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From Densho's Archives

International Internees: The Family Camp at Crystal City

"The bitterness of the incarceration was there, but they were able to circumvent it somehow and live a pretty family life."
                                                                                    --Mako Nakagawa

High school, Crystal City, Texas, Densho Digital Archives.

Days after the Texas Board of Education voted to amend the state's social studies curriculum in order to correct a perceived liberal bias, a Texas chapter in Japanese American history comes to mind. According to press accounts, among the changes the school board made to the curriculum is "an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism."1 An internment camp in the south Texas town of Crystal City did hold German and Japanese internees, as well as prisoners deported from Latin America and a half-dozen Italians. Other internment camps across the country held a mix of foreign nationals. But the fact that the U.S. government interned European immigrants in no way negates the racism that led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.2

Hand-drawn map of Crystal City internment camp, Texas. Click to enlarge. Densho Digital Archives.

If not enough people know about the mass removal and incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II, it is quite likely that even fewer know that individuals of German and Italian descent were also interned by the U.S. government during World War II. During the course of the war, the Department of Justice (DOJ) interned over 11,500 German immigrants and over 2,700 people of Italian ancestry. The U.S. government also arranged to have deported and detained more than 2,250 Latin Americans of Japanese descent, held hostage to be possibly exchanged for American prisoners of war.3

Regardless of nationality, internees shared painful experiences: fathers separated from families, damaged reputations and self-respect, loss of property and livelihoods, and the postwar stigma of assumed guilt.4 But one critical difference points to the role racial bias played in the government's policies: European enemy aliens were not targeted en masse. Government officials adopted a policy of at least attempting to determine whether German individuals were loyal, and largely dismissed Italians as a threat. In contrast, nearly a century of anti-Asian discrimination led the same officials to distrust everyone of Japanese ancestry, simply because of their ancestry. General John DeWitt, in charge of defending the West Coast, put it bluntly: "The Japanese race is an enemy race."5

Department of Justice inspecting baggage of women leaving Tule Lake incarceration camp for Crystal City, Texas, internment camp, 1946. Densho Digital Archives.

Here we must distinguish between internment, the legal detention of selected foreign nationals under the Alien Enemies Act of 1918, and the indiscriminant incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans under the sweeping authority of Executive Order 9066.6 Two-thirds of those taken away after President Roosevelt signed the order were U.S. citizens, not legally subject to internment. Yet they and their families were held in guarded compounds for years without any charge of wrongdoing. Executive Order 9066 was not applied to U.S. citizens of German or Italian extraction.

"Crystal City Reunion Camp Being Readied for Families," Gila News-Courier, May 15, 1943. Densho Digital Archives.

Crystal City was unique in its designation as a family internment camp, a slice of Texas history that should be understood in the larger context of the mass incarceration. In November 1942, the Immigration and Naturalization Service converted a former migrant farm worker camp in Zavala County to a facility where families could be reunited with their interned fathers. Though the camp was intended to hold Japanese aliens and their children, the first families to arrive were German, along with one Italian family. By summer 1944, Crystal City held 804 people of German ancestry, 4 of Italian ancestry, and 2,104 of Japanese ancestry; of the Nikkei, about 50% were from Latin American countries, primarily Peru. Because Peru refused to take back their people of Japanese descent after the war, many remained at Crystal City until the camp finally closed in February 1948.7

A circa 1943 government newsreel about the Crystal City internment camp can be viewed online (scroll down to Alien Enemy Detention Facility: Crystal City)

Painting a rosy picture of life in the internment camp, the newsreel shows detainees living under "traditional, American standards of decent and humane treatment." The script does concede, however, that people suffer "imaginary" illness traceable to "detention, the fence, the loss of freedom."

Japanese Peruvian baseball team, Crystal City, c. 1946. Densho Digital Archives.

Mako Nakagawa

At the age of seven, Mako Nakagawa, with her mother and three sisters, transferred from the Minidoka, Idaho, WRA camp to rejoin their father at Crystal City. After two years of separation, Mako remembered her father primarily from a formal photograph her mother cherished.

I don't recognize him. I do not recognize him and my kid sister was scared of him, ran away from him. I was too big to run away from him. I wish I could have. I didn't like this man. He looked dirty and he looked kind of disheveled and I was expecting this handsome, distinguished, well-dressed, groomed man. And this man was a disappointment, but my sisters were hugging him and they were so happy to see him, and my mom looked pretty happy. And I tried to pretend like I was happy. I wasn't. It took me a while to really get used to him, and he was, he really was. He was very different from what I hear from my friends. He was a gentle person. He was a loving person. I guess later on when I took his story, the fact that the baby ran away from him just hurt him really bad. He said, "My own daughter, my own daughter is running away from me."

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Mako quickly warmed to her father, who told her stories and took her to the swimming pool (a converted irrigation reservoir). After years of unhappy separation, her mother revived upon being reunited with her husband. Mako recalls that life as a family was much improved at Crystal City.

