A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution (exhibition)

In 1987, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (NMAH) opened A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution (MPU), an exhibition on the World War II Japanese American detention centers designed to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Though the creation of an exhibition that exemplified a moment of weakness for the Constitution was opposed by some, the exhibition stayed long past its intended term and was replaced with a permanent online version even after its physical removal in 2004.

The Exhibition

The idea for the Smithsonian project came from a smaller exhibition titled Go For Broke developed for the Presidio Army Museum in San Francisco in 1979. The museum's curator, Eric Saul, created an exhibition about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) that was enthusiastically visited by over 2000 people on its opening day. [1] At the time, the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History was a recent hire named Roger Kennedy, whose arrival at the national institution marked a change in the direction of the museum's exhibitions away from a blind celebration of Americana towards an examination of important themes of US history including the darker sides of the nation's past. [2] Kennedy was given the charge of bringing the West Coast exhibition to Washington, DC, and he turned to Tom Crouch, a curator at the NMAH, to develop the project for the Smithsonian.

The original Presidio exhibition had focused on the 442nd RCT, but it was decided that the Smithsonian project should include more on the confinement experience, especially as the bicentennial of the Constitution approached. Members of the Japanese American community were recruited to serve as advisers including Chester Tanaka, Tom Kawaguchi, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga , and Senator Spark Matsunaga and Congressman Norman Mineta also served in advisory capacities. Ultimately, the work of the Smithsonian team and their advisers gathered artifacts and personal stories from veterans and civilians alike and the exhibition began to coalesce.

Visitors to MPU were greeted first by a large excerpt from the Constitution juxtaposed with WWII images taken by Dorothea Lange of young Japanese Americans reciting the pledge to the American flag. Historical images and artifacts told the story of the Japanese American experience beginning with immigrants arriving in Hawaii and on the West Coast where they were often met with discriminatory laws and treatment. The story continued through the attack on Pearl Harbor and the resulting increase in animosity and suspicion against the Japanese American population. A life-size recreation of the photo of Oakland, California Wanto grocery store-front proclaiming "I am an American," brought visitors into the exhibition through the image itself, beyond which is a guard tower, armed guards, and a reconstructed barrack display. The curators reconstructed the space of the Ozamoto family from their barrack during the war with a great deal of attention to detail on furniture and household goods.

Within the reconstructed building visitors encountered the first of four interview-based programs designed to provide a first-person narrative and personal experience through the words of Japanese Americans themselves. [3] Inside the barracks, two life-size projected images of a father and daughter have a scripted conversation about what life was like during the war based on the memories and experiences of actor Sab Shimono. [4] As visitors moved past the barracks, they could ask predetermined questions of former inmates Nancy Araki, Sue Kunitomi Embrey , Gordon Hirabayashi , Mary Tsukamoto , and Morgan Yamanaka through an interactive oral history program. The display allowed visitors to choose what they would like to learn more about using a method that was very innovative for the time but has now become common within museum exhibitions. Selma Thomas, who conducted the original interviews and edited them for the final display explained that this format brought "the immediacy and intensity of a primary source that is instantly recognizable to museum audiences," while at the same time "the layers of narrative...also include the visitor's own narrative, the background, questions, and expectations he/she brings to the installation and that lead him/her to select this informant and that question." [5]

The next section of MPU turned the focus to the wartime service of the 442nd RCT, the 100th Infantry Battalion , and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) using large artifacts like a Jeep as well as smaller items and another interactive oral history video display. Veterans like Senator Daniel Inouye provided insight into what it was like to serve while the images and interpretive text addressed the patriotism of these soldiers. Finally, visitors could hear each of the twelve individuals who had shared their views through the exhibition provide their answer to the question, "How do you explain this experience to your grandchildren?" [6] Though the responses varied, the combined interactive personal memories, original artifacts, black and white photos, and reconstructed wartime scenes provided visitors with enough information to begin to consider for themselves how they might have dealt with such a scenario.

