Life Beyond Barbed Wire: The Significance of Japanese American Labor in the Mountain West, 1942-1944

Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Patricia N. Limerick

Second Advisor

Marcia Yonemoto

Third Advisor

Paul S. Sutter

Fourth Advisor

Phoebe S. K. Young

Fifth Advisor

Daryl J. Maeda


During the Second World War, nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were exiled to the American West and compelled to live in barbed wire-encircled confinement centers. Though the history of removal and confinement is now well documented, there are significant aspects of the Japanese American (or Nikkei) experience that remain unexplored. Many Americans today associate wartime incarceration camps with prisons, and assume that the Nikkei spent the entire duration of the war surrounded by barbed wire. And while we would be right to think of concentration camps as secure, locked-down facilities, the physical and metaphorical borders were more permeable than most people might assume. This dissertation examines the Japanese Americans who left incarceration camps to find temporary work in communities around the Mountain West. Focusing on Nikkei laborers, I demonstrate not only how they had an impact on the larger war effort, but also how they experienced life and work beyond the barbed wire. Drawing from government records, newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, this study considers the vital wartime contributions of the Nikkei in the agricultural and canning industries, and dissects their complex motivations for leaving the camps. It ties Japanese American workers to the labor of other politically and socially marginalized groups in the West, and considers the federal government's increasing role in brokering labor throughout the region. While scholars have chronicled the acrimonious racial tensions that existed between citizens of the United States and Japan, and have explored domestic race riots in California, Michigan, Texas, and New York, less is known about race relations in the Mountain States during the same period. Looking at the experiences of Nikkei workers who had direct and meaningful contact with local community members, this work also explores the complex nature of race relations in the Mountain West during a war steeped in racialized rhetoric and violence.

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