Gardens in camp

Gardening, both ornamental and agricultural, was a common activity for Japanese American inmates in the temporary assembly centers , incarceration camps, and Justice Department camps. Gardening served multiple purposes for the both the individual gardener and the incarcerated communities. The camp gardens were continuations of prewar garden-building traditions, human and cultural responses to imprisonment and the camp landscapes, and restorative activities that fostered communal healing and cultural cohesion. Vegetable gardens, also known as victory gardens during wartime, provided familiar edibles and contributed to sustainability efforts promoted by the federal government. While some of the gardens exhibited levels of resistance against confinement and the War Relocation Authority (WRA), others represented political symbols of loyalty and patriotism.

Gardening Foundations

Japanese Americans who practiced landscaping and gardening in the camps were predominantly Issei with professional experience in farming, landscape maintenance, and horticulture from both urban and rural communities. In 1940, 43% of all Nikkei living on the West Coast were employed in agriculture, and an additional 26% were employed in agriculture-related activities such as produce businesses. [1] In the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans had a near "ethnic monopoly" in the landscape business in the prewar period, with one third of the Japanese labor force consisting of gardeners in 1934. [2] These professional experiences were the foundation for garden-building and agricultural activities in the camps.

For some Nikkei, thoughts of gardening in the camps began even before they were excluded from their home communities. The mass roundups occurred in the spring of 1942, just as the planting season was beginning. Some Nikkei transported pots and tins of tree saplings and ornamental and edible plants to their new homes in the camps. [3]

Nikkei began gardening almost immediately upon arrival at the temporary assembly centers and incarceration camps to improve the conditions and to provide familiar vegetables for their families and communities. At the Tanforan Assembly Center , women started vegetable gardens outside the livestock stalls that were their temporary homes. By June and July of 1942 at Manzanar , Nikkei had already begun to develop ornamental gardens with ponds, foraged boulders, transplanted Joshua trees, and constructed landscape features.

Types of Camp Gardens

In total, Nikkei constructed thousands of individual gardens in the spaces adjacent to the residential barracks and in communal areas. Three primary types of ornamental gardens were developed inside the camps. [4] Parks were the largest type of ornamental gardens, attracting residents throughout the camp. Block or mess hall gardens were created by and for the individuals of a respective block. Smaller personal gardens were individually inspired and reminiscent of front and back yards. Among the types of gardens were vegetable gardens, raked gravel dry gardens, cactus gardens, showy flower gardens, and ornate rock gardens with stepping stones, fountains, waterfalls, ponds, and structures. [5]

Large scale gardens and parks were built at some of the camps, including Manzanar and Minidoka . Merritt Park (named after Manzanar WRA Director Ralph Merritt ) at Manzanar was the largest and most sophisticated of all gardens in the camps. The park was constructed under the leadership of Kuichiro Nishi, a rose nursery owner from the San Fernando Valley. Merritt Park had an enormous waterfall, ponds, boulders, a tea house, and elaborate plantings. In Farewell to Manzanar , author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston wrote about Merritt Park, "You could face away from the barracks, look past a tiny rapids toward the darkening mountains, and for a while not be a prisoner at all. You could hang suspended in some odd, almost lovely land you could not escape from yet almost didn't want to leave." [6] Another large scale garden was located at the entrance to Minidoka. Designed by Fujitaro Kubota, nursery owner in Seattle, the garden was constructed around the Honor Roll which featured the names of nearly 1,000 individuals serving in the military with connections to Minidoka.

At Manzanar, Nikkei transformed the rectangular plots of land adjacent to the mess halls into designed gardens so block residents could sit and enjoy the comforts and beauty of a garden and pond while waiting to be fed. The Manzanar Free Press held a contest for the best garden, and the Block 34 garden ( San-shi-en ) won first prize. The Block 34 garden was, and still is, an example of Japanese garden art fashioned from the local materials of southeastern California. San-shi-en was constructed with collected jagged red-hued stones, likely sourced from the nearby Alabama Hills. The stones were arranged to imitate the mood of the character of the mountains and became smoother as water descended to the pond. The large concrete lined pond was built in a traditional Japanese gourd shape, and the base formed a traditional mortar elevation. Stones symbolic of the tsuru-kame (crane and tortoise), representing long life, rose from the pond's surface. Block 22's garden won second prize; it later played a pivotal role in the Manzanar Riot as the staging ground for some 2,000 protesters on December 6, 1942.

Through the camps, there were many ingenious garden designs that creatively used foraged materials, designed water features, and cultivated plants in ways that beautified the camps and provided enjoyment to the gardeners. One of the more notable gardens was Yasusuke Kogita's garden in Block 5 at Minidoka. Featured in Allen Eaton's Beauty Behind Barbed Wire , the garden had a one ton lava tube, named "Stove-pipe Rock," carted by Mr. Kogita and his sons, Ted and Paul, from the sagelands behind the camp.

In addition to the ornamental gardens, victory gardening was a common pastime. Victory gardens were generally located within the residential camp areas and were initiated and maintained by individuals, schools, and community groups. The victory gardens supplemented the government-issued diet with fresh vegetables, and traditional Japanese vegetables. Nikkei developed vegetable gardens even at the Department of Justice camps, including the Kooskia and Fort Missoula Internment Camps. [7]

Even after the camps closed, gardening proved an important pastime in the resettlement process. For those who could not find housing in crowded West Coast cities, the War Relocation Authority provided temporary housing. At places like the Winona Housing Project in Burbank, California, Nikkei created gardens outside their temporary government-issued mobile homes.

