The Conditions for People Held at Japanese Internment Camps

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Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Following the attack were strong feelings of fear, distrust, and hatred from white Americans toward those of Japanese descent. These moods were highlighted when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 allowing for mass relocation of many Japanese in America. In the ensuing months, camps were erected in remote areas around the country to house large numbers of Issei, first generation, and Nissei, second generation, Japanese. These camps, called Relocation Centers, were incomplete in structure and were surrounded by fencing, barbed wire, watchtowers, and search lights. Until 1946 these camps would be the home to over 110,000 Japanese internees. What were these camps really like and how did the Japanese adapt to their new life in an inescapable place? Despite living in makeshift camps, the Japanese internees found ways to make the camps civilized.

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When there was an influx of immigrants from Japan in the 1890s, citizens of the United States were not very welcoming. In 1908, the United States signed a pact with Japan in an effort to reduce the number of unskilled immigrants coming from Japan. Domestically, U.S. citizens displayed anti-Japanese sentiment by starting groups such as the Anti-Jap Laundry League that boycotted Japanese-run laundry businesses. Even the government showed signs of discrimination by passing the Immigration Act of 1924 which blocked Japanese from becoming American citizens.

Anti-Japanese was already prevalent in the United States and these feelings were further exacerbated when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Blame was almost immediately placed on those of Japanese descent. Just 48 hours after the attack, over 1,000 Japanese-descent were arrested for being potentially involved in the affair and as a result, Anti-Japanese propaganda spread across the country within just days. An attack that detrimental was of great concern to many leaders within the country. Western Defense Command General John L. Dewitt claimed those of Japanese descent were “an enemy race” to the American people. In DeWitt’s mind, “a Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not”. This shows the dehumanization and racism from people of power within the United States. President Roosevelt and his administration saw Japanese-American loyalty as a large concern. The questioning of Japanese-American allegiance was a large factor in evacuation and relocation of many citizens. As a result, Executive Order 9066 was created. In issuing Executive Order 9066, President Roosevelt authorized “to prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded”. Any and all persons turned out to be those of Japanese descent who would be sent to relocation centers.

After it had been implemented, Executive Order 9066 established careful monitoring of Japanese-Americans. On top of being watched, Japanese-Americans were not allowed to use certain modes of communication and had curfews in an effort to reduce the risk of another attack. Within just a few months, curfews turned into the relocation of many citizens. Executive order 9102 was enacted, creating the War Relocation Authority (WRA) on March 18, 1942. The WRA’s role was to “formulate and effectuate a program for the removal, from [designated areas] of the persons or classes of persons designated… and for their relocation maintenance, and supervision”. In other words, the WRA would be the leading group in organized and carrying out the forced removal of many Japanese in America. President Roosevelt appointed Milton Eisenhower, Dwight’s brother, as the first director. While the relocation centers were being built, Japanese-Americans would stay at temporary assembly centers. They were allowed to bring just their bedding, clothing, and a few personal possessions with them. As they left for the temporary assembly centers, many families had to say goodbye to their homes, neighbors, furniture, pets, and their traditional lives.

When Japanese-Americans arrived at the temporary assembly centers, they found a makeshift camp surrounded by barbed wire. The assembly centers were often old racetracks and fairground improvised to house thousands of people. As a result, infrastructure and organization within the camps were rather sloppy. Japanese-Americans were to stay in old military barracks that were divided to house multiple families. Many dividing walls would not reach the ceiling which allowed for noise to travel and privacy to be invaded. These assembly centers would be called home for just a few months, as relocation began in the summer of 1942. When Japanese-Americans were removed from the assembly centers, they were sent to ten relocation centers spread across remote areas of the country. There were two camps in California, Arkansas, and Arizona and one in Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah.

The train rides to the new assembly centers were not pleasant by any means. For one, the trains the government used to transport evacuees were older and of poor condition, resulting in long, slow rides. If another train was coming, the trains carrying Japanese had to wait and allow for it to pass. Sometimes the delay of trains took as long as 10 hours, adding more time to the already long journey. The military ordered the shades on the windows to be drawn, not allowing Japanese riders to look out the window. The drawn shades and closed windows created poor ventilation and stuffy air, leading to high temperatures within the cars. In some instances, toilets on the train cars would leak onto the floor and get evacuees’ bags wet. Finally, the evacuees were told they would be provided with meals during the train rides, however, this policy did not hold true as many passengers were ill-fed. Once they arrived at the relocation centers, it was about a two-hour process to empty train cars. Evacuees grabbed their baggage and family members before being organized and registered by Military Police. After registering, groups of internees were taken by truck to their living areas.

