Gatherings dating back to the 1980s of mostly Nisei who were incarcerated in WWII American concentration camps as a way of reuniting with friends and acquaintances made during camp years. Popularized during the time of the redress movement, camp reunions formed primarily as social events, featuring such activities as banquets, dances, golf tournaments, and art exhibitions. In this way, they differed from camp pilgrimages that were more overtly political and intergenerational in nature and held at the site of the camps to demonstrate the harsh conditions found there.
In the early 1980s, more than a decade after the first Manzanar Pilgrimage in 1969, several camps, including Manzanar, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake, held their first camp reunions in such urban centers as Las Vegas and Sacramento. Even though largely social in nature, camp reunions began shortly after the formation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) in 1980, at a time when those who were held in WWII camps began to speak out against the injustices they endured. Since 1982, former inmates from Amache, Crystal City, Gila River, Poston, Topaz, among others, have held semi-regular events. In 1990, former inmates from the Rohwer camp in Arkansas gathered in Los Angeles for its first reunion; with 1,200 in attendance it was felt to be the largest gathering of its kind.
For camp reunion organizers, these events are not just a time to greet old friends, but an opportunity to reflect on the struggles they all faced while in camp. In rebuttal to claims by writer Lillian Baker (Dishonoring America: The Falsification of World War II History) that camp reunions demonstrated that time spent in camp was remembered fondly, reunion attendees point out that the camps were unforgettably harsh experiences that managed to bring them closer together. "It created a strong bond within the residents of the camps that has lasted since the end of the war," according to the introduction in the Amache reunion program booklet. "Great friendships developed under extremely trying circumstances," reiterates a Poston reunion program.
Heart Mountain reunion organizer Bacon Sakatani noted that by putting together an exhibition for the first Heart Mountain reunion in 1982 he realized the grave injustice he suffered that he only came to realize as an adult, commenting on "how the government had fooled us, had misled us."
For the most part, reunions are festive and commemorative by nature. Gila River Reunion Committee chair Sei Dyo noted in 1992, "There is no bitterness here this weekend—something we can all learn from. There is, instead, a monument to the triumph of the human spirit."
Though camp reunions share similarities with high school reunions since many Nisei were of high school age while in camp, they are not limited by age. High schools (e.g., Manzanar High School and Topaz High School) and prewar committees (e.g., Terminal Island) have been known to hold separate reunions.
Oftentimes, monies were raised through reunions to place permanent memorials at the sites of the camps. In 1989 the Poston camp reunion generated the embryo of the idea to build the Poston Memorial, which was constructed in 1992. Two stone monuments in a cemetery at Rohwer resulted from the proceeds of the Rohwer camp reunion. In 2012 the Heart Mountain reunion, typically held in Las Vegas, traveled to Wyoming to attend the opening of the newly constructed Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) Interpretive Learning Center.
As the Nisei population ages and diminishes, camp reunions are approaching obsolescence. For example, a camp reunion in Portland that began with 1,000 attendees in 1990 announced its last event just ten years later. Other camp reunion organizers have vowed that each gathering will be the final one due to the dwindling number of attendees and the difficulties faced by aging organizers. It is possible that in the future camp pilgrimages, organized primarily by younger Sansei and Yonsei committee members, will eventually replace camp reunions.
- Amache reunion program booklet, October 28-30, 1994.
- Poston III reunion program booklet, Bally's Reno, May 1988.
- Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2011.
- Sei Dyo, Gila River 50th Reunion Program Booklet welcome, 1992.