Though it was not part of the original design, MPU was also updated just one year after its opening to incorporate the newly signed Civil Liberties Act of 1988 . When President Ronald Regan signed this legislation, the Smithsonian added it to the display arguing that this was further proof that even when faced with dark pieces of our history we are able to make amends. According to redress chronicler Mitchell Maki, the planning and development of the exhibition had actually served as a "dress rehearsal" for the passage of redress. As he explained, " A More Perfect Union provided the lesson of how redress needed to be framed as an American issue and its potential as a positive political issue." [7]


Though the argument could be made that MPU was beneficial for the redress movement , it was certainly not universally accepted by the general public or the Japanese American community itself. The earliest opponents were American veterans who spoke out against the subject of the exhibition itself, particularly at a time when many thought the Constitution should be celebrated rather than having its weaknesses revealed. Though some of the curators did receive threats, which caused armed guards to escort them in on opening day, none of these materialized and, in fact, most of this opposition dwindled after MPU was actually created. [8] Similarly, outspoken individuals like Lillian Baker, who regularly voiced support for the confinement and opposed redress wrote letters and threatened action, but this too did not materialize.

The criticisms from within the Japanese American community during the exhibition's development took two forms: those who felt it was too military in focus and those who felt it was too "sanitized." [9] Given its military origins, both the early phases of the exhibition development and the advisory council members for the Smithsonian had a military emphasis, with some of the same advisers in San Francisco also helping in Washington, DC. When another member of the advisory council Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga became concerned about the military prominence, she circulated draft copies of the script and garnered feedback and criticism. One reviewer pointed out that there were eleven pages devoted to the military story but only nine to the confinement. Herzig-Yoshinaga and others were concerned that the letters of complaint and threats from Congressmen not to fund MPU were causing the developers to focus more on the positives of the military story and less on the negatives of the confinement. [10]

These concerns regarding the depiction of the confinement order formed the basis for the other complaints in the Japanese American community. Not only did some feel that there was not enough about the camps, but also many felt that what was said did not fully portray the horrors of the experience. One early debate focused on the terminology as the curator Tom Crouch was asked by an adviser why he wasn't using "concentration camp" in the exhibition. In addition, Herzig-Yoshinaga pointed out the absence of Department of Justice internment camps, draft resistance , and other more complicated issues within MPU. While some of the advisers countered that this could be too cluttered and might confuse visitors, a letter writing campaign targeting Crouch argued that these were important issues to the community that many felt should be included in the exhibition. [11]

Ultimately, all of these issues were addressed in one way or another, some of which were more pleasing to the community than others. Crouch stood by his decision not to use the term 'concentration camp,' arguing that it was too closely tied to camps of the Holocaust in most people's understanding, but he did add text to MPU that included a quote from Harold Ickes in 1946 describing 'internment camps' as a euphemism and saying the proper term would be 'concentration camp.' [12] In order to address other omissions and errors regarding certain details of the history, Crouch also invited prominent Japanese American historian Roger Daniels to serve in an advisory capacity. With Daniels and Herzig-Yoshinaga's assistance, the script was changed to better reflect the draft resisters, the loyalty questionnaire , and the Tule Lake Segregation Center in a more nuanced manner. [13] Despite the changes, some did still feel that the exhibition retained a certain emphasis on the celebration of the military units, which Crouch defended claiming that it was the service of the military that helped create a better environment for all Japanese Americans after the war. Though this focus did still have detractors, many of whom voiced their opinions in the ethnic press outlets like the Pacific Citizen, the press and reception for MPU was overwhelmingly positive after its opening.

