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Minidoka National Historical Site Unveils New Visitor Center In Jerome County, Idaho

Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Hanako Wakatsuki, the Chief of Interpretation and Education at the Minidoka National Historical Site, stands in front of the renovated museum building.

Seventy-eight years ago this month, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order, forcing more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans out of their West Coast homes and into incarceration camps. Two-thirds of them were American-born citizens.


One of the camps was Minidoka in Jerome County, and this weekend the historical site will open its newly renovated visitor center.

The modern-rustic museum space is the building that once held the camp’s automotive repair shop. Above the entrance is a quote by Frank Kitamoto, who was one of 13,000 incarcerated at Minidoka.

“This is not just a Japanese-American story, but an American story with implications for the world,” it reads.

Inside, the exhibit tells the story of the prison camp in Idaho. It starts with a primer on terminology. For one, the forced incarceration is often referred to as “internment.” But Hanako Wakatsuki, the Chief of Interpretation and Education at the Minidoka National Historical Site, said that’s not an accurate term.

“Historically, the government was using the word 'concentration camps' to refer to these sites," she said. "Eventually with the atrocities out of Europe coming to light, they started to use 'internment.' And with that there are a lot of euphemistic terms like 'relocation, evacuation.'”

Photographs and other visuals depict life at Minidoka, which spanned 33,000 acres, and included agricultural fields and 36 housing blocks, each with multiple living units and a mess hall. The visitor center will play two park films, including a new one titled "Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp." There's also an installation dedicated to the first generation pioneers called “The Issei: A Legacy of Courage." 

Credit Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Hanako Wakatsuki points to a historical map of the Minidoka National Historical Site.

Idaho benefited from having a camp, Wakatsuki said. 

“A lot of the local white men were being drafted in the military so you lose that labor force." Incarcerated Japanese Americans harvested the sugar beets instead, which were used to stabilize munitions for the war effort. They were paid, but only about $8 to $16 per month.

"Amalgamated Sugar had an article in the newspaper thanking Japanese-American workers for saving the crops," Wakatsuki said, and those agricultural fields still benefit from the irrigation infrastructure these laborers built.

Wakatsuki, who grew up in Boise, said the incarceration at Minidoka is part of the collective history of southern Idaho and the nation.

“We need to learn about this because it affects everyone,” she said. 

The grand opening of the visitor center is on Saturday, February 22, 2020, from 1-5 p.m.


Want to learn more about Minidoka? Check out these events throughout Idaho:


Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen


Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

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