Despite being worked on for longer than the assembly centers, the conditions of relocation centers were not much better. Relocation centers were built from the ground up, sometimes only half-finished when evacuees arrived. Many of the camps had similar layouts to promote speed and efficiency during the building process. Similar to the temporary camps, Japanese-Americans stayed in barracks within the relocation centers. The barracks were originally built to hold four people but were adjusted to fit twenty-five people. A 1943 War Relocation Authority report described the housing at relocation centers as “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities”. Barracks were about 20×100-120 feet, containing four or six 20×24 foot rooms. These rooms, which more closely resembled stalls, contained one, sometimes even two, families at a time. These rooms were quite crowded and had limited supplies for the families. Some reports found only two cots, two blankets, a few pillows, a light bulb, and an empty stove within each room.

Most barracks were constructed without bathrooms, laundry, kitchenware, and bathing facilities. Instead, these places were often outside the barracks and shared communally. Camps were divided into “blocks” that resembled streets and contained twelve to fourteen living quarters, a mess hall, and communal bathhouses. Because barracks were made out of tarpaper and nails, they lacked proper insulation and ventilation which meant temperatures within the barracks could get quite extreme. Winters were often very cold while summers would be very hot. With so many people being housed in such a small area, one outbreak of a disease could spread among several internees. Diseases such as typhoid and smallpox spread rapidly throughout some of the camps, leading many internees to become ill and need to go to the hospital. Camps such as Topaz were constructed in the middle of a desert where dust storms were frequent. The weak infrastructure of the barracks, such as cracked walls, allowed for sand and dust to pour into rooms. The WRA had a hard time keeping up with replacement orders because of shortages in materials that came with the war and as a result, many internees suffered from poor housing conditions.

Housing was not the same for everyone who lived within the camps, however. Caucasians who worked in the camps, whether it be teachers or military police, had their own living quarters that were separate from the Japanese internees. Staff housing was half a barrack per family, the same amount of space that held three Japanese families. These living spaces, after being completed, closer resembled a house rather than a barrack. Inside their homes, they had decorated walls, wood stoves, full kitchens, carpeted floors, toilets, showers, and their own cooling system; not much different from a typical home outside the camps.

Despite the disparity in housing conditions, internees did what they could to make their living quarters feel more “homely”. Internees would rummage for leftover wood scraps in leftover lumber piles in order to make furniture within their rooms. Using wood and creativity, shelves, chairs, tables and other small furniture were built and placed in rooms. In order to brighten up the rooms, internees paid for paint and cloth to design the walls and curtains. These materials were delivered through the mail directly to the camps. Outside the barracks, rock gardens formed, and internees planted seeds that grew into gardens full of flowers, shrubs, and vegetables. By 1943, the camps vegetables were largely home-grown, counting for 85% of their consumption. The gardening was often combated by tough conditions in the desolate areas of the camps. Dust storms and wind would sometimes ruin portions of the gardens and created growing pains for plants. The climate, which ranged from -35º in the winter to 115º fahrenheit in the summer made gardening and farming complicated for planters.

Throughout the existence of the relocation centers, the WRA had to make sure they provided just the right amount of needs for the internees. Military Police wanted to support the needs of the internees but were careful in doing so. If media or politicians were to find out about generous treatment of internees, it would cause outrage in American politics. Because of this, the WRA could never be too generous towards the internees. Instead, they were forced to find a balance between fair and sometimes harsh treatment. One of the areas where this was shown was in the meals of the internees.

Meals in the camps were served at specific times in the mess halls which resulted in large crowds piling up. The WRA had to follow a policy that ensured the food being rationed to American citizens was also given to internees. Unfortunately, this did not always hold true as items such as meat and milk were undersupplied within the camps on frequent occasion. Many campers went hungry because the food was poor and meager. The most common foods according to campers were sausages, bread, beans, rice, vegetables, and fish. According to Yoshiko Uchida, the food “improved gradually… we had fried chicken and ice cream for Sunday dinner”. There was a small number of “unique” or “fancy” meals because internees were only allowed the same price of food per day, 50 cents, as members of the U.S. Army. The government saw it as unfair if internees received more rations than those fighting the war, which is why internees were served such cheap, and usually bland, food. In January 1943, a question rose about whether or not internees were receiving higher quantity and quality of food than the American population. As an answer, the WRA had to get the meals they would serve internees over a 30-day period approved by the government. This information was released to the public so people could see the quality and quantity of food internees were receiving.

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