Japanese Internment & Muslim Ban

Letters From Camp

Sponsored by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and created by filmmaker Frank Chi, this short film features letters that young Japanese Americans in World War II incarceration camps sent to Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego. Excerpts from the letters are read by contemporary Muslim American youth standing beside Japanese American camp survivors. The survivors remain silent as the young people read stories that parallel their own hopes and fears. This video will be featured in the center's event "CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality," on May 28 and 29 at the Arts & Industries Building. Learn more at smithsonianapa.org/crosslines and let them know you’ll attend on their Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1116460541751620/#CrossLines #LettersFromCamp

Опубліковано Smithsonian 17 травня 2016 р.

The video begins with hands opening a letter, these hands are brown, they are clearly the hands of kids, and the background sound of a single piano note being played repeatedly are enough to set an aura of impending doom. In the video, “Letters From Camp,” young Muslim kids and Japanese Internment Camp survivors read letters written by Japanese kids, during their time in Camp.

The video limits its use of text, the logo of the video producers, a description of who is in the video, a fact blurb about Japanese Internment Camps, and the names of the video participants while they speak. The aforementioned texts function to contextualize the video, and while it does not explicitly state its political pursuits, it requires of the viewer an assessment of our modern political state. The text in the beginning of the video reads:

“Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center”

“Muslim American children and Japanese American Camp survivors read letters from World War II.”

“From 1942 to 1946, The United States incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese Americans. Half were children.”

The Smithsonian is a group of research institute and museums, administered by the United States of America. Given the institute’s government stamp of approval, the content of the video is ostensibly credible. The audience for the video are Americans, while not explicitly stated as such, the content of the video and the producer’s direct attachment to the US assist to strengthen this argument. Take for instance the explicit declaration of the video participants as “Muslim American” and “Japanese American.” While the initial name identifies their “other” identity, Muslim/Japanese, the second identifier seeks to place them as an in-group. In addition, the publication of the video on the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Facebook, further directs the video to an American audience. I myself, in searching for this video was able to find it on the Los Angeles Times, a US-based publication. That being said, the way in which the internet functions, this video can be accessed by anyone around the world. Additionally, the international scope of the video might be increased by the video participant’s group identity of Muslim/Japanese, and the intersection of the group.

In the LA Times article previously mentioned, the video and its production is further contextualized. It even mentions a Virginia mayor who is against allowing Syrian refugees in to the country, essentially supporting number 45’s aptly named “Muslim Ban.” Upon further research for the mayor’s exact quote, it reads, “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from [Islamic State] now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.” The fact that this public servant recognizes the similarities between what happened to Japanese folks in the past and what is currently happening to Muslims, yet deems it acceptable, is, for the lack of a better word, weird. While this video can serve to invoke sympathy and support for Muslims, it is clear that this will not be true for everyone.

Image: page 25 of “History Matters: Children’s Art Education Inside the Japanese American Internment Camp”

While the letters read in the video are part of a collection in the possession of the museum, they were initially written from Japanese children in the camps to a librarian in San Diego, named Clara Breed. Part of the reason Breed gave the kids writing and mailing material and told them to write her had was to keep them hopeful but also to keep a record of their experience. This theme of keeping a record of children’s experience is also present in the art children in the camps created. In the piece, “History Matters: Children’s Art Education Inside the Japanese American Internment Camp,” scholar Gina Mumma Wenger analyses the art education of children in the internment camps. Wenger indicates that children were encouraged and often produced work that was “propaganda…(and) patriotic decorations,” as can be seen in the image bellow (Wenger 29). The content of the image, much like the content of the letters in the video, depicts the US as strong and a defender of good. They had a sense of hope for better times, there does not appear to be hate or animosity, which would be understandable, considering their context.

Other attempts to document the experience of camp include the work of Mine Okubo in Citizen 13660. Take for instance the image bellow, and how it vividly describes the experience mentioned in a letter, “One discouraging thing which occurred here is the building of the fence. Now there is a fence all around this camp. I hope very soon this fence will be torn down.” The quote, taken from the video, and the illustration, taken from Okubo’s work both function to make forever-known the experiences of Japanese Americans. Furthermore, the fact that Muslim Americans, modern targets, are reading the letters, makes explicit that the audience is meant to forever humanize their experiences.

Image: page 81 of Citizen 13660



Kohlin, Sonali. “Watch Muslim Kids Read Letters From Japanese Internment Camp Survivors.” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2016.

Okubo, Mine. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.  

Pearce, Matt. “Mayor Against Syrian Refugees Is Denounced for Noting WWII Internment of Japanese Americans.” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2015.

Wenger, Gina Mumma. 2012. “History Matters: Children’s Art Education Inside the Japanese American Internment Camp.” Studies In Art Education 54, no. 1:21-36.