Current Conditions

Today, the gardens themselves have persevered; remnants of hundreds of these gardens remain in situ since the camps were dismantled. At the end of the World War II in 1946, nearly all of the barracks and structures were demolished for lumber or auctioned off to eager buyers, yet the gardens were simply left to decay and wither, as they did not possess monetary value. Now, seventy years later, some of the larger gardens are recognizable by their rock and concrete structures and aged trees, shrubs, and succulents. Those gardens that remain extant now represent precious cultural resources that merit increased efforts for their preservation. These include gardens at the former incarceration camps at Manzanar, California; Gila River , Arizona; Granada , Colorado; Topaz , Utah; and Minidoka, Idaho.

At Manzanar, many of the gardens have been excavated under the leadership of Jeff Burton, National Park Service Chief of Cultural Resources at Manzanar National Historic Site . Excavated gardens include Merritt Park, part of the Hospital Garden, mess hall gardens at blocks 9, 12, 22, and 34, and barracks gardens at blocks 2, 14, 15, 24, and 33. In 2014, Manzanar National Historic Site received the 2014 John Wesley Powell Prize for Outstanding Historic Preservation from the Society for History in the Federal Government for the restoration of the mess hall garden in Block 12.

The camp gardens are testaments to Nikkei values during World War II, including a cultural abhorrence of idleness, a cultural affinity with nature and aesthetics, and the practice of cooperative action for the betterment of the community. The camp gardeners achieved a sense of pride in their work, while contributing to the well-being of their block. Gardening was akin to horticultural therapy, forging people-plant relationships that induced a sense of connectedness to the earth and its seasonal cycles. By inducing harmony within environments of chaos and confusion, incarcerated gardeners cultivated tranquility and summoned a sense of normalcy. In addition, the acts of visiting the gardens and parks, seeing them in the distance, or glimpsing them through a window were small measures of comfort. The gardens and parks were oftentimes the only greenery visible from inside the barbed wire fence.

The camp gardens were an antithesis to the incarceration experience and military ordered setting; they were places of adoration, symbols of strength and capacity, and testaments to a human connection to place forged out of prison-like landscapes.

Authored by Anna Tamura , Landscape Architect, National Park Service, Pacific West Region-Seattle

For More Information

Beckwith, Ronald J. "Japanese-Style Ornamental Gardens at Manzanar Relocation Center" In Mytum, Harold and Gilly Carr, eds. Prisoners of War: Archaeology, Memory, and Heritage of 19th and 20th Century Mass Internment . New York: Springer, 2013. 271-84.

Burton, Jeffery F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord and Richard W. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites . Seattle: University of Washington, 2002.

Helphand, Kenneth I. Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime . San Antonio, Tex: Trinity University Press, 2006.

Hirahara, Naomi, ed. Greenmakers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California . Los Angeles: Southern California Gardener's Federation, 2000.

National Park Service. Manzanar Cultural Landscape Report . Seattle: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2006.

Tamura, Anna. "Gardens below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese Americans Internment Camps" Master Thesis, University of Washington, 2002.

———. "Gardens below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese Americans Incarceration Camp." Landscape Journal 23.1 (2004): 1–21.

———. "Minidoka Gardens." In Tremayne, Russell and Todd Shallot, eds. Surviving Minidoka: The Legacy of WWII Japanese American Incarceration . Boise: Boise State University College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, 2013.


  1. Frank F. Chuman, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans (Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher's Inc., 1976), 110-11; Nobuya Tsuchida, "Japanese Gardeners of Southern California, 1900-1941," in Labor Immigration Under Capitalism: Asian Workers in the United States Before World War II , ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 441-43.
  2. Tsuchida, "Japanese Gardeners in Southern California, 1900-1941"; Ronald Tadao Tsukashima, "Cultural Endowment, Disadvantaged Status and Economic Niche: The Development of an Ethnic Trade," International Migration Review 2.2 (Summer 1991), 333-54; Ronald Tadao Tsukashima, "Politics of Maintenance Gardening and the Formation of the Southern California Gardener's Federation" in Greenmakers: Japanese American Gardeners in Southern California, ed. Naomi Hirahara (Los Angeles: Southern California Gardener's Federation, 2000)
  3. Robert Hosokawa, "Gardens," War Relocation Authority Project Reports 1:4 (Hunt, Idaho: Minidoka Relocation Center, 1943); Ted Kogita, Personal Correspondence, 2001.
  4. Anna Tamura, "Gardens below the Watchtower: Gardens and Meaning in World War II Japanese Americans Incarceration Camp," Landscape Journal 23.1 (2004), 9.
  5. Allen Hendershott Eaton, foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt, Beauty behind Barbed Wire: the Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps (New York: Harper, 1952).
  6. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar (San Francisco: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973), 99.
  7. Louis Fiset, Imprisoned Apart: The World War II Correspondence of an Issei Couple (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Priscilla Wegars, "Golden State Meets Gem State: Californians at Idaho's Kooskia Internment Camp,1943-1945" (California Civil Liberties Public Education Program,2001).

Last updated Oct. 5, 2020, 6:07 p.m..