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Internment Camps In America

World War II Incarceration of Japanese Americans in Contemporary Community and Public Memory 

The cedar “story wall” at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.


Internment Camps In America In The Past Within Us, historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki inquires, “How do we pass on our knowledge of the past from one generation to the next?”1 This question is central to understanding the preservation of histories of silenced groups, such as those Japanese Americans subjected to incarceration during World War II. In the absence of empowering social and political circumstances in the decades after the war, Japanese Americans were almost denied the possibility to pass their history on to the next generation by the US government, the general American public, and by constraints within their own communities.

At first, collective awareness of the incarcerations outside of the Japanese American community were based almost entirely on a narrative constructed by the US government designed to justify its actions. Only decades later, with the triumph of the Redress Movement, did Japanese Americans acquire the means to narrate their own experiences, effectively reclaiming their history. The manner in which the Japanese American World War II experience is embedded into community and public memory today is inextricably linked to the hardships the ethnic group faced after the war, individual and community efforts within the Japanese American community to shed light upon their experiences, and the political realities of each subsequent decade. Both community and public memory of the experience have also been significantly influenced by the technological, social and political developments of the new millennium. 

“Sites of Memory” 

Map of World War II Japanese American internment camps.png

Today, the memory of Japanese American incarceration is preserved within a diverse range of “sites of memory” to be passed on to coming generations. First conceived and popularized by French historian Pierre Nora’s three-volume Realms of Memory, “sites of memory” are “deliberate attempts to limit forgetfulness and establish a sense of historical continuity.”2 Nora explains that sites of memory “originate with the sense that there is no spontaneous memory.” Thus, we must deliberately record history because we feel it is our duty to prevent it from perishing.3

The starting point for their creation is “the will to remember:” thus, it follows that the histories that are preserved in these sites are selected as “worthy of remembrance” by a group of people.4 Today these sites include media, museums, organizations, remembrance days, memorials, oral testimonies, historical sites and educational curricula. The stories of individuals are building blocks for sites of memory, and as scholar David Thelen notes in “Memory and American History,” “the starting place for the construction of an individual recollection is a present need or circumstance.”5

In the seventy-five years since the closing of the concentration camps, following an interplay between the social and political backdrops of different decades, Japanese American individuals’ stories evolved from a collective silence to the emergence of personal testimonies, then discussion and debate within their ethnic community memory, and finally into the realm of public memory.6 Thelen also notes that “the memory of past experiences is… profoundly intertwined with the basic identities of individuals, groups, and cultures,” a phenomenon which became visible as Japanese Americans began to produce public memory more assertively in response to the increase in ethnic pride within both their families and communities.7It was a gradual emergence and strengthening of the community’s “will to remember” that embedded their stories in sites of memory. Thus, it is impossible to examine the memory of Japanese American incarceration today separate from the history through which it evolved. 

Silence and Fragmentation 

Dust storm at the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

As traumatic and uncomfortable histories often are, especially those that call government policy into question, the incarceration of Japanese Americans was a topic silenced within both the ethnic community itself and the American public for decades. The term “historiography of oblivion,” defined by Morris-Suzuki as a presentation of history meant “not simply to ‘revise’ understandings of the past, but specifically to obliterate the memory of certain events from public consciousness,” can be directly applied to the silence surrounding incarceration.8

Amid the repressive social and political realities of the post-war years, Japanese American victims were generally silent, which allowed the perpetrators of their incarceration to foster a narrative convenient for them by publically presenting hand-picked testimonies.9 Sociologist Tetsuden Kashima has noted that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade and the Cold War, which characterized the US political circumstances from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, resulted in “a national attitude that discouraged criticism of the government.”10 

After WWII ended and the camps were closed, the children born in the US to Japanese-born immigrants, known as the Nisei, encountered immense difficulties finding homes and jobs, most often having lost their old homes and businesses. Faced with intense hostility from most communities, they needed to tend to basic concerns for personal and family safety.

Exacerbated by inflammatory West Coast newspaper headlines such as “Japanese Return to Cause Trouble, Californians Fear,” prejudice manifested itself through direct violence, including cases of arson, firebombing and shooting at homes.11 Under these distressing circumstances, the Nisei occupied themselves with securing the best possible future for their children in a nation with a history of racialized, discriminatory policies. A dedication to hard work in an attempt to prove themselves “good American citizens” took precedence over discussion of their traumatic experience, rebuilding fragmented ethnic communities, and confronting the US government’s injustices.12 

Indeed, the postwar Japanese American experience was defined by a silence surrounding the community’s wartime experiences and fragmentation. During the war, the Japanese American community was divided by competing views on military service, the US government, and protest in the camps. Its lack of communication prompted further community disintegration after the war. Conversations about their wartime experience that did occur, as Jeanne Wakatsuki, recounted, were “superficial,” as “people didn’t know how to talk about it.”13General silence on the topic within the wider American community, too, fostered feelings of shame and frustration for the Nisei; former incarcerate Dan Hayashi explained that “the fact… that nobody wanted to talk about it gave [him] a message that there was something to be ashamed about.”14

Silence characterized approaches to the topic even within the family unit; the Nisei were unsure of how to approach stories of their experience with their children. Some believed that their children would not be interested in hearing their stories. Others felt a sense of shame about being imprisoned. Their experiences too painful to recount, they hoped that they could forget them with time. All were worried about burdening their children. In turn, the Niseis’ children, known as the Sansei, refrained from asking questions out of consideration for their parents.15 The silence and “success stories” of Japanese Americans rebuilding their lives and becoming relatively economically affluent seemed to verify the US government’s narrative and promoted the “model minority” myth. Based on stereotypes, the model minority myth characterized Asian Americans across the US as a quiet, law-abiding demographic with high levels of educational achievement and socioeconomic success.

