- Publisher: Oxford University Press
- Available in: Hardcover
- ISBN: 9780190842062
- Published: September 4, 2018
The mass imprisonment of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II was one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in United States history. Removed from their homes on the temperate Pacific Coast, Japanese Americans spent the war years in desolate camps in the nation’s interior. Photographers including Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange visually captured these camps in images that depicted the environment as a source of both hope and hardship. And yet the literature on incarceration has most often focused on the legal and citizenship statuses of the incarcerees, their political struggles with the US government, and their oral testimony.
Nature Behind Barbed Wire shifts the focus to the environment. It explores how the landscape shaped the experiences of both Japanese Americans and federal officials who worked for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the civilian agency that administered the camps. The complexities of the natural world both enhanced and constrained the WRA’s power and provided Japanese Americans with opportunities to redefine the terms and conditions of their confinement. Even as the environment compounded their feelings of despair and outrage, the incarcerees also found that their agency in transforming and adapting to the natural world could help them survive and contest their incarceration. Japanese Americans and WRA officials negotiated the terms of confinement with each other and with a dynamic natural world.
Ultimately, as Connie Chiang demonstrates, the Japanese American incarceration was fundamentally an environmental story.
“Through fluid prose and engaging stories, Connie Chiang reveals the centrality of nature to the experiences of Japanese Americans incarcerated in War Relocation Authority camps during World War II. [Using three camps as case studies-Manzanar in California, Topaz in Utah, and Minidoka in Idaho-Chiang illustrates that soil, wind, weather, and landscape were important factors in the daily lives of internees and helped to shape their perceptions about themselves, their role in American society, and their place-literally and figuratively-in American democracy. Deeply researched and cogently argued, Nature Behind Barbed Wirerequires us rethink our assumptions about this critical period in American history and establishes a new standard for integrating environmental analysis into the study of the past.”
–Lisa Brady, Boise State University
“In oral history interviews I heard stories of freezing temperatures in the barracks during the winter, unbearable heat in the summer, choking dust storms, back-breaking farm work for little pay, and food shortages. Chiang’s very impressive book describes and brings to life the underlying forces and unfortunate decisions that created the hardships so vividly remembered by Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.”
–Tom Ikeda, Densho
“Connie Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire invites us to consider the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans through the lens of the lands on which the events unfolded. We are accustomed to thinking of this tragic episode as a story of human plans and will, but Chiang reminds us that time and again it was the environment that shaped that story’s chapters. The book usefully interrupts our familiar patterns of conversation, reminding us that we can imagine and understand this time period in new and revealing ways.”
–Eric Muller, University of North Carolina School of Law
“Chiang’s book offers a stunningly original perspective. In revealing shared experiences of humans versus nature and humans with nature, it complicates expected narratives of humans versus humans. A welcome bold new approach!”
–Lon Kurashige, author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States
“In Nature Behind Barbed Wire, Connie Chiang uses environmental history to offer new information and insights into the impact of wartime confinement on Japanese Americans and on their surroundings. A masterful and eye-opening book.”
–Greg Robinson, Université du Québec à Montréal