WWII Prison Cities: the US Military’s Spatial Racialization of the Incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans



As presidential executive orders flow out of the office of the current president of the United States, the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans, authorized by Presidential Executive Order 9066, floats in the background as a ghostly prologue to the intimidation, detention and exclusion of people affected by these orders. The U.S. Congress has not enacted a declaration of war or engaged in the kind of total war that was unleashed by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to initiate World War II. Yet, in the confusion of the repeated current use of this mode of executive power, numerous unsuspecting individuals have been detained and arrested; a general unease about the abrogation of their civil rights is palpable within contemporary U.S. and affecting migration and travel globally.

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Barrack blocks at the Colorado River “Relocation Center,” Poston, Arizona. / The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

So how may the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans inform the current use of executive power and presidential executive orders? The following discussion unpacks the ways E.O. 9066 permitted the military to racialize space and to create spaces of exception that overrode not only local, state, and regional jurisdictional power, but also normative hierarchies of military power. The point here is to raise questions about the power and authority that the current U.S. president’s executive orders may have created as part of large-scale military industrial detention and exclusion projects, such as the construction of a wall on the US southern border, or detention centers to imprison the increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants to be deported.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Presidential Executive Order 9066 (E.O 9066), delegating authority to the Secretary of War and his designated military commander, General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army (Western Defense Command) at the Presidio in San Francisco, with the authority to prescribe military areas and the right to exclude from them any or all persons. EO 9066 did not mention race or ethnicity. It permitted the military to control and contain the movement of potential spies and saboteurs, carrying out the mass incarceration without legal charges. It gave the Western Defense Command the authority to create these Military Areas 1 and 2 and prison cities for people excluded from these military areas.

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“Location of Assembly Centers and Relocation Centers” (1942). / Karl R. Bendetsen Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data to locate and identify Japanese and Japanese Americans, the U.S. Army issued 108 geographically defined Exclusion Orders and zones covering both Military areas. Through these Exclusion Orders, the Western Defense Command racialized their spatial authority by ordering all “persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to Control Stations from which they were to be taken to Assembly Centers that served as temporary holding sites or directly to one of the ten Relocation Centers that later served as semi-permanent prison cities.

Exclusion Order 19 issued on April 24, 1942 encompassed the denser populations in Berkeley and Richmond, California as well as unincorporated areas where Japanese and Japanese Americans ran floriculture businesses valued at over one million dollars in 1941. Mine Okubo, an artist who lived in Berkeley documented the entire process of the incarceration in drawings and annotations; she was instructed to report to a Civil Control Station in Berkeley across from the University of California campus. She noted on her drawings:

On Sunday April 26, 1942, I reported to Pilgrim Hall of the First Congregational Church in Berkeley to register for my brother and myself — a family unit of two. Soldiers were standing guard at the entrance around the buildings. (Citizen 13660, 1946)

The family number given her that day would become part of the title of her book, Citizen 13660, which was first published by Columbia University Press in 1946, the first personal documentation of the evacuation:

We had three days and three nights to pack and get ready. My brother was excused from the university with a promise he could receive his B.A. degree in June […].
Our friends came to take us to the Civil Control Station. We took one last look at our happy home.

Two thirds of the people incarcerated, like Mine Okubo, were American — the majority of them under 20 years of age — and one-third Japanese immigrants, legally barred from naturalizing as American citizens based on their race. The removal of this population was based on blood, not citizenship and without charges. They were routinely and categorically referred to as “Japanese” — a kind of racial/ethnic profiling and criminalization that conflated citizenship, enemy alien status and their presumed threat to national security, even though military and FBI intelligence investigations had found no evidence of anyone from the Japanese American community participating in planned espionage or sabotage. Public Law 503 passed by Congress on March 9, 1942 criminalized whomever violated any Army orders and subjected them to “immediate apprehension and internment.”

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Civilian Exclusion Order 19 including Berkeley, California (24 April 1942). / Karl R. Bendetsen Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.

