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A museum has compiled the names of all people of Japanese descent incarcerated during WWII

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It is one of the worst civil rights violations in U.S. history - the federal government's incarceration during World War II of more than 125,000 people of Japanese descent rounded up and held in bleak camps. For the first time, every incarcerated person's name has been collected in one place - in a book currently on exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. NPR's Adrian Florido went to see it.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: It's a simple exhibit in an alcove off the museum's main lobby. The book is displayed on a pedestal, beautifully bound, lit from above like a sacred object. And inside, printed on more than a thousand pages, 125,284 names.

DUNCAN RYUKEN WILLIAMS: So it's a massive book.

FLORIDO: Duncan Ryuken Williams is a University of Southern California professor whose team compiled the names of all those incarcerated.

WILLIAMS: These 125,284 names are not sequenced alphabetically, but by order of birth.

FLORIDO: Yaeichi Ota, the oldest person in the book, born in 1852, was about 90 when he was shipped off to a camp in Arkansas. He died there just weeks before the war ended. The very last name in the book? - Paul Masashi Masumoto, born in the Crystal City, Texas, camp just before it closed in 1947, more than a year after the war ended.

WILLIAMS: You know, we always think about these questions of why were these people incarcerated? And how is a 90-some-year-old or a baby born in camp - how could they possibly constitute a threat to national security?

FLORIDO: The government said the camps were necessary to prevent espionage for Japan but justified them using rationales now widely accepted as racist. Japanese people weren't treated as individuals but as a single group associated with the enemy. Williams says the idea with the book was to restore what people had been stripped of.

WILLIAMS: We were going to give people their dignity, their personhood, their individuality back by making sure we named them in this book and made sure we didn't leave anybody out, and also that we spelled their names correctly.

FLORIDO: His team spent three years compiling government records, train transport lists, draft cards, camp directories and talking to families. When the book went on exhibit in late 2022, camp survivors and their families waited hours to see it. The museum switched to an appointment system and recently extended the exhibit till the end of this year because demand to see it remains high.

KARIN NAKAHIRA-YOUNG: My name is Karin Nakahira-Young.

FLORIDO: She came to find the names of her parents and her grandparents. Her mother died just a few months ago, and though she'd heard about the book, she hadn't wanted to come see it.

NAKAHIRA-YOUNG: I asked her. She couldn't come.

FLORIDO: You wanted her to come see her name printed in the book?

NAKAHIRA-YOUNG: Yeah - just to see that she wasn't alone and there was a lot of other people. You know, but it was too painful for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAGES TURNING)

FLORIDO: A museum docent flips to the page containing her mom's name, Toyoko Toyo Hirai.

NAKAHIRA-YOUNG: OK. I don't want to cry on the book.

FLORIDO: She takes an ink stamp and presses a little blue dot next to her mom's name. The exhibit's goal is to have every name individually acknowledged this way, either by relatives or the general public. How do you feel?

NAKAHIRA-YOUNG: I feel good. Yes. There's a sense of recognition for them attending camp through the challenges and the hardships, but yet, their acceptance of it, too - that that was the circumstance that they were in.

FLORIDO: Other than stamping the book, visitors aren't supposed to touch it. But Duncan Williams says that's been hard to enforce. One old man bent over to kiss the name of his wife, who'd recently died. Many pages are now stained with tears.

WILLIAMS: This is therefore a monument that is actually constantly changing, not only because of the stamping, but because of that kiss and because of those tears. And that's actually what is giving the book value. I think that's one of the ways in which this book has become not just a book of remembrance, but a book of repair.

FLORIDO: The exhibit is called Ireicho, which means spirit-consoling book, and anyone can make an appointment to stamp it at the Japanese American National Museum until December. After that, the plan is for it to travel the country until each name has been stamped.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVIN LUKE'S "NIGHT WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.