The Japanese American Incarceration & Critical Infrastructure Studies: A Starter Kit

Tule Lake Camp Gate. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The enduring imagery of Japanese ‘Internment’ begins at this fence. The barbed wire, guard tower, and the barracks encompassed have become mnemonic encounters in their own right, saliently reminding a democracy of its own structural violence and state(s) of exception. Such imagery crucially challenges the historical ‘façade of benevolence’ that continues to permeate internment federal record. At the same time, these images perpetuate a contemporary understanding of the camp as somehow ‘outside’ of the national superstructure and thus excluded from the bureaucratic processes thereof. The components of this starter kit propose that this was not the case; rather, the ‘banalities’ of infrastructure and process were purposely rendered (hyper)visible to purposely envelop the questionable ethics of governmental detainment. What might we now learn by approaching these procedures through an infrastructural approach? What infrastructural provocations await within the fence?

This starter kit introduces users to the infrastructural underpinnings of the Japanese Incarceration camp by way of its construction, daily operations, and eventual preservation. Included texts introduce the historical and discursive ties between various New Deal agencies, racialized detention, and infrastructural labor implemented as a means of ‘democratization’ and surveillance. By providing such cross-disciplinary connections, this starter kit seeks to push back against the persistence of “bureaucratic amnesia” that too often omits agency participation from the ‘internment’s’ sociocultural record (Smith 65). Furthermore, in conjunction with representations of planning, construction, and maintenance performed under detainment, these texts encourage users to (re)consider the operative logics of both bureaucratic process and infrastructure itself.


Infrastructural Approaches

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Towards an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory 32, no. 3 (June 2004): 347-372.

Meiches, Benjamin. “A Political Ecology of the Camp.” Security Dialogue 46, no. 5 (2015): 476-492.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (1999): 377–391.

Ideological Touchstones

Ngai, Mae N. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Eley, Geoff and Ronald Grigor Suny. “Introduction: From the Moment of Social History to the Work of Cultural Representation.” In Becoming National: A Reader, edited by Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 3-37.



Parks, Kimberly Roberts. “Revisiting Manzanar: A History of Japanese American internment camps as presented in selected federal government documents 1941-2002.” Journal of Government Information 30 (2004): 575-593.

Smith, Jason Scott. “New Deal Public Works at War: The WPA and Japanese American Internment.” Pacific Historical Review 72, no. 1 (2003): 63-92.


Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.

  • Key Chapters:
    • Chapter Three: Establishing the Structures of the Internment, from Limited to Mass Internment, 1942-1943
    • Chapter Four: The Liberal Democratic Way of Management, 1942-1943

Morehouse, Lisa. “Farming Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-Americans Remember WWII Incarceration,” NPR, February 19, 2017,

Murray, Alice Yang. “The History of ‘Helpful’ Administrative Advisors and ‘Objective’ Researchers Within the Camps.” In Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Starn, Orin. “Engineering Internment: Anthropologists and the War Relocation Authority.” American Ethnologist 13 no. 4 (Nov. 1986): 700-720.


Camp, Stacey Lynn. “Landscapes of Japanese American Internment.” Historical Archaeology 50, no. 1 (2016): 169-186.

Clark, Bonnie J. “Digging Yesterday: The Archaeology of Living Memory at Amache.” In Historical Archaeology Through a Western Lens, edited by Mark Warner and Margaret Purser, 210-232. Nebraska: Nebraska University Press, 2017.

Hays, Frank. “The National Park Service: Groveling Sycophant or Social Conscience: Telling the Story of Mountains, Valley, and Barbed Wire at Manzanar National Historic Site.” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 73-80.


The following gallery includes some administrative mediations of ‘internment’ processes, infrastructures, and traces, as well as some internee reflections thereof.


Exhibit 1

Japanese Relocation is one of many propaganda pieces produced by the U.S. Office of War Information (OWA) throughout the Second World War. Released in the fall of 1942, this film serves as an explanatory guide for those outside of the camps as opposed to those who were, at this point, already held within.

Exhibit 2

Evacuation Map originally printed in All Aboard Magazine in the Spring of 1944.
 Courtesy of Ms. A. Iwata, Japanese American National Museum.
Temporary Placement: The Assembly Center

Exhibit 3

Indefinite Confinement: The Relocation Center

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 5

Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Exhibit 6

Exhibit 7

Preservation: The Interpretive Center

Exhibit 8

‘”Wondering what it would have been like to live at Manzanar? Explore the exhibits of Block 14 to find out.”

As national historic sites, many ‘internment’ sites are now open and accessible to the public. Manzanar National Historic Site invites visitors to ‘experience’ a recreated mess hall, women’s latrine, and two accessible barracks. Those unable to take a physical tour may ‘visit virtually’ through CyArk’s online exhibit and virtual tour.


Exhibit 9

That Damned Fence

They’ve sunk the posts deep in the ground
They’ve strung out wires all the way around.
With machine gun nests just over there,
And sentries and soldiers everywhere.

We’re trapped like rats in a wired cage,
To fret and fume with impotent rage;
Yonder whispers the lure of the night,
But that DAMNED FENCE assails out sight.

We seek the softness of the midnight air,
But that DAMNED FENCE in the floodlight glare
Awakens unrest in our nocturnal quest,
And mockingly laughs with vicious jest.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do
We feel terrible, lonesome, and blue:
That DAMNED FENCE is driving us crazy,
Destroying our youth and making us lazy.

Imprisoned in here for a long, long time,
We know we’re punished – though we’ve committed no crime,
Our thoughts are gloomy and enthusiasm damp,
To be locked up in a concentration camp.

Loyalty we know, and patriotism we feel,
To sacrifice our utmost was our ideal,
To fight for our country, and die perhaps;
But we’re here because we happen to be Japs.

We all love life, and our country best,
Our misfortune to be here in the west,
To keep us penned behind that DAMNED FENCE,
Is someone’s notion of NATIONAL DEFENSE!

This poem has been attributed to various authors as it anonymously made its way throughout the camps.

Exhibit 10

A wood carving of Heart Mountain Relocation Center produced by an internee. Artist unknown.
Courtesy of Terry Heffernan/Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Exhibit 11

Barracks Home

This is our barracks, squatting on the ground,
Tar-papered shack, partitioned into rooms
By sheetrock walls, transmitting every sound
Of neighbors’ gossip or the sweep of brooms.
The open door welcomes the refugees,
And now at last there is no need to roam
Afar: here space enlarges memories
Beyond the bounds of camp and this new home.

The floor is carpeted with dust, wind-borne
Dry alkali patterned by insect feet.
What peace can such a place as this impart?
We can but sense, bewildered and forlorn,
That time, disrupted by the war from neat
Routines, must now adjust within the heart.

Toyo Suyemoto

A poem excerpted from I Call To Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment, edited by Susan B. Richardson, 78. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Exhibit 12

“Don’t Fence Me In”
M. Donald Nagai at Heart Mountain Relocation Center.
Photograph taken and captioned by Kimie Nagai and provided by the author.

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