This is a legacy article that appeared in the Densho Encyclopedia from 2012 to 2021. You can find the current article for this detention facility at:
US Gov Name Manzanar Relocation Center
Facility Type Concentration Camp
Administrative Agency War Relocation Authority
Location Manzanar, California (36.7333 lat, -118.0667 lng)
Date Opened June 2, 1942
Date Closed November 21, 1945
Population Description Over 90 percent of the people held here were from the Los Angeles, California, area; others were from Stockton, California, and Bainbridge Island, Washington.
General Description Located at 3,900 feet of elevation in the desert of the southern Owens Valley in east-central California, 220 miles north of Los Angeles, 250 miles south of Reno, between the towns Lone Pine and Independence. The 6,000 acres are framed by the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and the White-Inyo range to the east. Summers are hot, winters cold; annual rainfall is under 6 inches, although the area has rivers fed from mountain runoff. Vegetation is mostly sagebrush.
Peak Population 10,046 (1942-09-22)
National Park Service Info
Other Info

Manzanar was one of ten incarceration centers operated during World War II by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to detain Japanese Americans. Manzanar opened as a temporary "reception center" under the control of the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) on March 22, 1942, until the WRA oversaw control of the camp on June 1, 1942. At its peak, the camp held 10,046 people. A few months after World War II ended, Manzanar closed its doors on November 21, 1945. [1]


Located in the Owens Valley in central California, Manzanar was located 225 miles northeast of Los Angeles and adjacent to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Mount Williamson (elevation 14,375 feet) was the tallest peak visible from the camp while the tip of Mount Whitney (elevation 14,505 feet) could be seen from nearby Lone Pine. The eastern boundary of Manzanar was 3,800 feet above sea level while the western edge rose to 4,265 feet. Manzanar was classified as a cold desert with hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters. The area was also known to experience harsh winds resulting in severe dust storms and even cyclones. [2]

Before Japanese Americans were detained at Manzanar during World War II, the site had a history of agriculture with European American and American Indian settlements. Manzanar Irrigated Farms, which bought the land from a local rancher named John Shepherd in 1905, established a fruit orchard in its heyday and distributed their crops to the Los Angeles area. The success of this venture was a great source of pride for the Shoshone and Paiutes who participated in this effort. Based on soil samples conducted by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, it's surprising that they were able to grow anything at all since the soil was unsuitable for cultivation. By the mid-1930s, the Manzanar orchard closed as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had exercised its water rights over the Owens Valley and made irrigation improbable. [3]

As "Reception Center"

With the American involvement in World War II and the increased hostility toward Japanese Americans from the general public after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 , the United States government soon devised a plan to round up all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and place them into concentration camps. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 , which authorized the War Department to exclude any person from prescribed military zones. While not explicitly mentioning Japanese Americans, it became the basis for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. [4]

By March 21, 1942, Manzanar opened as one of sixteen WCCA camps housing 9,837 detainees, most coming from Los Angeles. As with the other sites, Manzanar was hastily constructed and barely fit for family living. While detainees did not have to deal with living quarters that were once used as horse stalls like the temporary assembly centers at the Santa Anita and Tanforan racetracks, they did need to become accustomed to communal outhouses, small living quarters, and barracks that barely shielded them from the harsh elements in the Owens Valley. [5]

The lack of adequate medical facilities also was a hardship for many in camp. Dr. Yoshiye Togasaki from San Francisco arrived at Manzanar early to prepare for the thousands of detainees coming into the camp. Dr. Togasaki found the medical supplies to be inadequate and better suited for a generic military emergency hospital. Necessary items such as vaccines, lab equipment, and medications for pregnant women were sent to the camp through the generous donations of friends who were willing to help. Within three weeks, the makeshift hospital treated children with whooping cough, chicken pox, measles, and diarrhea. [6]

As WRA Camp

Administration and Conflict

On June 2, 1942, the WRA took over the administration of Manzanar, a transition that was relatively seamless. By this point, the government had already decided that Japanese Americans living in the WCCA camps would not be allowed to resettle in areas outside of the West Coast. Therefore, the task of the WRA was to oversee the confinement of Japanese Americans in incarceration centers. The second director of the WRA, Dillon S. Myer , euphemistically referred to the centers as "wayside stations," "temporary homes," and even "havens of rest and security." [7] Historians now refer to the camps as prisons, incarceration centers, or concentration camps because Japanese Americans were confined behind barbed wire with armed guards.