The material culture of the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans is best known through several built environment tropes (barracks, guard towers and barbed wire), while the incarceration itself is most often framed through the abrogation of civil rights and E.O. 9066. The built forms expressed, as normative, the discipline and repetition of military standards, generally T.O. (Theater of Operations) Series 700 and 800 for temporary cantonment or housing of troops organized around standard plot plans and blocks. The Army’s power in the development processes drew from their ability to capture almost all of the early contracting out for the mass incarceration, which by their estimates through November 30, 1942 totaled nearly $89 million of which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted out $66 million for construction projects. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), the sole purpose agency set up a month after the issuance E.O. 9066 to manage the prison cities struggled to maintain any control over the production processes.

U.S. military domination in the production processes of this mass incarceration and the extremely rapid construction of semi-permanent prison cities has largely obscured not only the participation of professional architects and urban planners on both sides of the prison fences but also the prisoners’ use of their militarized environments. The US government used euphemisms for the forceful removal and disenfranchisement taking place, such as “evacuation” for the mass incarceration as if the prisoners were fleeing from a natural disaster; “Assembly Centers” as if they were voluntary and “Relocation Centers” as if they were not designed for incarceration. The pre-planning began in January 1942, a month before the issuance of E.O. 9066 and engaged a blurred spectrum of carceral typologies for “evacuees,” “enemy aliens,” “internees,” potential saboteurs, prisoners of war and criminals, fueled by historic anti-Japanese agitation and fear-mongering.

The standard plans were adapted in diverse ways to variations in topography, site conditions, connections to existing infrastructure, design decisions, administrative requirements, temporal and other factors with a few changes introduce by civil agencies such as the Farm Security Administration. Standard barracks measuring 20×100 feet laid out in repetitive blocks between firebreaks would generally house five or six families respectively. Organized into blocks of 300 people each with 12-14 barracks, the number of barracks generally varied from approximately 850 at the larger camps with peak populations of 18,000 to 250 at the smaller ones of 5,000 residents. They were wood frame with partitions for the “apartments,” but with open ceilings and electricity, but no running water and furnished with a bare light bulb and army cots. Communal facilities with military names such as mess halls, latrines, etc. served the blocks. A hospital at each center was located within the prisoners’ residential area. Other auxiliary buildings for the administration, staff housing, warehouses, factories, farm projects, motor pools and service buildings were located outside of the secured residential area with a separate fenced area for the military police. Overriding material needs for the warfront, the Western Defense Command accessed top priority clearance for the mass incarceration; enormous quantities of lumber, metal, asphalt, concrete and other materials and supplies were procured directly through the Quartermaster General without pre-approvals from any other authority including the War Production Board. The Western Defense Command also had the authority to give orders directly to U.S. Army Corps of Engineer districts without going through their higher commands first, and they generally by-passed the WRA.

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(left) Guard Tower at the Santa Anita “Assembly Center” (5 May 1942). / Construction Completion Report, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.

The goal of the military’s development was building with speed, efficiency and uniformity with unchecked power superseding normative rule of law, for example for acquisition of property or site selection. The scale of the mass incarceration made it the army’s largest domestic defense project on the west coast, and its complex operations required the assistance of other branches of the Army as well as numerous New Deal agencies which were in the process of refitting themselves for total war. Contract windows the prison cities were initially three to six weeks. Assembly Centers involved the reuse of infrastructure and stables for housing on county fairgrounds and racetracks with additional new building. The semi-permanent Relocation Centers, sited in isolated rural areas, required massive new urban infrastructure and connections to power, water, electricity, rail lines and roadway systems.

Accounting for both Assembly and Relocation Centers, the military planned and built housing to accommodate approximately 264,000 prisoners, a project much larger than any other defense housing projects such as Vanport, Oregon at 40,000. By comparison, the Lanham Housing Act of 1940 provided funding and housing for 625,000 workers and their families, the bulk of it for defense housing.

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Centerpiece memorabilia from a Minidoka Relocation Center Reunion where Lynne Horiuchi’s mother was incarcerated. / Photograph by Lynne Horiuchi.

The Western Defense Command revealed a hierarchy of military power and demonstrated the complexity and priorities for developing this large scale project in its organizational chart for the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), the agency in charge of the removal of Japanese and Japanese Americans. Construction, planning, and operations functions to which engineers and architects were assigned were located far below the main commands which concentrated power in fiscal, administrative, statistical and public relations functions with coordination with cooperating agencies given the least priority. At the bottom of the chart, they noted as principal coordinating agencies among the many that assisted, the Justice and Treasury Departments, the Federal Security Agency, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Works Progress Administration, the Farm Security Administration and the Bureau of Census.

