blooming MINDS AND DESERT FLOWERS rediscovering the lives and minds of interned teenagers

Created by Neesha Chockalingam


Throughout the months of this class, I’ve read pages upon pages of the injustices that were committed by the US government and American citizens toward Japanese-Americans. I’ve watched interview after interview of elders recounting their experiences as a child in the relocation centers, and I’ve read newspaper headlines plastered with racial slurs and yellow journalism.

Nearly every aspect of the internment camps and the period surrounding them has been digitally archived, thanks to the publication of these journals, oral histories, and periodicals. But for some reason, there was a group of individuals whose documented experiences were virtually nonexistent in my initial searches: teenagers.

So many narratives have been told about the lives of mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children living in the relocation centers.

But one that is rarely heard is the voice of teenagers, torn from the best journey between childhood and adulthood and sent to mature in the sands of the desert.

I strive to learn about the daily lives of teenagers in the Japanese internment camps, and the ways in which they preserved their ambitions and character during those painful years.

But what about the teenagers, much like the ones I know now? With no side streets to explore and no tight-knit friend groups to talk to, how did we keep our sanity?



Many described the days being hot and indistinguishable, with school being the only thing to pass the time.

Well, you know, all I remember is that in the summertime we just knocked around, tried to find a shady spot and go to the river as often as we could. –Eiko Shibayama

Tasks such as household chores and homework were attempts to drown out the monotony of camp life.


School was by far the most time-consuming event of interned teenagers' lives, but was attendance enforceable by instructors and principals? What happened when students were placed in an environment where education was suddenly not disciplined?

The classes were held just like regular schools, however the instructors were volunteers who genuinely cared about learning.

The schools held events such as fashion shows, movie showings, and dances to foster a community within their walls. Nearly all of the school events were coordinated by students.

Before there was any formal school set up, there were quite a number of the Japanese students who were seniors. So they kinda took over and they corralled us young people and tried to make us study because we didn't finish our school year. -Matsue Watanabe

Students themselves had to take initiative over their own education, as there were no disciplinary figures to even enforce the creation of a school.

Certain schools managed to gain access to musical equipment, in which students could form ensembles or bands and play to entertain both themselves and other camp internees. They managed to obtain instruments from saxophones to cellos to grand pianos.

The traditional structure of the Japanese-American family was upturned during the duration of the camps, so teenagers found themselves unrestrained by their once-authoritative parents.

No internee in the camp, no matter the age, could enforce disciplinary action upon students who performed badly or failed to show up for class--the only real authority rested in the hands of the guards, who cared little about the education of internees. The responsibility of classes now laid solely in the hands of the student.

Jack Kubota discusses his flailing grades in camp, mentioning that the only people who were angered by them were his parents. He also said that he ran wild a a kid, and joined the boys in the camp in activities such as sports and fighting. http://bit.ly/2RJNAMw

"“I always remember I lived in Block 26 and we could never win any games, we didn't have much athletic talent, but we could always win the fights afterwards because most of our guys were from the L.A. area”."


While exploring the Utah State Library digital history collections, searching for items regarding the Topaz Relocation Center, I discovered a fully archived copy of the camp’s school yearbook. Titled “Ramblings”, it was an beautiful and comprehensive book that followed the journey of its students throughout the politically tumultuous year.

What surprised me upon my first read was how nearly identical it was to a normal school yearbook--there were no references to the internment camp, or to the bristling animosity of the American public. Instead, it entirely focused on the achievements of the Japanese-American teenagers during the school year, and lauded the faculty and volunteers for their hard work.

“We would look on Education as a life philosophy, whose purpose is boldly to oppose things which are destructive of the American ideal. Through Education we would seek to attain the ultimate end, which is to eliminate from ourselves the patterns of life which led us into this war. We, as molders of a better tomorrow, should strive indelibly to impress upon all young people a desire for truth and the inevitable enlightenment which accompanies it. To this ideal, we dedicate our annual.” --Ramblings, Dedication Page


Students were in charge of construction projects in the camps, such as building churches, medical centers, and nurseries. Even the hard labor was performed by middle and high school students in the heat of the day.

