iTOUR THROUGH HISTORY: New app allows digital media to teach about the Japanese American incarceration experience


images courtesy of Crimson Bamboo

images courtesy of Crimson Bamboo

Have the days when students learned about Japanese American history through textbooks gone by the wayside?

As consumers latch on to the latest tech gadgets, some companies are using digital media to teach about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

From iPhone applications to video games, the emerging trend signals the innovative ways in which developers are using new media to educate one of the darkest chapters of American history.

The most recent digital media product to document Japanese American history was unveiled in October when a Brooklyn, New York-based company called Crimson Bamboo released a program that allows users to learn about the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp on an iPhone or iPad.

The program is accessible through a travel application the team developed in 2010 called Rama, which offers a virtual walking tour of various historical moments and landmarks. Users can purchase and download a particular tour for use within the application.

The Topaz tour, which is being sold for 99 cents, draws on historical photographs, and even incorporates the iPhone’s GPS function to guide users through the former site.

The Topaz concentration camp opened on Sept. 11, 1942 and housed more than 8,000 Nikkei during World War II as part of the larger U.S. government effort to forcibly relocate some 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of whom were American citizens — from the West Coast and into prison camps. Many Bay Area residents were moved to the location after living in horse stalls at the Tanforan Race Track in San Bruno, Calif.

The Topaz camp site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2007.

The makers of the application accept submissions for tour ideas, working with the author to ensure historical accuracy. Other Rama tours include Chinatown, 1909 in New York and Edo-Jo Castle in Japan. The Topaz location was chosen in part because the writer had a personal relation to the camp.

Dana Ogo Shew, a historian and archaeologist by training, wrote the iPhone application for Rama. Shew said she felt compelled to write the application because several of her family members were incarcerated in the camps, according to Rama spokesperson Stephanie Patafio.

Shew did not respond to requests for an interview. But she worked closely with the Topaz Museum Board to develop the application.

Jane Beckwith, a retired high school teacher, is president of the nonprofit organization that helps to preserve the history of the Topaz concentration camp. She said it is a good tool for long-distance learners.

“If you live in Boston and have a tie to Topaz, you can’t really come here easily. But you can ‘Web travel’ and come and look at the places,” she said.

images courtesy of Crimson Bamboo

Beckwith said the application is also a good entry point for people to learn more about Topaz. She hopes users will supplement the application with other resources to gain a rich understanding of the wartime experience.

“This is just one piece of what we hope will be able to encourage people to study the Topaz internment more,” she said.

Since its release, the application has gained some initial interest from consumers. Patafio couldn’t comment on sales numbers due to privacy concerns but added that the company was surprised by an early burst of purchases.

“From what we can tell, sales so far seem to have been driven by strong word-of-mouth and a renewed general interest in this dark chapter in American and Japanese American history,” she said in an e-mail.

The iPhone application is the latest in programs that have used digital media to educate a slice of Japanese American history. Last year, researchers at the University of California, San Diego announced a prototype video game that chronicles the two Arkansas-based wartime concentration camps, Jerome and Rohwer, called “Drama in the Delta” (

And the use of new media is expanding. Rama hopes to add more sites in the future, including the Manzanar concentration camp in California.

“We’re still looking for appropriate authors for Manzanar and the other camps,” said Patafio. “We hope that the attention the Topaz tour garners will make it easier for us to approach potential authors for those locations, or for them to find us.”


• Download the “Rama” app from your iPhone or iPad for free
• Find the “Topaz Relocation Camp” Tour under “Utah: Delta”
• Download the app for 99 cents


There are 14 sites on the 60-minute tour. Among them are:
• City of Topaz
• Topaz Hospital
• Block Life
• The Art of Confinement
• All Hail Topaz High…
• American Pastimes

2 responses to “iTOUR THROUGH HISTORY: New app allows digital media to teach about the Japanese American incarceration experience”

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