The prisoners initially confronted difficult chaotic conditions. In a 1942 poem titled A Sad Plight accompany a drawing of people huddled under blankets and sitting on army cot springs after arriving at Central Utah Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah (see on next page), Chiura Obata observed:

No roof,
No electricity,
No stove.
The ground is frozen at this elevation.
The cold pierces the skin.
The rain has become sleet
And not enough bedding.
Forced to travel,
Broken in mind and spirit
Are these people from Santa Ana.

The prisoners responded to these bleak environments and conditions on the ground by a number of strategies and tactics and by constant individual and community modifications and projects during the time they were imprisoned. Community planning was organized by the prisoners within the camps to govern land use and development, and a great diversity of community development sites such as golf courses, the skating rings, the ball parks, libraries, schools, gardens, swimming pools, sumo rings and more proliferated. Some prisoners’ building projects were unauthorized or clandestine with the WRA turning a blind eye, for example at Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona where a baseball field was built outside the camp boundaries and the backstop was built with “liberated” fence posts. Cooperative enterprises were particularly important for independently devised community building projects. It was the prisoners’ efforts that ameliorated conditions on the ground though the WRA co-opted their recreational projects or passively permitted clandestine projects.

It may be argued that the building processes for this historic model were racialized and punitive with inadequate housing and with inmates used for unfree labor for agriculture and infrastructure improvements. More importantly, it reveals the overweaning hegemonic and complex power entrusted to U.S. military personnel through E.O. 9066 who then racialized and dehumanized the people they imprisoned, much of these actions happening below the radar of any persons outside of the military or administrative agencies.

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Standard Housing Block and Plot Plans. / Western Defense Command, Final Report (December 1942).

The material result of these prison cities was the disenfranchisement and incarceration of a group people based on their race — an action deemed unnecessary by the government’s own intelligence sources when capital and materials were needed for the total war effort. Military power for material production operated outside of normative American rule of law and military procedures with practically no transparency. It was the prisoners’ efforts that ameliorated conditions on the ground though the WRA often coopted their recreational projects or only passively permitted clandestine projects.

George Takei, a former prisoner, wrote on April 28, 2017 in a New York Times opinion piece about how this ghostly memory of authorized mass incarceration and disenfranchisement haunts us today. Speaking of officials who could not identify who might be a national security threat or not and of hyperbolic “fake news” encouraged by a vicious, jingoistic press and politicians, Takei suggested that we “merely replace ‘Japanese-Americans’ with ‘Muslims’” to understand the parallels between the 1942 mass incarceration and current discriminatory practices.

To broaden an understanding of the scope of the recent presidential orders, we may think of the contemporary material proliferation of phenomena discussed in The Funambulist that fit Giorgio Agamben’s definition of states of exception and that could apply to Asian populations in the United States Lisa Lowe has described as “forever immigrants.” The mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans should push us to think of Lowe’s newer work in which she considers the changing forms of imperial sovereignty from colonial slavery to new forms of migrant labor, and the transformation of older colonial territorial rule to new forms of governed surveillance and governed mobility that are then entangled in the violence of war and two imperial powers, Japan and the US. We should remember that the US Congress passed Public Law 503 on March 21, 1942 criminalizing any resistance to Army orders within the military areas even though martial law had not been declared.

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Chiura Obata, A Sad Plight (October 8, 1942). / Topaz Moon, The Art of the Internment, p. 68.

Architectural professionals have the tools to examine these exceptional spaces to understand the effects of imprisonment through built material. So, I would like to raise a few questions relevant to 45th US president’s use of executive orders, because E.O. 9066 may be seen as their prologue:

How may we anticipate and try to prevent:
• similar abrogations of civil rights in spatial jurisdictions and built projects?
• large scale projects produced under hegemonic presidential executive orders?
• the need for a population, if imprisoned, to strategically and tactically counter militarized incarceration?

How are these considerations within the scope of practicing professionals and their ethics?