Densho: Were you able to be a family in Crystal City?

Nakagawa: Much more so. For one, we did not eat in mess halls. We had little duplex where in-between there was a bathroom, benjo, and then everybody cooked and ate for themselves. So there was a sense of privacy, a sense of family. There was a sense of community. One of my dad's recollections was in Crystal, they called us Mr. Takahashi, Mrs. Takahashi. I guess that's not the way they were addressed before. We were just things. There was a much healthier sense....

We went to Japanese school after American school, and then we went to Japanese school all day Saturday, and then we went to church on Sunday, so there was school every day in one form or another. Lots of activities for kids that were programmed, and it seemed like everybody was involved....From my perspective and from what I read, and from my sisters and from the tone, it was just a much healthier place. We were incarcerated. There was no doubt about that and the bitterness of the incarceration was there, but they were able to circumvent it somehow and live a pretty decent, closest to a community family life that was impossible in Minidoka.

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Densho interviewees describe Crystal City as being segregated into ethnic sections. Most Nisei say they had little contact with the German American children. They also had difficulty communicating with the Japanese Peruvians who spoke Spanish, as the Nisei were not fluent in their common language of Japanese. While Japanese Americans went to Japanese school after their regular school, the Japanese Peruvians took English classes.

Art Shibayama

Art Shibayama was shipped with his family to Crystal City from his native Peru. In his interview he recalls interacting with the Japanese Americans of his age.

Densho: About the relationship between the Japanese Peruvians and the Japanese Americans, did you mix very much? 

Shibayama: Not too much because we were one of the last ones to go into '44 so it was late. They had to build a new barracks for us to live in, so we were all put into one side of camp all together. Because the softball league was already established, we made our own team and then so that way we were intermingled with the Japanese Americans. And then in judo, too, because we had to take judo the same place, so we kind of got mixed with them there. But it was hard to communicate because they didn't speak Japanese and we didn't speak English, so it was hard... 

We didn't have any friction. The only thing was that we couldn't communicate very well. So it was mostly by sign language, by expression. Or we'd talk to them in Japanese and they would answer in English. Because a lot of them understood but they couldn't speak.

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Cast of a play, Crystal City internment camp. Densho Digital Archives.

Unlike in the WRA camps, where Americanism was promoted and Japanese culture discouraged, at Crystal City, the recreation was much more ethnic, presumably because some internees had requested repatriation or were expected to be deported. German, Spanish, and Japanese films were shown, and traditional Japanese arts and sports were practiced. Sumo matches were popular, and children learned Japanese songs and performed in Japanese plays.

Satoru Ichikawa

Satoru Ichikawa was the son of a Buddhist priest in Seattle. His father was arrested after Pearl Harbor and moved from one DOJ camp to another. Luckier than the stateless Japanese Peruvians, the Ichikawas, like other families headed by former enemy aliens, could return to their homes when the war ended.

Densho: When you found out you were going to leave Crystal City, how did you feel about that?

Ichikawa: I thought it was great. Finally we could leave this camp. Because all the time that I was in camp, my hope was that I could get out. I would always be thinking, "Why are we here? Why are we in this camp, and when will we get out of this camp?" So when we were told that we could leave now, we're gonna go, that was a big day for me.

All I can remember is the day that the war was over, the boys were out in the softball field playing baseball. And then all of a sudden somebody came over to say, "The war's over, the war's over." Of course, we all immediately stopped the game and went back to our homes to find out more, what's going on. And of course we all had radios in our homes... So we were trying to listen to see what the heck's going on. I thought it was tremendous that the war was over, yeah.

Densho: And what was the reaction of your parents during this time?

Ichikawa: I thought they were very happy that it was over, too. But I think some of the Isseis, they didn't know whether to believe it or not, until the emperor came on and he definitely said that this is over now.... I'm sure that they had a tremendous sense of relief hearing that the war was over. I don't think there was any bitterness on their part or anything like that. There was a tremendous sense of relief that it's finally over.

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1. "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change," New York Times, James C. McKinley, March 12, 2010.

2. See March 19, 2010, blog by Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda,

3. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. 94, 124.

4. "In a Small Town in Texas," Honolulu Star Bulletin, November 8, 2002,

5. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied (1982-83; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press), p. 66. In arguing for the exclusion of Nisei from the West Coast, DeWitt told Secretary of War Henry Stimson: "In the war in which we are now engaged racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted. "

6. Roger Daniels, "Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Japanese American Incarceration," February 1, 2008, Discover Nikkei website,

7. Kashima, Judgment with Trial, p. 119-20.

* This article was originally published on Denshō: The Japanese American Legacy Project.

© 2010 Densho

crystal city peruvian texas World War II

About this series

Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. This series presents selections from their archives which highlight primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history.