Densho Insights: Why Do Some Survivors Say Camp Was “Fun”?

May 24, 2023

In response to a question about why some survivors describe their experiences in Japanese internment camps as “fun,” Densho Content Director Brian Niiya provides some insightful research and perspectives in his May 2023 article.

He explains that there are various reasons why some Nisei remember their time in the camps as positive experiences. Many Nisei were teenagers or young adults during their incarceration, a time of life often associated with nostalgia for fun with friends, first love, and other milestones. Some Nisei enjoyed social activities, such as dances and sports, or even found their future spouse in the camps. The all-Nikkei school setting also provided unique opportunities for leadership roles and friendships.

Furthermore, prewar circumstances influenced how camp conditions were perceived. For Nisei from isolated farming communities, being among hundreds of fellow Nisei was either daunting or exhilarating. Friendships formed in the camps became lasting connections, especially for those who came from rural areas and were freed from labor-intensive farm work.

Photo: Betty Aoki is crowned the Queen of Hunt High School during a May Day festival in Minidoka. The court was chosen by a popular vote of students at the camp high school. May 7, 1943. Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite these reasons, Niiya emphasizes that being forcibly removed from their homes and confined in compounds based solely on their ancestry was indeed a traumatic experience. Even those who describe the camps as “good” or “the best” often had family members who did not fare well or suffered lasting bitterness. Research on the impacts of the camps on the next generation (Sansei) reveals that many Nisei parents emphasized the positive aspects of camp while downplaying the hardships, potentially as a defense mechanism.

Psychologists and social workers specializing in the Nikkei community have shed light on these defense mechanisms. They suggest that Nisei employed repression, denial, rationalization, and other psychological defenses to cope with the overwhelming pain, trauma, and stress of the incarceration experience.

Rationalization, in particular, allowed individuals to adopt narratives that aligned with government propaganda, such as camp being “good” for their own protection. Denial and minimizing the significance of losses were other common defense mechanisms observed among the Nisei.

Efforts have been made to address the mental health needs of those who were children in the camps, and increased openness and knowledge about the incarceration have helped families better understand their experiences.

Although the views of older Nisei have evolved over time, it may have come too late for some individuals. However, it is important to recognize them as part of the community’s history and acknowledge the profound impact of the incarceration on their lives.

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