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Brian Niiya


Brian Niiya is a public historian specializing in Japanese American history. Currently the content director for Densho and editor of the online Densho Encyclopedia, he has also held various positions with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i that have involved managing collections, curating exhibitions, and developing public programs, and producing videos, books, and websites. His writings have been published in a wide range of academic, popular, and web-based publications, and he is frequently asked to give presentations or interviews on the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. A "Spoiled Sansei" born and raised in Los Angeles to Nisei parents from Hawai'i, he lived in Hawai'i for over twenty years before returning to Los Angeles in 2017 where he is currently based.

Updated May 2020


Stories from This Author

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Memorializing a Shared History Between Native and Japanese American Communities at Fort Lincoln

Jan. 12, 2024 • Brian Niiya

In September, I had the privilege of attending the ground blessing ceremony for the Snow Country Prison Japanese American Internment Memorial on the campus of United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota. When completed, the memorial will bring much deserved attention to a unique World War II confinement site and a fascinating collaboration between Native American and Japanese American communities. The Bismarck detention camp was built on the site of Fort Lincoln, a former military post. Run by …

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Frozen Hair, Work Stoppages, and Other Lesser-Known Stories from Heart Mountain - Part 2

Sept. 12, 2023 • Brian Niiya

Read Part 1 >> 6. Resentment and Resistance to the Fence Like pretty much all of the other camps, Heart Mountain was still being built as the inmates were arriving. Among other things, there were no fences at the camp when inmates arrived in August 1942. But even though there were no attempted escapes or other similar incidents, construction by army contractors of a barbed wire fence around the perimeter of the camp began in October, much to the dismay …

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Frozen Hair, Work Stoppages, and Other Lesser-Known Stories from Heart Mountain - Part 1

Sept. 11, 2023 • Brian Niiya

Perhaps you know the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp for stories of boyhood-friends-turned-congressmen Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson, for the draft resistance of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, for the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, or for the half dozen or so documentary films about that camp. But as with all of the other camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during WWII, there are many unique and lesser known stories that reveal something about life there. Here are ten about …

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Ask a Historian: How Did Alaska Natives Wind Up Inside Japanese American Concentration Camps?

Feb. 13, 2023 • Brian Niiya

Brian Niiya delves into the hidden history of a group of Alaska Natives caught up in the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans in our first “Ask a Historian” entry of 2023 at Densho's Catalyst. * * * * * Janice Sadahiro writes, “I just saw your YouTube video ‘Befriending a Native Alaskan boy in camp.’  I’ve never heard that Alaskan Natives were also sent to camps. Why? What other information do you have about this?” There were two different groups of …

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Two Books That Shine New Light on the Nisei Experience in Japan

Dec. 19, 2022 • Brian Niiya

I’ve always thought of myself as a somewhat atypical Sansei in various ways, chief among them, that one of my Nisei parents—my mother in this case—was a bit more “Japanesy” because her family had spent significant time in Japan before, during, and after the war. As a result, I’ve had multiple relatives in Japan that I’ve kept in touch with, including my mother’s eldest brother, a Nisei born and raised in Hawai`i, who was involuntarily conscripted into the Japanese army …

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Horse Stall Housing, Spoiled Ham, and Other Stories of Life in Tanforan - Part 2

Dec. 5, 2022 • Brian Niiya , Jonathan van Harmelen

Read Part 1 >> Nisei Collegians Given its urban population and proximity to Bay Area colleges, it is likely that there was a higher concentration of college students at Tanforan than at most other “assembly centers.” Though most were not immediately able to continue their education, there were a few who were able to leave Tanforan to attend college—and thus avoid going to a WRA concentration camp—often with the assistance of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which formed at …

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Horse Stall Housing, Spoiled Ham, and Other Stories of Life in Tanforan - Part 1

Dec. 4, 2022 • Brian Niiya , Jonathan van Harmelen

The second largest of the so-called “assembly centers” with a peak population of 7,816, Tanforan was built on the site of the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, near the present site of the San Francisco International Airport. Its inmate population arrived in late April and early May 1942, and came almost entirely from the San Francisco Bay area and was thus among the most urban of the short-term camps. Essentially the entire inmate population was transferred to the Topaz, …

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African American images on a Nikkei Canvas: Black Characters in Japanese American Literature - Part 4

Feb. 13, 2022 • Greg Robinson , Brian Niiya

Read Part 3 >> For the next twenty years, there was little in the way of Japanese American literature that included any mention of African Americans, even as more Japanese American writers began to be published. One notable exception comes in a trilogy of plays by Velina Hasu Houston that follow the lives of Creed and Setsuko Banks. Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken) (1981), the first play in the series, is set in Ehime, Japan in 1945–46. It follows …

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African American images on a Nikkei Canvas: Black Characters in Japanese American Literature - Part 3

Feb. 6, 2022 • Greg Robinson , Brian Niiya

Read Part 2 >> Throughout the postwar years, up until the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a relative dearth of Japanese American literature in general, and while the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements drew much attention in the Japanese American press, they exerted little discernable influence in the Japanese American literature that appeared during this period. One partial exception can be found in the regular contributions of Joe Ide (also known as "Joseph Patrick Ide" and "Joseph Ide") …

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African American images on a Nikkei Canvas: Black Characters in Japanese American Literature - Part 2

Jan. 30, 2022 • Greg Robinson , Brian Niiya

Read Part 1 >> The coming of World War II and the mass confinement of West Coast Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 shuttered the community press. Literary activity did continue, to a limited extent, within the WRA camps, where inmates published stories and poems in camp newspapers and in reviews such as TREK at the Topaz camp. Except at Poston, which had a handful of black staffers, and in some areas near the Arkansas camps, confined Japanese Americans had …

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