Life in the Japanese Internment Camps: Living Conditions, Healthcare and Education

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On December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II. Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor. The government arrested many Japanese leaders in the immigrant country. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed military leaders to exclude whomever they felt necessary from military areas. This order served as the basis for the removal of approximately 120,000 ethnic Japanese—two thirds of the American citizens—from the Pacific Coast. During the spring of 1942, the U.S. Army moved Japanese American populations of California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona to 16 temporary detention compounds. Later in the summer, these internees were transferred to 10 permanent concentration camps. They were generally located on uninhabitable federal lands in the nation’s interior. The U.S. government justified the mass-incarceration as a “military necessity.” Due to the fact that they couldn’t distinguish loyal Japanese Americans from disloyal ones, the federal government approved the removal of anyone with any Japanese ethnicity. Ironically, there was no mass removal of Japanese Americans in the U.S. territory of Hawaii.

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Most internment camps housed about 10,000 people. In the camps, families were allowed to live together, but were assigned tightly spaced quarters; most families received only one room. The design of these camps were based off of military barracks. In a 1943 War Relocation Authority report, there was no “plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind’. In addition, they had to go to a different building in order to eat. From an interview of a survivor of the Japanese American Internment, the rooms were filled with three to four inches of sand. Therefore, they had to clean up the place and figure out a way to live a life in there. Due to this type of household, many internees found difficulty in their lifestyle. The family apartments were just tiny rooms with external bathrooms, showers, and laundry shared by a larger group. These rooms contain “little insulation save wood stoves in cold weather, and poor ventilation in the heat” (DPLA). Because of these rooms, many diseases easily spread among others and required treatment from medical centers. These living conditions were a big struggle for the internees. According to follow up questions about the internees’ experience, their living conditions was the most difficult part of the whole experience from the camp.

The internment camps introduced efforts to provide medical care. The unsanitary and poorly provided barracks were a major cause of the spread of diseases. Since these camps were very crowded, diseases easily spread as well as outbreaks of food poisoning. According to the Kiddle Encyclopedia, these diseases are typhoid, smallpox, dysentery, flu, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. Those who worked in the camp hospitals were Japanese American doctors and nurses who lived in the internment camps as well. Due to the fact that there were short staffed medical workers, there was an insufficient amount of medical supplies and medical providers could only give what was available to the aid of those infected.

Many of the incarees at the internment camps were children who needed an education. In fact, according to Thomas James, around 30,000 children were living in the camps (Exile Within, 3). Within the camps, many adults took charge and started schools for the children. However, there were often too many students with only a limited amount of teachers available. This meant that one teacher was often teaching almost forty students. Some teenagers and young adults also decided to finish their college career. However, this was rare because they would have to leave the camps in order to attend college. According to the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, 4,000 Japanese Americans were helped and allowed to attend college outside of the camps (NSRC Fund). This meant that these students did not have to endure life in the camps. However, these students also had to attend one of the few schools that was willing to accept them. These students were often rejected by schools

Within the internment camps, there were often schools for elementary level education and for higher level education. However, most of the schools were not well equipped and were overcrowded (DPLA). The school buildings were typically small, temporary buildings that were not designed to act as schools for almost three years. Also, because the camp schools were poorly planned and designed, they had a poor atmosphere and were often low on staffing and supplies. This was especially an issue because there were often around thirty to forty students with one teacher. Another common thing within camp schools was to dedicate an entire block of barracks for a school. Often times each class room would be one building. According to Russel Bearden, there was such a high demand for teachers that the camps would hire untrained and uncertified people to fill the teaching positions (Life Inside Arkansas’s Japanese-American Relocation Centers, 189).

Even though these internees were held captive, the camps included worship spaces. The religious centers and organizations differed in size and quality, but they still provided community, education, and amenities (DPLA). Several of the Japanese Americans were Buddhists. These Buddhists receive harsher treatment than Christians to the reason that they were more likely to support Japan than their own country. Thus, many Japanese converted to Chrisitanity to avoid the mistreatment. However, many remained as Buddhists in a way to protest the Americanization and loyalty pressures in the camps. Many Buddhists found that through their teachings helped them understand the betrayal and confusion of being imprisoned by their own government (Williams 195). Buddhist ideas and teachings influenced traditional Japanese culture. However, both religions flourished in the camps and created a diverse approach to worship. Due to this, the internees were able to keep their faith while remaining in their camps.  

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