The best books on one of America’s worst decisions during World War II: Japanese American incarceration

Stephanie Hinnershitz Author Of Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor During World War II
By Stephanie Hinnershitz

Who am I?

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, I learned little about Japanese American incarceration beyond the brief mention in textbooks. It wasn’t until I came across documents about incarceration camps in Arkansas that I wanted to learn more and spent the next five years exploring this subject. What I took away from my research is that even though confinement in camps only directly affected Japanese Americans, understanding how this tragedy happened is important for all Americans who value democracy. I’m a Senior Historian at the National WWII Museum and work hard to make sure that Japanese American incarceration is included in the larger history of the American home front during the war.


I wrote...

Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor During World War II

By Stephanie Hinnershitz,

Book cover of Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor During World War II

What is my book about?

Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. government wrongfully imprisoned nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and profited from their labor. 

Following Franklin Roosevelt's 1942 Executive Order 9066, which called for the exclusion of potentially dangerous groups from military zones along the West Coast, the federal government placed Japanese Americans in makeshift prisons throughout the country. In addition to working on day-to-day operations of the camps, Japanese Americans were coerced into harvesting crops, digging irrigation ditches, paving roads, and building barracks for little to no compensation and often at the behest of privately run businesses—all in the name of national security.

The books I picked & why

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Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II

By Roger Daniels,

Book cover of Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II

Why this book?

This book is a classic and of the first that I read on the subject. It’s a concise introduction to this shameful moment in America’s WWII era history that carefully explains how decades of anti-Japanese sentiment along the West Coast reached a peak following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But Daniels also provides in-depth detail on what life was like for Japanese Americans who spent some of if not most of their time during the war behind barbed wire and how they struggled to return to “normal” when released from the camps. Most importantly, the book has a compelling concluding chapter that asks its readers, “Could this happen again?” Daniels doesn’t give an answer but encourages us to read more and think about the legacy of incarceration.


What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean?

By Alice Yang Murray,

Book cover of What Did the Internment of Japanese Americans Mean?

Why this book?

The title says it all: This is a book if you want to dig a little deeper into what incarceration meant and means for all Americans. Featuring different, shorter essays by leading scholars on the Japanese American experience during the war, I love this book for its collection of insights from different historians who approach the topic in their own, distinct ways. If you’re short on time and want a quick read on the many angles on incarceration from motivations to experiences to the movement for a formal apology from the US government, this is one to check out.


When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During WWII

By Susan H. Kamei,

Book cover of When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American Incarceration During WWII

Why this book?

If you want to delve into first-hand accounts of what life was like in the incarceration camps, you’ll find a lot of books for that, but you could be overwhelmed in the process. What I like about Kamei’s recent book is that it is a handy compilation of over a hundred engaging, heartbreaking, and inspiring descriptions of incarceration from those who directly experienced and fought against the prejudice that created it. Best of all, you can use this book as a jumping-off point for learning more about any of the individuals you encounter here. 


Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II

By Daniel James Brown,

Book cover of Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II

Why this book?

If you’ve never heard of the 442nd all-Nisei (or second-generation Japanese American) combat regimental team that went on to become the most decorated military unit for its size in American history, or even if you’re a WWII history buff who knows their story in and out, this book will give you a new appreciation of their sacrifice and dedication. I love how Brown places the stories of three 442nd soldiers side-by-side with those of their families who remained in the camps while also interweaving the legal battle of Gordon Hirabayashi who fought against removal and incarceration orders. What you get is a full and rich understanding of how courage assumed different forms—battling beyond or behind barbed wire for liberty and democracy.


The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

By Jan Jarboe Russell,

Book cover of The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

Why this book?

Was it just Japanese Americans who were detained during the war? I found myself asking this question before I started researching this topic. Sadly for me, Russell’s book was not yet published. While there are many books that detail the experiences of Germans and Italians (citizen and nationals) with internment, this book focuses on two young, American-born women—one German American, the other Japanese American—and the trials and tragedy they faced when they were detained and deported to Germany and Japan because their parents were foreign-born and eventually returned to the United States. I normally am skeptical of books described as telling “little-known” or “unknown” stories, but this book truly is an examination of an understudied event in the larger story of wartime panic, prejudice, and discrimination.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japanese Americans, World War 2, and Japanese internment?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Japanese Americans, World War 2, and Japanese internment.

Japanese Americans Explore 29 books about Japanese Americans
World War 2 Explore 975 books about World War 2
Japanese Internment Explore 7 books about Japanese internment

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