Robert Nakamoto, Topaz, Utah

The Japanese Internment Camp in Topaz, Utah

From 1942 to November 1945, months after World War II ended, 81,000 Japense Americans were interned in Topaz, Utah.

The Central Utah relocation site has become a national landmark. However, all of the buildings within the site have been demolished except for one that was relocated 15 miles away in a museum about the camp.

The Topaz Museum honors the legacy of the Japanese who faced racial discrimination by being forced to relocate to the harsh conditions of the desert, and other remote locations, by going in depth in their personal stories.

Many Japense Americans were only permitted to bring two suitcases or two crates of their belongings. The rest of their property was lost due to failure to pay mortgages or rent after being interned for years.

Fred Hoshiyama lived in the Yamato Colony, a Japanese agricultural utopian community, as a child. Fred followed his father’s legacy in community involvement by conducting survey on the needs of the people in the internment camp.

The artists Hisako Shimizu Hibi regularly painted sunflowers during her internment, to symbolize that it was one of the few plants that could endure the harsh conditions and the dust storms of Topaz.

While many Japense were allowed to sketch and to paint their lives in the camp, they were not allowed to take photographs. Photographer Dave Tatsuno left his camera with a friend in Oakland, California and told Walter Handreich, the director of the cooperative in the camp, how he missed using his camera. In a act of kindness, Walter Handreich gave Dave Tatsuno a camera to use and told him that he could use it in secret and, ” to not take it near the gate where the guards are”.

Dave Tatsuno was only one of two Japanese American photographers who captured images of life in the internment camps. The other photographer Tōyō Miyatake had a set of camera lens and hand built a camera out of wood.

Members of the camp created their own newspaper which was able to bypass the centers on rules other documents, such as letters to relatives faced.

While the Topaz camp existed there was a strict rule for the Japanese to not go near the fences. A near deaf man failed to hear orders from a guard to go away from the fences and was shot to death.

During my visit, I learned that while the states of Hawaii and Alaska were attacked by Japense military forces during World War II, ironically Hawaii was the only state in the United States that didn’t require Japense Americans to be interned. The reason for this was because a third of the Hawaiian population was Japanese and to intern them all would of led to a collapse of the state economy. However, while camps were not created on the islands martial law was imposed by the governor of Hawaii and about two thousand people of Japenese ancestry were expelled from the state on suspicion of disloyalty.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a Civil Liberties Act that declared that the Japanese internment was not out of military necessity and was more out of war hysteria. The hypocrisy of Japense being interned, while individuals of German and Italian dissent were not, due to their Caucasian ancestry, was pointed out by those who argued for the bills passage.

Author’s Note:

Robert Nakamoto, whom the author Philip Hamilton met in 2003, was interned in Topaz, Utah with his family as a child from 1942 to 1945. Robert Nakamoto was one of over 500 Japanese form Sacramento, California who was relocated. You may find a video of Robert Nakamoto’s reflections on his internment in my article, “Interview of Japanese Internment Camp Member Robert Nakamoto Donated to the Japanese American Museum Of San Jose”.

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