The best books for really feeling the everyday life of the Japanese American community

Why am I passionate about this?

Having encountered Japanese American incarceration as an undergraduate student, I was perplexed at how distant so many of the narratives were. How could such a large-scale forced removal in recent history seem like it happened “somewhere else?” This started my never-ending yearning to really understand and feel how these camps operated as communities. I have little doubt that this could happen again in the United States and Canada or elsewhere, so it’s my passion to keep educating people both in my home country of Finland and North America about the underlying dynamics leading to incarceration. 


I wrote...

Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain: Networks, Power, and Everyday Life

By Saara Kekki,

Book cover of Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain: Networks, Power, and Everyday Life

What is my book about?

The incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II was an outrageous breach of human and civil rights. But for many of the 120,000 inmates, life went on: they worked, studied, found partners, and raised children, all in interaction with their camp community. Studying these interactions, or networks, brings everyday life to the center of attention and helps us better understand their choices. 

I had two special interests: resettlement and the integration of families in camp networks. I discovered what I call “power families”: families that could reach practically any person in the camp community of 10,000 people! In studying leaving the camp, I wanted to see who left early to new parts of the country, and who stayed in camp as long as possible.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II

Saara Kekki Why did I love this book?

This book features Bill Manbo’s original photographs from the Heart Mountain incarceration camp, weaved in with the historical narrative of the camp and the time period.

What is remarkable about the photos is that they are not part of government propaganda but depictions of everyday events by an amateur photographer. Moreover, inmates weren’t supposed to have cameras in camp, so Manbo’s photos are also an act of resistance.

Since I’m always on a quest to really “feel” history, I love how these photos bring me that much closer to the people and the place. Eric Muller and others’ writings provide useful contextualization to both the art and the era. 

By Eric L. Muller (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Colors of Confinement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1942, Bill Manbo and his family were forced from their Hollywood home into the Japanese American internment camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. While there, Manbo documented both the bleakness and beauty of his surroundings, using Kodachrome film, a technology then just seven years old, to capture community celebrations and to record his family's struggle to maintain a normal life under the harsh conditions of racial imprisonment. Colors of Confinement showcases sixty-five stunning images from this extremely rare collection of color photographs, presented along with three interpretive essays by leading scholars and a reflective, personal essay by a former…


Book cover of Japanese Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group

Saara Kekki Why did I love this book?

I read this book after having already read dozens of books on Japanese American history and immediately felt that this was the one book that one truly needs to read.

Spickard not only explains and interprets on behalf of the community but also really seeks to understand how and why the Japanese Americans became the type of ethnic community they are.

More importantly, this book doesn’t only focus on the surface story of the racism that led to incarceration but delves much deeper into race relations, including those between Japanese Americans and other minorities.  

By Paul R. Spickard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Japanese Americans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since 1855, nearly a half a million Japanese immigrants have settled in the United States, the majority arriving between 1890 and 1924 during the great wave of immigration to Hawai'i and the mainland. Today, more than one million Americans claim Japanese ancestry. They came to study and to work, and found jobs as farm laborers, cannery workers, and railroad workers. Many settled permanently, formed communities, and sent for family members in Japan. While they worked hard, established credit associations and other networks, and repeatedly distinguished themselves as entrepreneurs, they also encountered harsh discrimination. Nowhere was this more evident than on…


Book cover of Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment

Saara Kekki Why did I love this book?

Another powerful collection of photographs, this book shows us the images by the famous photographer Dorothea Lange.

The War Relocation Authority (a civilian agency that ran the 10 civilian incarceration camps) hired Lange to “document” life in the camps. They were expecting to receive material that would be useful as propaganda, that would prove to the outside world that the conditions were decent and inmates happy. What they got instead were depictions of harsh conditions and institutionalization. Therefore, many of Lange’s photos were never published until this volume.

Where Billy Manbo’s photos showed us an inmate’s perspective, Lange’s photos can be read as a wordless attempt to criticize the government.