General office in the high school at Rohwer

This myth was promoted to mask the postwar struggles of Japanese Americans and allowed the government to justify their failure to aid the community in its resettlement and reintegration, take initiatives against systemic racism, and provide official redress for incarceration. Moreover, the social and political atmosphere of the early postwar period did not provide a climate in which Japanese Americans could share their wartime experiences, both within their community and with wider American society, or challenge the government narrative. 

An avoidance of addressing Japanese American incarceration permitted the US government to evade taking responsibility for its violation of both habeas corpus and the civil liberties of its citizens and residents for decades. It even provided the government a convenient means to discourage other minority groups from protesting against racial discrimination. The US government asserted that Japanese Americans had become successful after the war because of their wartime cooperation, their exceptionally hard work as they re-assimilated, and their silence surrounding their incarceration, misconstrued as a quick recovery from the crisis.16

This narrative, promoted from the closing of the camps up until the 1960s was not written by the people who had actually experienced the history. Instead, the US government promulgated a politically expedient history which “minimized the extent of suffering and resistance among incarcerees, emphasized stories of military service and overstated ‘recovery’ of former incarcerees embracing opportunities for assimilation after the war.”17 

Stories of exceptional bravery within the all-Nisei 442nd Regiment were specifically hand-picked in support of the model minority myth. The Regiment was sent to fight in especially treacherous battles in WWII, and remains the most decorated unit for its size in US military history.18

Its legacy, however, normalized the idea that Japanese Americans needed to work much harder than other groups to be deemed worthy of praise. This narrative is visible in Go for Broke!, a 1951 Hollywood film directed by Robert Pirosh. The film presents the loyalty and patriotism of the 442nd all-Nisei Regiment as they bravely fought in Europe, while their families remained behind the barbed wires of concentration camps in America. The title, Go for Broke, is a reference to the unit’s motto, which signified putting everything on the line in an effort to secure a big victory.

Although it reflected the soldiers’ commendable bravery in the face of severe discrimination, it also connoted the disproportionate efforts Japanese Americans had to exert to be considered worthy of recognition. The soldiers knew that their actions would be considered representative of their whole ethnic group and thus carried the weight of battling the prejudice inflicted upon their incarcerated families. The story is told from the perspective of a white lieutenant, who is prejudiced against the Japanese American soldiers under his command but gains a deep respect and admiration for them by the end of the movie.19

The director intended to invoke this change in attitude from a white American audience. Thus, the movie prompted a nationwide recognition of Japanese American military achievement during World War II, yet it did not raise questions about why the soldiers needed to become the most decorated unit in American history to earn respect and admiration. Its narrative normalized the fact that the soldiers had to risk their lives to prove their loyalty to a white audience, even after having their civil liberties taken away. Indeed, Go For Broke! remained one of the only mainstream portrayals of the Japanese American wartime experience until the 1960s. 

The film’s influence is noteworthy because of the general public’s tendency to rely on popular media, rather than formal academic sources for their exposure to historical events.20 Along with the government emphasis on ‘success stories,’ Go for Broke! constituted the crux of public memory of the Japanese American wartime experience for two decades. It became natural for the vast majority of the general public to accept the government’s narrative without much hesitation as a result of what historian David Fischer calls the “fallacy of negative proof.”21It is easy for people to adopt the belief that events did not occur if there is a complete lack of conversation about them, especially if a topic is omitted from standard educational curricula.22 

It was only the rise of civil rights movements during the 1960s that brought forward an impetus to break the silence surrounding Japanese American incarceration and provide the public with new narratives. As Ueno Chizuko explains in “The Politics of Memory,” the experience of silenced groups in the aftermath of traumatic events is often widely known; however, what changes as the years go by and the issues become publicly discussed is “the way that [the facts are] perceived.”23 The social and political milieu of the 1960s and 70s created a “new consciousness on the part of historical victims and their descendants that their demands for justice be heard and addressed.”24Inspired by activists in the Civil Rights, Black Power and antiwar movements, the Sansei, accompanied by a few progressive Nisei, became vocal in their criticism of the model minority myth. They realized that they needed to confront repressed memories that were psychologically damaging to both generations and perpetuated victimization.25 Former incarcerees became more inclined to share their memories with the rest of the Japanese American community and were encouraged by community events such as pilgrimages to former camps and Day of Remembrance programs.26In this way, the increased participation in “sites of memory” prompted the creation of even more. 

A baseball game at Manzanar. Picture by Ansel Adams, c. 1943.

The Sansei, many of whom went to college by the 1960s, were exposed to campus activism, which led them to critically question their parents’ silence. 27 They began doubting the government-sanctioned values of “assimilation” and their parents’ determination to raise them as “true Americans.” As noted by Alice Murray, they were especially “appalled by the way the mainstream media interpreted their parents’ silence as evidence of success and acceptance.” 28

The Sansei’s awareness that their parents and grandparents’ stories were silenced for decades frustrated them, fostering within them a desire to ensure that their stories would be heard. Intergenerational dialogue between the Nisei and Sansei, stimulated by the Redress Movement, provided the latter with knowledge of their family and community history, strengthened their ethnic pride, and inspired them to continue the struggle against discrimination. This rise of ethnic pride also prompted a reunification of the Japanese American community, bolstering a movement for formal government apology and financial compensation. It also allowed for wider communication on how the community wanted to preserve their history within the public sphere.