Dillon S. Myer rejected popular notions of a person's race determining loyalty, but strongly believed that culture played a determining role. Because of this, Myer believed that the camps could be used in a way to influence notions of loyalty among the inmates. "We believe that loyalty grows only when it is given a chance to grow, and it doesn't flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion, discrimination, and denial of opportunity to practice that loyalty." [8] Myer probably chose Roy Nash as the Manzanar project director because of his likeminded liberal attitude toward racial minorities. Prior to his appointment at Manzanar, Nash served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was an advocate for American Indians in the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA). [9] In Myer's eyes, Nash was an ideal candidate to institute the policies that he had in mind.

One of the goals of the WRA was to institute an Americanization program where camp life would appear as normal as possible considering the extreme circumstances. Japanese Americans who cooperated with the program were rewarded while those who resisted were isolated and labeled as "troublemakers." [10] As with other camps, Manzanar established a form of self-government where detainees could make some decisions regarding their everyday lives. Conflicts arose between the American born Nisei and others in the camp in part because only citizens were allowed to be in the camp government with the WRA having veto power over their decisions. In keeping with Myer's belief that culture strongly determined loyalty among Japanese Americans, the Issei and the Japan-educated Kibei were excluded from formal leadership positions in the camp government in an attempt to diminish their influence among the internees. This led to an uncomfortable change in the community's structure as the younger Nisei were thrust into formal leadership positions while holding limited moral authority. At Manzanar, the conflict between the primarily white collar Nisei leaders and the Issei/Kibei block managers elected by the detainees was particularly pronounced. Detainees often accused the leaders of the Nisei-led Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) of being informants for the WRA officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and labeled them as inu . [11] Hostility between the JACL and their detractors culminated with the Manzanar riot/uprising , where Military Police shot into an unarmed crowd of protestors, killing two people and injuring nine others. JACL leaders, fearing the mob, were escorted out the camp for their own safety. [12]

Japanese Americans also felt the hostility from the general public while they were in the camps. The WRA rationed the food to ensure that detainees were not fed better than the troops fighting in the war. Japanese American workers in the camp who were hired to perform a variety of jobs were paid wages that oftentimes didn't even cover the costs of basic necessities such shoes and clothing. At Manzanar, the hatred from the outside community was particularly pointed in part because of racism and the area's history with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). Since water rights were diverted from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, local residents felt betrayed by politicians who denied them of their livelihood and were incensed that Japanese Americans were being fed and housed at the government's expense, albeit in a concentration camp. Despite evidence to the contrary, residents believed that the Japanese American detainees were "coddled" with luxuries behind barbed wire while the rest of the country struggled with the war effort. [13]

Daily Life

Still, the WRA was convinced that their Americanization program would aid in the Japanese Americans' hopeful transition from camp to regular life. Besides taking part in decision making through the camp government, Japanese Americans also worked in all areas of camp to make it as productive as possible. As soon as the WRA took over the camp in June 1942, Manzanar detainees became the first in the camps to produce camouflage nets to help the American troops. [14] Soon thereafter, other aspects of community life were created such as a post office, library, police station, jail, and auditorium just to name a few. [15] As in other camps, detainees also created a camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press . Of course, since the WRA had editorial control of the camp newspapers, the Manzanar Free Press was "free" in name only.

