‘Don’t Fence Me In’ looks at youth in CA concentration camps

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Boy Scouts camp by the Mississippi River, 1943. Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, gift of Mabel Rose Jamison (Jamie) Vogel.

A new exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) looks at coming of age in America during World War II. As Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps across the country, teenagers found a bit of normalcy and identity as they grew up in confinement. Through social dances, scouting, sports, and more, they managed to assert themselves as young adults in a hostile country. Emily Anderson, curator of “Don’t Fence Me In,” interviewed survivors of the camps to get a better idea of what that looked like. 

Boys playing basketball at Manzanar. Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Jack and Peggy Iwata.

“Coming of age, that shift from childhood to adulthood … we can all relate to that,” Anderson says. “We're figuring out who we are, and trying to create our own identity apart from our families, and seeking out our own friendships, our own interests. And this exhibit explores all of that, all the confusion and excitement of adolescence. But from the perspective of what that would have been like for these kids who spent those years behind barbed wire.”

One activity that the confined youth took part in: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. “Once you wore the uniform of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, it was a way of asserting an equality of being an American child, just like any other American child. Even if you were from a Buddhist background, or your parents spoke Japanese, you had a certain kind of equality,” Armstrong explains.

“Having the continuity of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts was one way that these communities were able to protect and continue to ensure that the kids themselves are able to continue to have a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.”

Dances also featured prominently in camps. “This is a time when to go to a dance, you had to have an invitation. You'd have a dance ‘bid,’ which is where boys would sign up to go for different dances with girls,” Armstrong says. “And all of these details of teen life circa 1943 were preserved within the space of camp. These kids were really organized, and they would send out invitations and of course, create the dance ‘bids.’”

The exhibit features music from the dances, says Armstrong: “We have on display this amazing turntable that was actually constructed in camp along with a box of records that an 18-year-old boy took with him. People were only allowed to take what they could carry with them into camp. And what does that include when you're an 18-year-old boy? Your record collection.”

A group of young women from Los Angeles, California, pose together at Heart Mountain concentration camp, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, gift of Mori Shimada.

A girl stands behind a barbed wire fence at Manzanar concentration camp in Manzanar, California. Christmas 1944. Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, gift of Myrtle Joyce Barley (Ward).

“Don’t Fence Me In” runs through October 1 at JANM, with activities throughout, like the much anticipated all camps swing dance on June 17 that will feature dance lessons and The Fabulous Esquires Big Band.