The Redress Era 

Boy Scouts at the Granada War Relocation Center raise the flag to half-mast during a memorial service for the first six Nisei soldiers from this Center who were killed in action in Italy. The service was attended by 1,500 Amache internees. August 5, 1944.

In the shifting global environment of the 1980s, politicians around the world were pressured to address their nations’ past wrongdoings. This global context was another factor which made Redress more urgent than ever. As explained by historian Elazar Barkan, two driving forces for national apologies were a new emphasis on morality and the global scale of outreach that new information technologies provided to peoples with grievances.29 The release of large numbers of formerly classified documents via the Freedom of Information Act in the 1980s, which publicized the explicitly discriminatory intentions of the wartime government, also played a crucial role in encouraging Redress. The Nisei began to grasp the gravity of the injustice they were subjected to, as well as the difference they could make by sharing their experiences and joining the campaign for Redress. 

The Civil Rights Movement bolstered the historical revisionist approach, which emphasized instances of dissent and resistance and redefined the notions of loyalty and patriotism. The work of historians in the 1970s brought to light wartime experiences overlooked in face of preserving a traditionalist grand narrative of America’s democracy and patriotism. However, the passage of Redress in the deeply conservative climate of the 1980s Congress required a strategic emphasis on narratives of military heroism by activists and policymakers hoping to produce change. Thus, despite the emergence of new histories, traditionalist historical approaches remained prominent in public consciousness too. 

This strategic emphasis produced successful results as the Redress movement culminated in President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act on August 10, 1988. The act granted each living incarceree $20,000 of compensation and articulated a formal apology for the “fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry.”30

Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor Eric Foner on the Civil War

As articulated by Japanese cultural anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa in her book Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity, “for both generations [of Japanese Americans], redress had a double significance: it repaired their own psychological damage and financial loss and it corrected an injustice and a violation of the Constitution.”31 No longer having to devote their energy to the social and economic survival of their families while striving for Redress, Japanese Americans could now more easily afford to listen to each other’s testimonies and reflect upon what caused fragmentation and misunderstanding within their community. An understanding that the preservation of their shared history would further strengthen their community grew. As theorized by David Thelen, the new political reality combined with the growth of ethnic pride displayed that change in personal and community identity significantly influences the construction of memory.32 

The Redress Era thus created an environment in which revisionist narratives could finally be presented to the public without restraint; the necessity of presenting narratives to satisfy a conservative government disappeared. As articulated by civil rights activist Noriko Sawada Bridges, narratives could now “portray the truth as [Japanese Americans] see it.” 33Activists were able to move away from the pervasive characterization of Japanese American history as “the saga of the Nisei soldiers” and diversify portrayals of experience that were presented to the public through new sites of memory.34

An emphasis was placed on bringing forward stories of resistance in camps and presenting them as legitimate and widespread responses to unconstitutional mass incarceration. These stories are presented in John Howard’s monograph Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow.35 Published in 2008, the book focuses on the WRA camps of Jerome and Rohwer, placing the Japanese American experience into a wide history of discrimination in the US and illuminating stories of hardships faced by women, immigrants and resistors to Exectuvie Order 9066. This is just one significant example of a “site of memory” that challenged one-dimensional representations of heroism, loyalty and patriotism; not only were these stories brought to light, but they were also presented as heroic for fighting against unconstitutional actions and the values of American democracy. 

Escaping the confines of intergenerational dialogue in families and discussion within ethnic communities, conversations about the meaning and legacy of incarceration finally entered the public sphere. Since the Redress Movement, collective memory of Japanese American incarceration has been cultivated in increasingly empowering political and social circumstances with a growing public awareness of the multi-dimensionality of experiences and harm done by the government narrative that had prevailed for decades.

Two major federal and state funding programs also sparked an immense growth of media projects and scholarship on Japanese American incarceration. The Civil Liberties Act established the federal Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which provided a means for memory of the experience to be preserved in ways the Japanese American community felt were best. In 2009, Congress also appropriated $1 million for the first year of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. The Grant Program is designed to provide “funds to private nonprofit organizations; educational institutions; state, local, and tribal governments; and other public entities working towards the preservation and interpretation of historic confinement sites.”36

The funding programs also became a means for the US government to provide what scholar Gi-Wook Shin terms “thick” reconciliation, or a full restoration of peaceful relations through congressional action and institutional change. Beyond providing an ambiguously-worded apology, as governments have done historically when seeking to avoid direct confrontations with past injustices, the US government has bolstered its official apology by providing the Japanese American community with a platform to overwrite racist historical narratives.37 These initiatives served as a significant step towards repairing the relationship between the Japanese American community and the nation as a whole. Finally, feeling that their stories were supported on a national level, even more former incarcerees shared their experiences and contributed to public education efforts.

The Preservation of Japanese American History in Sites of Memory 

A monument at Manzanar, “to console the souls of the dead”

In her article “Contested Places in Public Memory,” Gail Lee Dubrow argues that “insider accounts have not merely added more facts about Japanese Americans to the historical record; instead, they have re-shaped public understandings of American history.”38 New testimonies brought the diverse range of experiences of the formerly ostracized groups of draft resistors, the “no-no boys,” and protestors to the forefront.39Increased public understanding of why these people chose to make the decisions that they did allowed their stigmatization to slowly recede. New awareness that the postwar “success stories” were largely inaccurate prompted the wider American public to acknowledge the oppressive nature of the model minority myth. 