Children in Manzanar also attended school once enough teachers were recruited to work inside of the camp. Like other American children, the students in Manzanar attended elementary school, junior high school, and high school. They formed clubs in school, attended dances and other socials, and participated in sporting events. Many former detainees remember learning about the American freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning to start the school day. The older students quickly recognized the irony learning about American freedoms while they were confined in a concentration camp. [16]

Ralph Lazo was one of the students at Manzanar High School who understood the special circumstances that Japanese Americans faced during that time. While studying at Belmont High School in Los Angeles before the war, Lazo befriended many Japanese Americans at the school and supported them when the exclusion orders forced them to leave their homes. Sensing this injustice, Lazo decided to join his friends in camp by boarding the bus to Manzanar with them. Once there, Lazo participated in the same activities as his friends and quickly became one of the most popular and recognizable students in Manzanar. After graduating from Manzanar High School, he was drafted into the army in 1944 and earned a Bronze Star for his service in the Philippines. To date, Ralph Lazo is the only known person who was not of Japanese ancestry to voluntarily live in the camps without having a Japanese American spouse. [17]

Manzanar was also a unique destination for other detainees as well. It was the only camp that was used to confine Japanese American orphans during the war. In total, 101 children resided in a section of Manzanar known as Children's Village . Many of the kids were orphans before the war residing in places like the Maryknoll Home in Los Angeles and the Salvation Army Home in San Francisco. Others, however, became orphans after the war had started when the government arrested Japanese American leaders without just cause following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The orphans at Children's Village were not only imprisoned in Manzanar, they also became pariahs inside of the camp as other children were warned by their parents not to socialize with them. [18]

Loyalty and Segregation

As at other camps, the institution of the so-called loyalty questionnaire was a time of turmoil. Because the questionnaire was poorly worded, and in many cases, misunderstood by the internees, revised versions appeared soon thereafter with mixed results in the different camps. At Manzanar, camp administrators counseled internees to change their "no" answers to "yes" by threatening to take away personal property and strip them of leave clearance privileges. When that strategy proved unsuccessful with some, the administration agreed to grant special visitation privileges to families of men who were being held in Department of Justice camps . Because of this, 93 percent of the internees who originally answered "no" to the loyalty questions 27 and 28 changed their answer to "yes" at Manzanar. [19]

Detainees found to be "disloyal" by the government were segregated from the others and sent to the camp at Tule Lake in northern California. For many detainees, the loyalty questionnaire was the final insult from the government. After being forced from their homes into concentration camps and after losing their life savings, many detainees decided that they had had enough from a government and a country that no longer seemed to want them. According to Michi Weglyn , one detainee at Manzanar noted he was as loyal as any other American, yet was segregated by the WRA because of his answers on the questionnaire. In a recorded outburst, he noted, "If they want to segregate me they can do it. If they want to take my citizenship away, they can do it. If this country doesn't want me, they can throw me out. What do they know about loyalty?" [20]

Once the WRA was satisfied that they had separated the "loyal" from the "disloyal" Japanese Americans, they could expedite allowing "loyal" detainees to leave the camp. In the meantime, the habeas corpus case of Mitsuye Endo, a Nisei who had had never been to Japan or even knew the Japanese language, was making its way to the Supreme Court to challenge the exclusion orders. (See Ex parte Mitsuye Endo (1944) .) On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Endo and ordered that the WRA had no right to detain citizens who were deemed to be loyal. "Loyal" Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast on January 2, 1945. [21] Manzanar eventually closed for good on November 21, 1945.

After the War

In the years following their detention, the Issei and Nisei who were in camp attempted to rebuild and continue with their lives. By the 1960s, the Sansei generation was coming of age and had many questions about the camp experience that their parents and grandparents had already put behind them. By the late 1960s, these questions became the catalyst for returning to the campsites to discover firsthand what the conditions were like. On December 28 and 29, 1969, a group of Sansei and Nisei activists interested in preserving Manzanar's history organized the first annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. (See Camp pilgrimages .) Eventually, this group became the Manzanar Committee with former Manzanar detainee Sue Kunitomi Embrey serving as its longtime chairperson. Under her guidance, the Manzanar Committee became instrumental in preserving the site by having Manzanar declared as a California Historic Landmark in 1972, a National Historic Landmark in 1985, and eventually a National Historic Site on February 19, 1992—the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. [22]