By Linda Gordon (editor), Gary Y. Okihiro (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Impounded as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Censored by the U.S. Army, Dorothea Lange's unseen photographs are the extraordinary photographic record of the Japanese American internment saga. This indelible work of visual and social history confirms Dorothea Lange's stature as one of the twentieth century's greatest American photographers. Presenting 119 images originally censored by the U.S. Army-the majority of which have never been published-Impounded evokes the horror of a community uprooted in the early 1940s and the stark reality of the internment camps. With poignancy and sage insight, nationally known historians Linda Gordon and Gary Okihiro illuminate the saga of Japanese American internment: from life before Executive…


Book cover of Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II

Saara Kekki Why did I love this book?

Much of the general public knows the great performance of the segregated Nisei (2nd generation Japanese American) unit in World War II, but few are still familiar with the Nisei draft resisters.

Eric Muller’s book tells the story of these men, who were drafted from incarceration camps—and then imprisoned in federal prisons for refusing to serve. Over 80 of these resisters came from Heart Mountain, where they had organized around a group called the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, but men from other camps also resisted. Their message was unanimous: they love the United States but will not serve before their families are freed.

By Eric L. Muller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Free to Die for Their Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1942, the federal government forced West Coast Japanese Americans into detainment camps on suspicion of disloyalty. Two years later, the government demanded even more, drafting them into the same military that had been guarding them as subversives. Most of these Americans complied, but "Free to Die for Their Country" is the first book to tell the powerful story of those who refused. Based on years of research and personal interviews, Eric L. Muller recreates the emotions and events that followed the arrival of those draft notices revealing a dark and complex chapter of America's history.


Book cover of Heart Mountain

Saara Kekki Why did I love this book?

Gretel Ehrlich’s 1988 novel puts a spin on the incarceration experience by examining it at the intersection of two worlds.

The protagonist is a Japanese American free person living near the Wyoming incarceration camp of Heart Mountain. He has never been incarcerated because he lives outside the “exclusion area.” The story looks at the camp and its injustices through the eyes of this man, who is similar to the inmates yet an outsider.

The book really captures the irony of camp life: it is at once so deeply unjust yet so dull that years seem to blend into each other. Ehrlich’s description of the Wyoming landscape and the Heart Mountain camp is vivid and transports the reader to the scene.

By Gretel Ehrlich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Heart Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The left-at-home residents and ranchers of Luster, Wyoming, and the Japanese-American inmates of nearby Heart Mountain Relocation Camp contend with colliding political and personal circumstances


You might also like...

Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I first went to Berlin after college, determined to write a novel about the German Resistance; I stayed a quarter of a century. Initially, the Berlin Airlift, something remembered with pride and affection, helped create common ground between me as an American and the Berliners. Later, I was commissioned to write a book about the Airlift and studied the topic in depth. My research included interviews with many participants including Gail Halvorsen. These encounters with eyewitnesses inspired me to write my current three-part fiction project, Bridge to Tomorrow. With Russian aggression again threatening Europe, the story of the airlift that defeated Soviet state terrorism has never been more topical. 

Helena's book list on the Russian blockade of Berlin and the Allied Airlift

What is my book about?

Stopping Russian Aggression with milk, coal, and candy bars….

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians will starve unless they receive food, medicine, and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour, and children’s shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in the West. Until General Winter deploys on the side of Russia...

Based on historical events, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader delivers an insightful, exciting and moving tale about how former enemies became friends in the face of Russian aggression — and how close the Berlin Airlift came to failing under the assault of “General Winter.”

Cold War: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift

By Helena P. Schrader,

What is this book about?

Fighting a war with milk, coal and candy bars....

In the second book of the Bridge to Tomorrow Series, the story continues where "Cold Peace" left off.

Berlin is under siege. More than two million civilians in Hitler's former capital will starve unless they receive food, medicine and more by air.

USAF Captain J.B. Baronowsky and RAF Flight Lieutenant Kit Moran once risked their lives to drop high explosives on Berlin. They are about to deliver milk, flour and children's shoes instead. Meanwhile, two women pilots are flying an air ambulance that carries malnourished and abandoned children to freedom in…


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