future generations about this period in American history. It can also help facilitate the healing process for the descendants of the survivors of forced Japanese American incarceration.
Hada learned about America’s concentration camps at 14 years old. Hada’s father struggled to have the conversation so he gave his son a book to read instead, “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” a history of Japanese Americans in the West by Bill Hosokawa.
“I would say the tendency among almost all survivors was just out of sight, out of mind, don't talk about it,” said Hada. “It's hard to heal when you keep everything inside.”
Hada says his father carried “internalized shame,” and would only share his wartime experiences decades later.
“He had to say goodbye to his mother through the barbed wire fence,” before being deployed to Germany, Hada said. “My dad was not a very emotional man, at least not demonstrably emotional, but I could see him choking up when he was telling me that story.”
When the executive order that created incarceration sites was passed, Hada’s paternal grandmother, Hama Serizawa, stayed behind in California to look after a family-owned boarding house. American troops took her into custody and transferred her to Camp Amache. After the war, his grandmother moved back to Japan, scarred by the incarceration.
Hada carried “a chip on his shoulder” for years, reconciling the pain that the Japanese community endured during incarceration and his identity as an American. But working with Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado and the Society has begun to change that, he said.
“In working with the Japanese American community and trying to preserve the Amache site, being exposed to people who are trying to do the right thing and want lessons learned to be remembered, has reduced the dissonance quite a bit,” Hada said.
"Stories of people like John Hopper and his students, that does a lot to heal the pain of wondering why it was that the country I love turned on my family, and people who look like me.”
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