Histories of resistance created an increasing public awareness that the US government had acted unconstitutionally and had evaded responsibility and apology for decades. While experiences differed from camp to camp and family to family, new testimonies clearly demonstrated that the experiences of a select few cannot not be viewed as representation of a whole ethnic group. Thus, Dubrow’s argument certainly holds true; the way the Japanese American experience is perceived by the public has progressed. 

Notable sites of memory that focus on the diversity of experiences include the documentaries Rabbit in the Moon, Conscience and the Constitution and the Only What We Could Carry anthology. Rabbit in the Moon, an Emmy Award-winning 1999 documentary by filmmaker Emiko Omori, provided a platform for former incarcerees to speak openly on topics that were formerly considered taboo.

Furthermore, it gave the public substantial insight into key aspects of wartime Japanese American history: the fragmentation of the ethnic communities during and after the war, the breakdown of families, the loss of ethnic pride, the refusal to respond to the loyalty questionnaire, the frustrations with euphemistic language, the Japanese American Citizens League’s wartime cooperation with the government authorities and the families’ repatriation to Japan. 40

Continuing Omori’s efforts, producer Frank Abe, noticing that a history of organized resistance was absent from the resources he had access to when learning about his ethnic experience, was inspired to create a documentary detailing the story of the draft resistance movement at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. Abe’s project received a $100,000 grant from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. Debuting in 2000, the film Conscience and the Constitution received a national PBS broadcast and became a recipient of numerous national awards.41

Published in 2000, Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience is an anthology of primary sources and commentaries. The sources include oral histories, poetry, artwork, official documents, diaries and excerpts from memoirs detailing the experiences of those who served in the military, draft resisters, and non-incarcerees associated with the incarcerations. Uniquely, the book also presents the experience of persons of Japanese ancestry in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.42 

The advent of electronic technology also had a tremendous influence on the way public memory of Japanese American experience has been constructed and presented. The rapid technological development of the past two decades has created a massive proliferation of access to information. The Internet became a new and unique site of memory, providing unprecedented access to enormous amounts of information.

People around the world today can easily read histories they are interested in without having to physically visit museums and historical sites or sort through academic archives. Informational websites often incorporate interactive elements that allow audiences to engage with the information they learn by sharing their responses to the topic and reading the responses of others. Technology is now used in interactive museum exhibits; an awareness of the countless new possibilities provided by modern technology has influenced many curators to abandon the standard conventions of static exhibits for passive and silent viewing. Overall, technological developments have provided audiences with the ability to interact with the information they are being presented, which allows them to better process and empathize with stories of Japanese American experiences. 

Historian Gail Lee Dubrow suggests that, “perhaps the most ambitious attempt to connect oral histories of the internment with public audiences is the Seattle-based Densho Project.”43 

U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 in August 1988, which granted reparations for the internment of Japanese Americans.

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a non-profit organization started in 1996 with the initial goal of preserving oral testimonies. The project expanded through the years and its mission statement today is “to preserve and share the history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice […].”44 Densho’s online Encyclopedia presents a colossal digital archive of primary sources, detailing a wide variety of key concepts, people, events, and organizations related to the incarceration experience.

One can find a collection of over 900 video interviews with former incarcerees, along with testimonies from non-Japanese American witnesses. In 2017, the organization launched their “Resource Guide to Media,” and a directory was created to provide educators seeking materials for their curricula with an organized database. Nonetheless, this database can be utilized by anyone hoping to expand their knowledge on the Japanese American experience.45 The careful organization and free access of this vast amount of resources on a single database greatly contributes to the visibility of the Japanese American wartime experience. However, it is also likely such databases are accessed primarily by those who already have an established interest in the topic; awareness of the history must be established before certain sites of memory enter the public realm. 

Digital applications and mediums intended for popular audiences also provided a platform for the spread of awareness of the incarceration experience. The creation of Youtube in 2005 played an immense role; documentaries, testimonies, speeches, and short films are now freely available and only a click away. The “HiHo Kids” channel, for example, started their Kids Meet series, in which children meet and have a conversation with people of varied experiences and worldviews.

Their six minute video “Kids Meet a Survivor of the Japanese-American Internment” received an impressive 1.1 million views. The video shows that, despite the children’s young age and the fact that they are not acquainted with the intricacies of World War II and US policy, they clearly understand the notions of what is just and unjust, empathize with the former incarcerees, quickly identify the racism of incarceration, and pose thoughtful questions about the contemporary implications of this history.46

To the wide viewership of the channel, this video provided some insight into the former incarcerees’ preferred use of terminology and their efforts to spread awareness about the history of racism in America in hopes of avoiding a similar situation for minorities today. It also illuminated how important communication about the incarcerations is, particularly within school curricula. For those who may not be inclined to view a long documentary, or even a historical fiction movie, short videos such as this one can serve as an introduction to an important topic and inspire them to learn more, at which point they could turn to the substantial resources provided by websites like Densho. 

The findings of contemporary studies on effective learning styles transformed the way many museum curators approach their exhibits. Additionally, rather than presenting prescriptive views, recent exhibits have been curated to encourage visitors to both think about how history and memory are shaped and contribute their own memories and thoughts. “The Defining Courage Experience” exhibition by the Go for Broke National Education Center, opened to the public in Los Angeles in 2016, is an example of a holistic and interactive exhibit. It represents a culmination of decades of Japanese American activism, combined with modern curating approaches.

