Topaz Internment Camp: Stories of Utah Women

Maren Peterson Digital Archives, History, Research Leave a Comment

Pearl Harbor and Alien Enemy Registration

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. was suspicious of Japanese citizens. They were afraid that those who had immigrated to the U.S. from Japan were secretly spies for their birth country. As tensions rose, people of Japanese descent were evacuated from the Pacific Coast due to fears of a coordinated attack on coastal military bases.

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

As the Japanese-Americans were pushed out of southern California, they moved further inland. Utah Governor Maw wrote to the federal government complaining that the Japanese population in Utah had doubled since the 1940 census just two years before. Utah was putting together a committee to handle the influx, but the federal government told them that they would take care of the situation.

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

President Franklin Roosevelt issued several Presidential Proclamations which provided the means to register suspected alien enemies.

Series 22990, Alien enemy registration forms

The forms for alien registration recorded names of everyone in the family, their address, their birthplace, and whether or not they owned any guns or ammunition. The FBI tracked Japanese and those of Japanese descent, and sent out inquiries when a family had moved but not reported the move to the government.

Series 22990, Alien enemy registration forms

Topaz Relocation Center

The War Relocation Authority was a federal government entity created in World War II to remove Japanese immigrants and those of Japanese descent to internment camps. One of these camps was located in Millard County, Utah. It went through several different names, but eventually it took on the name of Topaz, after a nearby mountain. The Topaz internment camp opened on September 11, 1942. 

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

Those who were relocated were moved in family groups. At assembly centers they were examined by a doctor, received any vaccinations they needed, and then were assigned to their internment camp. The rules for the relocation center were strict. Internees generally worked within the confines of their camp as janitors, secretaries, doctors and whatever else was needed. Local farmers could apply to hire some of the internees to help with their workload, which was one of the only ways to get out of the camp, though they could only be absent from the camp during work hours. 

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

Able-bodied men were enlisted into the War Relocation Work Corps. This included farming, and building schools and hospitals. A few were even enlisted for active duty, providing they agreed to serve wherever they were sent, and that they forswore any allegiance to Japan.

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

Miné Okubo

Miné Okubo was born in California on June 27, 1913. Her mother was an honors graduate of the Art Institute of Tokyo. Miné and her other siblings followed in their mother’s footsteps and also became artists. Mine received a Master of Fine Arts from Berkley. After completing her degree she applied for and won the University of California travelling scholarship to Europe at the start of the war. She went to Switzerland to avoid the fighting, but got landlocked in the country as the war continued. Short on funds, she worked on a farm to get enough money to get back to the U.S. Upon returning, she had enough time for her first solo show as an artist in the San Francisco Museum of Art before evacuation. 

Miné and her brother Toku were transferred to Tanforan, an internment camp just south of San Francisco. Miné continued to create art in Tanforan. In order to not be interrupted during her work she got a quarantine sign and nailed it to her door. Once, the patrol asked through the door, “What’cha got?” Miné answered, “Hoof and mouth disease.”

Miné Okubo and her brother were transferred from Tanforan and arrived with the first evacuee residents to Topaz. In Topaz she was the illustrator for the camp magazine Trek. Later she made a graphic novel about her experiences, titled Citizen 13660. The name was derived from the number her family unit was assigned at the camps. She used the illustrations that she made while she lived in the internment camp in her novel. She drew about two thousand sketches during her time in the camps, but used only two hundred for her book. 

Deposited in a desert camp, whipped by sandstorms, they were put in new barracks. These are illustrations of the well-known Nisei artist, Mine Okubo. These illustrations appeared in Mimeo publication of the Topaz relocation camp and a book she later published.
Japanese in Utah, Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society.

The Internment Camps ended in October 1945, after Japan’s surrender. Many of the internees went back to California where they were originally from, but some stayed in Utah. Miné Okubo moved to New York, where she continued her art career and eventually passed away in 2001.

Series 21911, Governor Maw Defense agencies correspondence

Topaz became a National Historical Landmark in 2007. There is now a museum that maintains the history of the internment camp and the people who lived in it. For more information about Topaz visit the Topaz Internment Museum website. Pictures from the Topaz Internment site are located on the University of Utah’s website. To see primary sources about World War II, visit our research guide.

Sources:

Arrington, Leonard J. Price of prejudice: the Japanese-american Relocation Center in Utah during World War II. Topaz Museum, 1962. https://digital.lib.usu.edu/digital/collection/Topaz/id/8126 

“Portrait of an Artist.” Trek, Vol. 1 no. 1, (December 1942): 21-22. USU Digital History Collections. https://digital.lib.usu.edu/digital/collection/Topaz/id/5276 

“Topaz History.” Topaz Museum. Accessed April 24, 2020. http://topazmuseum.org/

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