Manzanar Riot

The Manzanar riot of December 1942 was one of several significant acts of open resistance in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) concentration camps. On December 5, Fred Tayama, a well-known leader of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), was beaten, and a suspect, Harry Ueno, was arrested for that assault and was removed from the camp and confined in the jail at the nearby town of Independence. The next day at a mass meeting attended by over 2,000 Japanese Americans, the people drew up demands for presentation to the camp director by a negotiating committee of five men. These included Ueno's unconditional release and an investigation into general camp conditions by the Spanish consul (during the war, Spain represented the interests of citizens of Japan).

When the negotiating committee, joined by about a thousand people, marched to the administration building to present their petition, military police armed with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas blocked their progress. They, however, allowed the five men through, and the camp director promised Ueno's return if the crowd dispersed, which they did, but they reassembled later that evening to demand again Ueno's immediate release.

From Harry Ueno's perspective, two jeeps filled with military police came to his barrack to arrest him the night of December 5. He had no idea about what he was charged with or why he was being arrested. He knew, nonetheless, that the authorities held him in contempt. When he asked that his family be notified about where he was, Ueno said, Ned Campbell, the WRA camp's assistant director, shot back at him “with hatred in his face”: “Nobody is going to know where you are going to. I won't let anybody know where you are. And you are going to stay there for a long time” (Embrey, Hansen, Mitson, 54).

After a night in the Independence jail, much to Ueno's surprise, the police returned him to Manzanar. Looking out the window of his camp prison cell, Ueno saw military police putting on their gas masks. People outside were singing the Japanese Navy marching song perhaps to keep warm, and they did not threaten the soldiers. According to Ueno, “No Nihonjins [Japanese] I could see carried any sticks or weapons or anything. The crowd were all kinds—women, young people, Nisei, Kibei, all of them.” Unprovoked, the soldiers simply began lobbing tear gas into the crowd. Because of the wind, the “smoke just covered the whole area; people were running away. I couldn't see the movement because my view was from in front of the police station. But the campsite was all filled up with people beyond the administration building.” A sergeant in charge exhorted his men, “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Hold Your Ground,'” Ueno recalled. He repeated that several times as if to stiffen the resolve of the troops. “I could see some of the young MPs kind of shaking, scared because the crowd [was] so big there.” Before the gas cleared, the soldiers started shooting (Tateishi, 199, 200; Embrey, Hansen, Mitson, 56).

There was confusion among the troops and their commanders, according to Ueno who was inside the police station and overheard them. No one seemed to know who ordered the shooting, but it was clear that a young Japanese American, James Ito, was killed and another, Katsuji Kanagawa, was mortally wounded. Nine others lay wounded on the street. Most were shot in the back, indicating they were running away from the soldiers. At the hospital, the dead and injured arrived and were placed on stretchers in the corridors. The army tried to coerce the attending physicians and nurses to falsify their records to indicate that the bullets entered from the front to justify the military's action of firing into a confrontational mob, according to a hospital staff member. Dr. James Goto, the chief medical officer and surgeon, refused, and the next day he was dismissed and relocated to another concentration camp (Tateishi, 237).

Throughout the night bells tolled, and people held meetings while soldiers patrolled the camp. More suspected informers were beaten that night and their families threatened. The next morning, on December 7, the military took over the

camp and arrested the negotiating committee members and other leaders of the resistance. Despite that show of force, a new committee confronted the military commanding officer to demand Ueno's release, and they, too, were arrested. The WRA sent them to isolation centers at Moab, Utah and Leupp, Arizona. Suspected collaborators, called inu (dog) in Japanese, and their families were likewise removed from Manzanar for their protection.

Block managers distributed black armbands to wear while mourning for the two dead and in solidarity with the resistance movement. Between two-thirds and three-fourths of the camp population wore those armbands, showing the extent of the discontent. Camp observers described Manzanar as shaken for weeks, and long conferences and meetings between the camp director and Japanese Americans followed in an uneasy though subdued camp.

Gary Y. Okihiro


Embrey, Sue Kunitomi, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson (Eds.). Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno. Fullerton: California State University, Oral History Program, 1986.

Tateishi, John. And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. New York: Random House, 1984.