The exhibit incorporates a range of electronic technologies to appeal to the “tech-savvy” millennial generation.47 The experience begins with a calm and joyful atmosphere, which abruptly switches to a simulated shock upon hearing the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This exhibit is followed by the presentation of a comprehensive history of racism in the United States. The history of Japanese American discrimination is shown alongside a comprehensive history of other minorities in the US whose “rights have been violated in the name of national security.” 48

The US government’s discriminatory policies of the past are presented alongside contemporary news articles reflecting on the same trends today. A sense of immediacy is created by establishing direct parallels with the contemporary discrimination of Muslim Americans.

Next, the immense power of propaganda in influencing public opinion is displayed through a collection of hands-on activities: creating one’s own propaganda poster and seeing how easily meaning can be changed, an engaging matching game for younger visitors, and an activity allowing each visitor to attempt to distinguish propaganda from fact. After this, visitors are placed “into the shoes of Japanese Americans who lived during World War II.” They are challenged to make decisions on military service and the loyalty questionnaire on a touch screen, while reading stories about specific individuals who had to make the exact same choices in the 1940s.49 

The exhibit provides a chance for each visitor to create a mini-documentary, compelling them to think about how they would present the complexity and relevance of the Japanese American history to a modern audience. The visitors gain an awareness of the challenges of presenting history to the public and are encouraged to reflect on the narratives shaped by their own historical perceptions.

The focal point of the exhibit is an art piece created from visitors’ responses to a question of the month; it allows guests to contribute their own thoughts and read the thoughts of others, illustrating how a greater picture of history is achieved from a collection of individual approaches. When a visitor has completed a tour of the exhibit, they arrive at a space where they can contemplate what they have learned and converse with other visitors. It reminds the visitors that conversation is what brought Japanese American history forward from silence, highlighting the importance of dialogue in processing difficult and traumatic topics in general. The final component is a “Wall of Heroes,” which features the accomplishments of both veterans and dissenters, as well as the non-Japanese Americans who played a role in helping the incarcerees.50

The display of the stories, accentuated in traditional and revisionist representations alongside each other, reflects that the social and political milieu of the twenty-first century allows us to view the Japanese American experience as a multi-dimensional whole. The exhibit highlights that all wartime experiences are interlaced and play an equal part in telling the ethnic group’s story, thereby promoting a reconciliation between the historically opposed traditionalist and revisionist representations. 

Another important development in the framework of public memory about incarceration has to do with the language utilized to describe the experience. Many within the Japanese American community felt that in order to convey their stories to the general public with accuracy, they needed to use the vocabulary that truthfully described the removals they were subjected to and the establishments they were confined in. Criticism of the reference to confinement sites as relocation, evacuation, and internment camps grew after the Redress Era. Activists pushed for the abandonment of the euphemistic language used by the racist officials who carried out Order 9066 to “control public perceptions” and “obscure the unconstitutional nature of [forced removals].”51

Debates about the terminology utilized to describe the incarcerations and camps culminated in the Japanese American Citizens League’s Power of Words Resolution of 2010. In 2013, the JACL created a handbook detailing the history of euphemisms used by the government to “control public perceptions” about the incarcerations and “obscure the unconstitutional nature” of government policy. It then identifies the terms which provide a more accurate description, along with explanations why.

The handbook recommends that “forced removal” be used in place of “evacuation,” “relocation” and “incarceration” rather than “internment,” “temporary detention center” instead of “assembly center,” and “American concentration camp,” or “incarceration camp” in the place of “relocation center.”52 This document presented another means for Japanese Americans to reclaim their own history, and this vocabulary is increasingly used in new sites of memory. By acknowledging the harsh conditions and illegality of the confinements, these sites ensure that the history preserved is much more representative of the experiences. 

Annual pilgrimages to former concentration camps became another building block for the creation and preservation of memory. The first pilgrimage occurred in 1969 when 150 people drove to Manzanar in the hopes of learning about the former incarcerees’ experience and honoring them and their hardships.53 This first pilgrimage garnered substantial media coverage, stimulating community discussion of internment.54

Pilgrimages to Manzanar became an annual event and a catalyst for pilgrimages to other camps.

Teacher Lily Namimoto and her second grade class

Organizations were formed to undertake initiatives to preserve the camps and furnish them as sites of memory with exhibits and documentaries to educate visitors. The pilgrimages proved to be an enormously powerful experience for younger generations of Japanese Americans because they provided an opportunity to establish an intimate connection with their ancestors’ history. For the former incarcerees, these pilgrimages provide a chance to relive and reflect on their experiences, often providing relief for their trauma.

Younger generations often visit the sites with older generations; reliving their family history together serves as an especially valuable experience for many Japanese American families. Speeches and ethnic ceremonies presented at most pilgrimages continue to strengthen ethnic pride, unity and understanding. All of these elements encourage a continuation of efforts to preserve this history. 

Sites of memory concerning incarceration in the 2000s and 2010s began to encompass broader scopes; shifting away from an exclusive focus on wartime experience, they also detail pre- and post-incarceration histories. The Japanese American experience is now commonly situated in the context of a comprehensive history of racism in the United States. In this way, solidarity with other minority groups and reflections on general issues of racism in America are promoted by the new ways in which internment memories are framed. This holistic presentation is increasingly visible in the way that the subject is taught in school curricula.