Games such as basketball and baseball gave students a chance to exercise, and there were also sports teams for activities such as soccer.

Reading the Dedication page shook their reality into a frame for me--these individuals brought together by a fearful and ignorant public, under the worst of circumstances, were still able to create something beautiful.

diary of grace morimoto

Although I understood the daily antics of teenagers slightly more, I still couldn’t quite understand how they could possibly spend away 12 hours of their day for as many as three years. None of the interview subjects went into detail about their routine in the camps, likely because their experience was half a century ago, so I started to look for old journals and diary entries from the relocation centers long ago. I stumbled upon a series of typewritten entries written by a girl called Grace Morimoto, where I was able to glimpse into a routine week in 1943.

passing the time

Morimoto described attending school events like fashion shows, and movie showings, all put together by the ingenuity and innovation of students.

She spent most of her night doing household chores and homework to keep herself busy--she took camp school as seriously as a normal institution.

Simple pleasures were taken away in the camps, such as eating candy after dinner and having popsicles during a hot day.

camp relationships

Eiko Shibayama

I think, we didn't eat with our family very much. We weren't able to talk with them all the time. If they were there, you didn't communicate that much. So when we came back to the island after the war, I thought, kinda... we lost that family feeling.

Whereas before parents could strictly regulate when their children could leave and spend time with their friends, now they had no control due to the power imbalance.

Younger people found their parents powerless in the camps, and thus often spent the whole day away from home.

The internment camps allowed teenagers who were previously confined to academics and extracurriculars to exercise freedom and develop close bonds with their camp friends.

Intercourse between minors was much more common in the camps, as groups of friends were often left under no supervision and romantics served as a way to pass the time.

Many often described their friend groups having long conversations under the stars at night, as they had all come from different backgrounds and had much to learn about each other.


When looking for more visual material inside the J. Paul Leonard Library digital collections at San Francisco State University, I found a digital publication of a scrapbook titled “Out of the Desert”. It was compiled of everything from inked artwork to short poems, by dozens of teenagers throughout the relocation centers.

Hiroshi Omura's poem was one of many featured in the scrapbook, and he ends with a stanza from Robert Frost that romanticizes his "past" life in the city of San Francisco, before the furor of Pearl Harbor. The senior is musing about how quickly his life changed from gold to dust, and how he can see its transformation as the dust from the desert basin shimmers in the light of the orange sunset.
The poetry in the scrapbook was very conscientious with respect to the political climate, and many teenagers wrote about the American ideal and how it pertained to their situation. There were very few poems that portrayed the United States in a negative light--despite their situation, the writers in the book were hopeful for the future.

Visuals, stories, and poems from interned Japanese teenagers across the nation were featured in the book.

The poetry was a reminder of the vast isolation and displacement the teenagers felt as a result of the move, especially those torn from close friend groups and well-defined lives.

At camps like Manzanar, where there were upwards of 10,000 people, there were sizeable communities and bodies of students, but there was likely a large geographical and social divide between adolescents at any camp.

Surely there were lonely teenagers who spent evenings looking out over the cactus-speckled desert basin and stargazing under the framed Sierra Nevada mountains--in such a strangely sequestered environment, it would have been surreally quiet at night after people in the camp fell asleep.

I remember my own experience camping in the Agua Caliente desert as a child, and on some evenings me and my best friend would hike up a trail slightly away from the rest of the campsite. Up there, the noise from below was drowned out by a rippling wind, and we would watch the pearly moon rise in front of the lavender sky, peppered with shimmering stars. I’ll always remember our talks up there, marveling at the size of the empty plain sprawled out in front of us, and squealing with delight at the sight of shooting stars. I can only imagine that teenagers in the camps would have done the same, with nothing else to do on quiet nights but listen to the wind of the desert, reflect on their past, and wonder about their future.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a copyright violation, please follow the DMCA section in the Terms of Use.