The road to preserving the site wasn't easy. When the Manzanar Committee fought to have the site declared a California Historic Landmark, they were determined to include the terms "concentration camps," "racism," and "economic exploitation" on the plaque to memorialize the Japanese American experience during World War II. After a prolonged struggle, they compromised on "economic exploitation" and settled for "greed" while fighting until the end on the word "racism." [23]

Manzanar became one of the better known camps in part because of its relatively close proximity to Japanese American communities in California. Numerous books and movies have been produced about Manzanar, most notably, Farewell To Manzanar in 1973, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Along with the pilgrimages organized by the Manzanar Committee and the efforts of groups such as the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR), National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (NCRR), and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), public awareness about the concentration camps eventually led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided a public apology to Japanese Americans as well as $20,000 in redress.

Today, the National Park Service organizes educational tours of the site with the help of volunteers and operates a historical museum in the restored Manzanar auditorium. The Manzanar Committee continues to organize an annual pilgrimage to the site and draws over a thousand people per year, including hundreds of students. Because of the widespread interest in the camps, members of the Manzanar Committee organized another program during the pilgrimage called Manzanar at Dusk (MAD) where students could explore the deeper meanings of the camps and the lessons to be learned in today's society. In the truest sense, the Manzanar Pilgrimage and Manzanar at Dusk programs continue the legacy that started with the original pilgrimage in 1969. When founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey was asked why she had continued her work at Manzanar long after the site had been protected and redress had passed, she remarked that there was still work to be done because many people still had not heard about the camps. [24]

Authored by Glen Kitayama

For More Information

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Farewell to Manzanar . DVD of made for television movie, 1976, directed by John Korty. 107 min.

Garrett, Jesse A., and Ronald C. Larson, eds. Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley . Fullerton: California State University, Fullerton, Japanese American Oral History Project, 1977.

Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1973.

Irwin, Catherine. Twice Orphaned: Voices from the Children's Village of Manzanar . Preface by Paul Spickard. Fullerton: California State University, Fullerton, Center for Oral & Public History, 2008.

Kurashige, Lon. Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival', 1934-1990 . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

The Manzanar Committee. .

The Manzanar Fishing Club . Video documentary. Directed by Corey Shiozaki, 2012. 74 minutes.

Manzanar National Historic Site. .

Remembering Manzanar . DVD of video documentary. Manzanar National Historic Site, 2004. 22 min.

Stand Up For Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story . Video documentary. Visual Communications and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, 2004, 33 min.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps . New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.


  1. Brian Niiya, ed., Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present, Updated Edition (New York: Facts on File, 2001), 266-267.
  2. Karl Lillquist, Imprisoned in the Desert: The Geography of World War II-Era Japanese American Relocation Center in the Western United States (Central Washington University, Geography and Land Studies Department), 329-332, .
  3. Karen Piper, "Manzanar," Lost Magazine , November 2006.
  4. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1982), 85.
  5. Personal Justice Denied ,138-139.
  6. Personal Justice Denied , 143.
  7. Richard Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 63.
  8. Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 25.
  9. Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy , 26.
  10. Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps , 83.
  11. Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy , 100.
  12. Personal Justice Denied , 179.
  13. Piper, "Manzanar."
  14. National Archives, .
  15. Personal Justice Denied , 164-174.
  16. Personal Justice Denied , 172.
  17. Janice Harumi Yen, Who Was Ralph Lazo? Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, .
  18. Catherine Irwin, Twice Orphaned: Voices from the Children's Village of Manzanar (Fullerton, CA: Center for Oral and Public History, 2008).
  19. Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy , 153.
  20. Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1976), 138.
  21. Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 345.
  22. Manzanar Committee, .
  23. Drinnon, Keeper of Concentration Camps , 155.
  24. Manzanar Committee, .

Last updated July 15, 2020, 3:39 p.m..