The past two decades saw a rise in the coverage of Japanese American wartime experience in school programs across the US. In 2011, the Japanese American Citizens League issued their The Japanese American Experience Curriculum Guide, which thoroughly reflects the fruit of activists’ efforts for the public presentation of their history’s multi-dimensionality. The guide begins with a detailed historical overview recounting the Japanese American experience from 1848 until the passage of the Redress legislation, including a section on Japanese incarceration in Latin America. The Japanese American World War II experience is thus placed in a comprehensive context of both relations between Japan and the US and early US attitudes on immigration, revealing what “influenced the manner in which the Japanese in the US were treated.”55 A section on “Civil Liberties in Crisis” places the Japanese-American incarceration into a context 

with other groups whose civil liberties have been violated by the US government; it details the Alien and Sedition Acts, habeas corpus in the American Civil War, the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids, the War on Terror’s impact on Muslim Americans, and 9/11. Finally, the guide also provides a lengthy list of topical resources with abstracts, categorized according to media type.56 

Nevertheless, even today, sites of memory focusing primarily on military heroism, loyalty and patriotism remain a part of public memory. The millennium began with President Bill Clinton’s awarding of the Medal of Honor to 20 members of the 442nd Regiment and the 100th battalion in a highly publicized White House ceremony. He remarked that the veterans’ heroism “did much more than prove they were Americans”; it made the “nation more American.” 57

Undoubtedly, the rhetoric Clinton employed during his speech was significant in shaping public memory of the Japanese American wartime experience, especially bearing in mind the magnitude of the event’s audience. The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington, D.C. was erected in 2000 with a similar imbalanced focus on military service and patriotism. The monument’s inscriptions include the names of the ten concentration camps with a number of incarcerated individuals under each, the names of those who were killed in military service, as well as quotes from key figures in the Japanese American wartime history.

The inclusion of an excerpt from former JACL leader, Mike Masaoka’s Japanese American Creed, which “identifies patriotism with government cooperation,” raised significant controversy. The monument completely omits the bravery of those who resisted imprisonment and the draft. It also recognizes Masaoka as a “civil rights activist,” while consensus on this title does not exist in the Japanese American community. This prompted the critics to create a website,, with the goal of “making certain that the collective recollection of Japanese Americans is representative of the diversity of [their] entire community” and establishing their stance that “those who courageously endured the camps and those who resisted” should be honored alongside those who served. Although the monument remains as is today, the activists’ efforts culminated in a “a formal apology to the resisters for failing to recognize their loyalty” by the JACL.58

It is also possible to imagine that there will be a shift away from such sites of memory in the future as awareness of the diversity of experiences grows within the general American public. 
Lt. Eugene Bogard, commanding officer of the Army Registration team, explains the purpose of registration to a group of Japanese Americans at Manzanar (February 11, 1943). All internees between the ages of 18 and 38 were compelled to register.[148]

On the other hand, prominent figures of Japanese American descent sometimes choose to focus on narratives of military history when recounting their experience to the public. In 2014, George Takei, a Star Trek actor of Japanese American descent, gave a TED Talk, “Why I Love a Country that Once Betrayed Me.” In his speech, he recounts the difficulties of his early childhood incarceration experience but also identifies the soldiers of the 442nd Regiment as his heroes for their bravery, loyalty and belief in the American ideals of democracy.59

His speech displays a continuity with older narratives; however, his statements can be interpreted differently in the contemporary context. The outpour of new sites of memory in the new millennium has brought forward an unprecedented collective awareness of the diversity in experience of former Japanese American incarcerees. A speech is a different “site of memory” than a presidential ceremony or a public monument; it is a personal testimony. Takei presents the story that he personally identifies with. In presenting his own childhood experience and explaining why those that served inspire him, he claims his own history.

Takei’s listeners now have access to an abundance of sites of memory that inform them of the histories of those who actively resisted, those who cooperated with the government and those who complied with orders and endured the injustice. This diversity of testimonies allows Japanese Americans today to truly discern their own stories and tell them as they are, without the pressure speaking for their entire ethnic community as was expected of the 442nd during World War II. With the knowledge that other praiseworthy achievements exist, military valor can be recognized and celebrated in its own right. 

Contemporary Parallels with the Muslim American Community 

Japanese American Memorial (Eugene, Oregon).

With the start of the new millennium, the growth of “sites of memory” preserving the Japanese American experience gained significant momentum resulting from the impact of 9/11 and the consequent rise of anti-Muslim sentiment. A consciousness of the dangers of mass hysteria and the tragic results of targeting specific ethnic groups in exclusionary immigration-reform proposals inspired scholarship on the Japanese American experience post-Pearl Harbor in hopes to avoid these mistakes today.60

The heightened awareness of the general multi-dimensionality of historical experiences in today’s society allowed the Japanese American community’s focus to shift from preserving their history onto emphasizing what many draw to be the “lesson” of their incarceration and their difficulties in the postwar decades: “Never again.” In the contemporary political climate the legacy of the tragic results of targeting specific ethnic groups in exclusionary immigration-reform proposals is especially relevant. This relevance has been highlighted by several prominent voices of the Japanese American community and by the annual joint pilgrimages to the Manzanar National Historic site with members of the Muslim American community. 

Mas Hashimoto gave a Ted Talk on “Racism and America’s Concentration Camps” in 2018 in which he delineates the parallels between Japanese American incarcerations and the post 9/11 discrimination of Muslims in America. The Californian high school teacher’s speech has been able to garner almost 100,000 views. In his speech, Hashimoto recounts his experience when Executive Order 9066 was issued in 1942 and directly compares it to current immigration bans on predominantly-Muslim countries and post-9/11 islamophobia.