Legacy of A More Perfect Union

Having been one of the first exhibitions to use interactive video technology as well as being the first national museum to broach the subject of the Japanese American confinement, A More Perfect Union was certainly an important milestone in the representation of the WWII experience. The Pacific Citizen highlighted the ability of such an exhibition to reach large numbers of Americans who were previously unfamiliar with the story of the wartime confinement, and author Harry Honda praised the fact that MPU did not shy away from the fact that the order was a violation of the Constitution's principles. Three years after it opened the Smithsonian announced that it would continue indefinitely and the museum created a traveling version that has since been on display at numerous institutions around the country. According to one reviewer, A More Perfect Union "provide[d] many Americans with their first detailed look at the internment experience" and "inspired Japanese Americans to create their own exhibitions with more diverse interpretations of internment history." [14]

The Online Exhibition

Nearly 15 years after the opening of the physical exhibition at the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution launched A More Perfect Union in a digital version on November 8, 2001. The website is divided into five major sections, the first of which is the "heart" of MPU, the "Story Experience." This section tells the history of the WWII Japanese American experience through the six themes of immigration, removal, internment, loyalty, service, and justice. One reviewer in particular praised the online version for including the often neglected perspective of the early Issei immigrants, not just the removal story of the war years. [15] The galleries contained within these sections are based on photos, artifacts, and oral histories compiled from the physical collections of the museum. The second major section was "Reflections," which offers visitors a chance to submit comments, memories, or questions inspired by the digital exhibition. Coming as it did so closely after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Reflections section of the online version was also intended as a moment to reflect on that attack and its parallels to the fear and suspicions that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier.

Perhaps one of the most impressive pieces of this online exhibition is the "Collections Search," which features over 800 digitized artifacts from the collections of the Smithsonian. Visitors can search by keyword or they can browse collections based on the locations of the camps or by the six major themes of MPU. Teachers would likely find the Collections and the "Resources" link most helpful for classroom instruction. Within the Resources section, visitors can see statements about the design and intention of the exhibition, the text of the 1994 touring version, several activities and lesson plans for students, and additional resource links. The final section of the website is the obligatory "Credits" page, which thanks the donors, the designers at Second Story Interactive Studios, and the relevant staff at the Smithsonian including curator Jennifer Jones and reviewers Dr. Franklin Odo and Dr. Tom Crouch.

The website received several awards including the American Association of Museums Gold Muse Award for History in 2002 and the HOW Interactive Design Annual Merit Award in 2002. Although the original exhibition is no longer present in the halls of the National Museum of American History, visitors can still the digital version that one reviewer called, "the sort of superb resource we expect from the Smithsonian." [16]

For More Information

Austin, Allen W., review of "Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project" and "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & The US Constitution," and "Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas." The Journal of American History , Vol. 92, No. 1 (June 2005), 326-328.

Creef, Elena Tajima, Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body . New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Heyman, Michael, "Exhibit at the National Museum of American History Commemorate our Diverse World War II Experiences." Smithsonian 26.6 (September 1995): 6.

Maki, Mitchell, Harry Kitano and Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese American Obtained Redress . Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

McClymer, John, "Lost in the Virtual Museum: The Smithsonian Online Exhibitions." The Journal of American History 95.3 (December 2008): 954-956.

Murray, Alice Yang, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Thomas, Selma, "Private Memory in a Public Space: Oral History and Museums," in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, eds., Oral History and Public Memories . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.


  1. Mitchell Maki, Harry Kitano and Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese American Obtained Redress (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 158.
  2. Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 385.
  3. Selma Thomas, "Private Memory in a Public Space: Oral History and Museums," in Oral History and Public Memories , edited by Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008)
  4. Thomas, "Private Memory," 94.
  5. Thomas, "Private Memory," 93, 95.
  6. Thomas, "Private Memory," 92.
  7. Maki, et al., Achieving the Impossible Dream , 160.
  8. Elena Tajima Creef, Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 127.
  9. Creef, Imaging Japanese America , 127.
  10. Murray, Historical Memories , 389.
  11. Murray, Historical Memories , 389.
  12. Murray, Historical Memories , 390.
  13. Murray, Historical Memories , 391–92.
  14. Murray, Historical Memories , 396.
  15. Allen W. Austin, review of "Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project" and "A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans & The US Constitution," and "Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas," The Journal of American History 92.1 (June 2005), 327.
  16. John McClymer, "Lost in the Virtual Museum: The Smithsonian Online Exhibitions," The Journal of American History 95.3 (December 2008), 956.

Last updated April 10, 2024, 11:43 p.m..