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75 Years After the Japanese Internment, “Only the Oaks Remain”

A new photography exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, looks back at the site where innocent citizens were imprisoned during World War II.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Tuna Canyon Detention Center, Guard inside the control room (detail).

Sunday, February 19, marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese internment, whereby the United States government set up ten camps during World War II to inter some 120,000 innocent Japanese American citizens and legal residents in the wake of the attack on Pearly Harbor. Each and every one of these men, women, and children were held prisoner against their will, without being charged with a crime, given a fair trial, or convicted of breaking any law.

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The government, acting under the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, claimed such a blatant violation of the Constitution was a measure to protect “against espionage and sabotage.” The government determined the criterion included any person with who was 1/16 Japanese or more, or any orphaned infant with so much as “one drop of Japanese blood” could be imprisoned.

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, aerial view

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, aerial view

The crimes against American citizens were recognized in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for this egregious violation based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” and authorized reparations in the amount of $20,000 (equivalent to $41,000 in 2016) to each camp survivor. In total, the government disbursed more than $1.16 billion ($3.24B in 2016) to 82,219 survivors and their heirs.

Three quarters of a century is plenty of time to forget about the sins of previous generations, particularly when the sites of the crime have been razed—and once the people die, only the photographs and their histories remain. The Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, presents Only the Oaks Remain: The Story of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, a powerful collection of personal stories that brings this horrific chapter in history back to life. Featuring a selection of photographs, letters, diaries, and interviews with prisoners of Japanese, German, Italian, and Japanese-Peruvian heritage, the exhibition is on view now through April 9, 2017.

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, bunk room

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, bunk room

The Tuna Canyon Detention Center officially opened on December 16, 1941, when the first group of detainees were brought in, to be held indefinitely. The Department of Justice converted a vacated Civilian Conservation Corps camp into a detention center by installing twelve-foot-high barbed wire fences, guard posts, and flood lights. Located in the Tujunga neighborhood of Los Angeles, the facility was a temporary holding station where people were held until transferred to other internment camps run by the DOJ or the Army. With a capacity for 300, the Center held more than 2,000 prisoners until its official closing on October 31, 1943.

Just 17 years later, in 1960, the government sold the property. The buildings were demolished and in their place rose the Verdugo Hills Gold Course. A portion of the site, located at 6433 West La Tuna Canyon Road, was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2013.

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, Men playing horseshoes within the fence

Tuna Canyon Detention Center, Men playing horseshoes within the fence

Only the Oaks Remain takes us back to this totalitarian period in American history, using personal narrative and declassified government documents to illuminate the humanity of the people forced to bare the brunt of systemic racism and tyrannical rule. An Honor Wall bears the name of each and every detainee, creating a contemplative space to recognize the scope of the tragedy.

The anniversary and the exhibition are unfortunately timely events, reminding us that the greatest gift of the past is our opportunity to learn from it. We are fortunate to have such resources readily available at our fingertips, making us responsible not just for acknowledging the crimes of the past but working to prevent them from repeating themselves.

All photos: Courtesy of the Merrill H. Scott family.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.