However, he notes that today “we have so many groups, and individuals, supporting what really is of true America, something we didn’t see in 1942.” He suggests that while the suspension of civil liberties might not occur “under the guise of military necessity” today, it is more important than ever for us to be aware of manifestations of discriminatory attitudes as they might not be as plainly visible. His overarching message is that “it’s up to us, all of us, to work in peace, and harmony, compassion, to overcome hate and bigotry.”61

Thus, he appeals to the American public to learn about the history of racism in their country, empathize with former victims, be aware of escalations of discriminatory sentiment and put forward their best efforts to vocally combat them before they can be translated into legislation. 

George Takei promotes a very similar message in his 2017 op-ed “Internment, America’s Great Mistake” for The New York Times. He emphasizes the significance of continued efforts to preserve the Japanese American incarceration history and educate the younger generations to avoid a repetition of not only the cruelties they were subjected to during the war but also the immense difficulties and injustices they faced in the decades that followed.62 Takei and Hashimoto have created “sites of memory” which clearly deviate from past representations in their focus; their main focus is to shed light on what lessons can be drawn and directly applied to a contemporary issue. Moving forward from creating memory as a way to heal, these two speakers hope to combat racism nationwide and inspire others to do so. 

The Japanese American community has taken a clear stance of solidarity with Muslim American communities across the nation through joint pilgrimages to the Manzanar National Historic Site. These annual trips consolidate their allyship and solidarity with each other’s hardships. The two communities strengthen their connection by spending a few days at the site, honoring the former incarcerees, holding an interfaith ceremony, sharing their experiences and fostering discussion about the support they can continue to provide each other and other minority groups in the future. In this way, a site of memory preserving the Japanese American experience has initiated and cultivated a strong inter-community relationship between two ethnic groups. 


A basketball game at the Rohwer Relocation Center.

The long evolution of the Japanese American World War II experience within community and public memory exemplifies the difficulty of preserving traumatic histories. The possibility to reclaim their history and create new memories required a very specific combination of social and political circumstances which took decades to arrive. The unprecedented proliferation of sites of 

memory was made possible by federal funding, modern advances in technology and approaches to education, as well as rising concern with the parallels between the growth of Islamophobic sentiment. The possibilities to create sites of memory, their content and the audience that they draw all change as time goes by and social and political contexts shift. 

I have also displayed that the preservation of memories does much more than establish historical continuity. In conversation with David Thelen’s theories about the connection between memory and individuals, groups, and cultures, this paper proves that cultivation of memory can provide opportunities for healing on an individual level, shape and repair relationships within communities, foster inter-community solidarity and determine the relationship between an ethnic group and the nation state.

These social developments affected the final products of memory, which then became embedded into sites of memory. Additionally, memory can be used to manipulate population groups, as seen in government narratives crafted to avoid responsibility for injustices and discourage other minority groups from protesting. It can also be utilized as a political tool when framed in a context which brings to light contemporary injustices and is complemented by rhetoric to motivate action. For people outside an ethnic community, learning about their history brings them to a closer understanding of the community and culture. 

However, this paper also raises concerns about the preservation of ethnic histories outside of pressing circumstances. Had the Japanese American community not needed a restoration of unity and ethnic pride and if the US government had taken steps towards reconciliation immediately, it is possible that less effort would have been exerted to cultivate their history both today and in the past. It can be conjectured that without obvious contemporary parallels, the incarceration experience would probably not be as widely studied or discussed within the public realm.

These considerations have prompted me to contemplate the question, what makes the history of a specific ethnic community “matter” within the public realm? Is the preservation of ethnic histories most important to the members of that ethnic community, or is it only possible to consider the preservation “successful” if sites of memory garner substantial audiences within a national or global realm? While sites of memory as “deliberate attempts to limit forgetfulness and establish a sense of historical continuity” are certainly a key constituent in the preservation of memories of ethnic groups, they must be examined in a context of a wide contemporary public community which may not come into contact with these sites.63 

In conclusion, the history of Japanese American incarceration today is preserved in an abundance of astutely curated and accessible sites of memory, yet it is likely that a majority of the audience for sites of memory on Japanese American history consists of those with Japanese ancestry, those affiliated with the wartime experience or ethnic community and those with specific scholarly interest in the culture.

Documentaries and databases especially, which truly present the culmination of efforts to preserve the Japanese American experience in the way the community has fought to present it for decades, are unfortunately the least likely to reach mainstream audiences.

Despite their existence and accessibility, these sites of memory cannot be considered public memory unless they reach a much larger and more diverse audience. This issue is especially pertinent in regards to Morris-Suzuki’s question: “How do we pass on our knowledge of the past from one generation to the next?”64

She calls this the “crisis of history,” a modern reality in which “contemporary topics and practical skills” are prioritized over historical knowledge.65

However, the study of the creation of sites of memory does allow us to redefine the way we interact with history and gain fascinating insight on human values and tendencies, as groups realize that they have immense leverage in shaping how their histories are preserved. 

Written by Nadija Tokovic

Profile photo of Nadija Tokovic


1 Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History (New York: Verso, 2005), 6.

2 Pierre Nora and Lawrence D. Kritzman, eds., Realms of Memory. The Construction of the French Past (I-III): I. Conflicts and Divisions. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 9. 

3 Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7-24. 4 Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire,” 19. 

5 David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (1989): 1121.

6 The use of ‘concentration camps’ is the preferred and most accurate term which describes the nature of the WRA camps Japanese Americans were forcibly moved to during WWII. The more mainstream use of the term, ‘internment camps,’ is flawed because the legal definition of internment suggests that the Japanese Americans were enemy aliens and under the protection of the Geneva Conventions. 

7 Thelen, “Memory and American History,” 1117. 

8 Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, 8. 

9 Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, 8. 

10 Gail Lee Dubrow, “Contested Places in Public Memory: Reflections on Personal Testimony,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, eds., Oral History and Public Memories (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2008), 129–130. 

11 Starting Over: Japanese Americans After the War, dir. Dianne Fukami (San Mateo, CA: KSCM-TV, 1996), DVD 12 Starting Over: Japanese Americans After the War

13 Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 199. One of the only mainstream dramatic films centered on the Japanese American WWII experience. 

14 Yasuko I. Takezawa, Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 157. 

15 Takezawa, Breaking the Silence, 154-161. 

16 Murray, Historical Memories, 185. 

17 Murray, Historical Memories, 185. 

18 Franklin Odo, “442nd Regimental Combat Team,” Densho Encyclopedia,

19 Go for Broke!, dir. by Robert Pirosh (Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951), DVD. 6

20 Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, 16-17. 

21 David Fischer, Historians’Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 47-48. 

22 Daqing Yang, “The Challenges of the Nanjing Massacre: Reflections on Historical Inquiry,” in Joshua A. Fogel, ed., The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 146. 23 Chizuko Ueno, “The Politics of Memory: Nation, Individual and Self,” History & Memory 11, no. 2 (1999): 133. 

24 Murray, Historical Memories, 436. 

25 Starting Over: Japanese Americans After the War, dir. Dianne Fukami (San Mateo, CA: KSCM-TV, 1996), DVD. 26 Murray, Historical Memories, 187. 

27 Murray, Historical Memories, 201. 

28 Murray, Historical Memories, 203. 

29 Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000). 

30 Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Pub. L. No. 100–383, 102 Stat. 904 (1988). 

31 Takezawa, Breaking the Silence, 179. 

32 Thelen, “Memory and American History,” 1121. 

33 Murray, Historical Memories, 398. 

34 Murray, Historical Memories, 380. 

35 John Howard, Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 

36 U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, “A Year in Review: Preserving and Interpreting World War II Japanese-American Confinement Sites,” National Park Service (2010), 

37 Gi-Wook Shin, “Historical Reconciliation in Northeast Asia: Past Efforts, Future Steps, and the US Role,” in Daniel Chirot, Gi-Wook Shin, and Daniel Sneider, eds., Confronting Memories of WWII: European and Asian Legacies (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2014), 158.

38 Dubrow, “Contested Places in Public Memory,” 125.

39 The colloquial term for incarcerated Japanese Americans who answered ‘no’ to questions 27 and 28 on the “loyalty questionnaire” during World War II, and were thus labelled as disloyal, segregated from other detainees, and sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp. 

40 Rabbit in the Moon, dir. by Emiliko Omori (Wabi-Sabi, 1999), DVD. 

41 Frank Abe, “About Us,” Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration, accessed October 7, 2020,

42 Lawson Fusao Inada, ed., Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience (Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2000). 

43 Dubrow, “Contested Places in Public Memory,” 136. 

44 Tom Ikeda, “About Densho,” Densho, 1996, 

45 Tom Ikeda, The Densho Resource Guide to Media on the Japanese American Removal and Incarceration, Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, 2017,

46 HiHo Kids, “Kids Meet a Survivor of the Japanese-American Internment,” YouTube Video, 29 Nov 2018, Accessed 11 Nov 2020,

47 “Go For Broke National Education Center,” Quatrefoil, 2016,

48 Ken Ito, “Our Interpretive Exhibition – Go For Broke National Education Center’s Defining Courage Exhibition,” Go For Broke National Education Center, 2016,

49 Ito, “Our Interpretive Exhibition.” 

50 Ito, “Our Interpretive Exhibition.” 

51 Power of Words Handbook: A Guide to Language about Japanese Americans in World War II: Understanding Euphemisms and Preferred Terminology (San Francisco, CA: Japanese American Citizens League, 2013), 7. 

52 Power of Words Handbook, 7. 

53 “Who We Are,” Manzanar Committee, February 2, 2019,

54 Murray, Historical Memories, 210. 

55 Japanese American Citizens League, A Lesson in American History: The Japanese American Experience, 5th ed., Japanese American Citizens League, 2011. 23. 

56 Japanese American Citizens League, A Lesson in American History,

57 Murray, Historical Memories, 424. 

58 Shiho Imai, “Mike Masaoka,” Densho Encyclopedia,

59 George Takei, “Why I Love a Country That Once Betrayed Me,” filmed June 2014 at TedxKyoto, Kyoto, Japan, video,

60 Tom Ikeda, The Densho Resource Guide to Media on the Japanese American Removal and Incarceration (Seattle, WA: Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, 2017),

61 Mas Hashimoto, “Racism and America’s Concentration Camps,” filmed August 2017 at TEDxMeritAcademy, Santa Cruz, CA, video,

62 George Takei, “George Takei: Internment, America’s Great Mistake,” The New York Times, April 29, 2017,

63 Nora and Kritzman, eds., Realms of Memory,

64 Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, 6. 

65 Morris-Suzuki, The Past Within Us, 6. 


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