Free Japanese Internment: First-Hand Experience Vs. Grand Narrative Renderings Essay Example
An inexcusable and tragic episode of American history and politics, Japanese-American internment in World War II profoundly affected Japanese men and women alike because they encountered and endured vitriolic and overt racism as well as harrowing family strains. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 , which mandated the uprooting of all Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast from their homes and their relocation in makeshift concentration camps the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor perpetrated by the Japanese Air Force(Ngai 79). Scholars often depict Japanese interment as the foremost example of “alien citizenship” on the basis that it directly violated the constitutional and human rights of Japanese citizens (Wheeler 241). This forced uprooting handicapped the Japanese from advancing and becoming successful in U.S. society because the government seized the land that had belonged to the Japanese prior to internment along with Japanese-owned businesses as a covert mechanism that reified the racial status quo. Indeed, nativist sentiment escalated again during this time period due to the economic success many Japanese men enjoyed. Internment in the historical grand narrative thus is almost always described in a highly pejorative manner as a state-sanctioned project to fully acculturate Japanese into American society.
Oral histories indicate that this experience was a gendered one and to an extent catalyzed a litany of positive changes in the lives of Japanese women of all ages and generations as well as men. Although Japanese internment camps affected the first-generation Japanese men and women—referred to as the Issei—in an adverse yet idiosyncratic fashion, it impacted the second-generation men and women—referred to as Nisei—in a more positive manner. The camps fostered a sense of equality between Japanese men and women by giving women more economic clout in the family. Such experiences enabled young Nisei women to gain experience in new types of work and receive education in institutions of higher learning that they may have never dreamed of prior to their coerced incarceration. Internment also benefited Issei women by offering them more freedom, yet it simultaneously accelerated a generational gap between Issei parents and their children because the internment camps endorsed and accelerated Americanization of Nisei vis-à-vis the dismantling of traditional patterns.
Photographs, taped oral interviews of former detainees, detainees' letters, and local camp newspaper accounts of the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps during World War II, it is unequivocal that the setting of the camps altered gender and familial relations and broke down patriarchy, which opened up new prospects for Nisei women in both work and education while offering Issei women more independence. As a result, these newfound opportunities empowered Nisei women and fostered a sense of independence in both Issei and Nisei women that divorced them from the crippling patriarchy they have historically been subject to. In doing so, the camps ultimately provided Nisei women with the tools they needed to acculturate and assimilate easier into mainstream U.S. society in ways that had previously been closed off to them because of their race. Nobuo Yamasaki opined: “The camps made the Japanese start over from scratch. We could not resist. Some part of me knew life would never be the same, and I would forever be resentful” (Yamasaki). First-hand testimony procured during an interview with Nobuo Yamasaki combined with the extant corpus of literature on the subject of Japanese internment depict it in a far more negative light because he, like many other scholars today, decried the abridgement of their citizen rights and the forced assimilation program the government implemented in the various camps.
JAPANESE INTERNMENT AND THE DECONSTRUCTION OF PATRIARCHY
The communal setting of the internment camps empowered both the Issei and Nisei Japanese-American women by breaking down the traditional patriarchal structure of Japanese families. Prior to internment, men possessed complete authority over their wives and children, as they represented the economic backbone of the family which allowed them to make all family decisions. The camps, however, emasculated the detained Japanese men, as many felt that they had lost some level of authority over their wives and children. Seating in the cafeteria altered family hierarchies because the immense communal mess h alls caused families to no longer eat together; fathers no longer sat at the head of the table, and family members tended to eat whenever he or she desired to. A photograph of the mess hall at Manzanar displays a typical mealtime at the relocation center where families sat together at picnic-style tables with benches on each side (Adams). Furthermore, an account by an Issei internee at Tule Lake named Nobuo Yamasaki exposes his psychological agony regarding the affects of mess-hall living on his family:
Before camp my family would sit at a large wooden tableit was the center of family lifeI would sit at the head of the table, my wife next to me, and then the kids would be seated according to ageI would give the order for everyone to eat after sufficient conversing. But the mess halls have halted our family meals; [my children] Jane and Emiko began eating with their friends at different times, and [my wife] Sizuno would work different hours of the day making it impossible to schedule a fixed time for mealsit was if I no longer had control over anything (Yamasaki).
This loss of control expressed by Yamasaki points to a breakdown of the traditional patriarchy taking place within the internment camps. Men lost power not only over their wives but also over their children, who no longer obeyed patriarchal authority. This trend is also evident in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s candid memoir Farewell to Manzanar in which she recalls during her internment at Manzanar a chilling moment when her father—in an attempt to reassert his patriarchal authority over her mother—constantly beat her with his cane while she lay prostrate and bleeding. To halt the abuse, Houston’s brother Kiyo yells at his father to stop, then subsequently punches him in the face. Houston notes that, “no one had ever seen such a thing before” (Houston 50). Houston’s account of her father’s abuse reflects his response to the emasculation he felt in the camps. By standing up to his father, Kiyo clearly no longer views his father as the ultimate authority in the family. Houston points to the psychological effects of the camps on gender relations when she later remarks as a young girl that “[Papa] didn’t die [at Manzanar], but things finished for him there, whereas for me it was like a birthplace” (Houston 34). Thus, it appears that the structure of the internment camps stripped power away from the men while simultaneously empowering Japanese women in various ways.
The aforementioned loss of patriarchal control combined with the prison-like setting of the internment camps shifted the traditional Japanese marriage patterns for Nisei girls to an Americanized notion of marriage. Thus, the camps unintentionally catalyzed the assimilation of young Japanese women into mainstream American culture. Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston notes in her memoir that, “the cubicles we had were too small for anything you might call ‘living’we slept there and spent most of our waking hours elsewhere” (Houston 28). Young Nisei girls spent their “waking hours” at school, engaged in recreational activities organized by the schools, working or participating in sports functions without the supervision of their parents. Because the camps eradicated the structure of the traditional home and implemented communal barracks, Issei parents could no longer supervise their children as they used to. This grim reality faced by Japanese men is most evident in the Japanese fathers’ declining role in their daughters’ lives. Indeed, they no longer had the ability to arrange their daughters’ marriages. Nobuo Yamasaki lamented over his daughter Emiko’s “frequent romances,” especially when “she once talked of marriage with a boy she met at school and eventually fell in love withI could not prevent it for I hardly saw her once a week; as much as I wanted to fix her up with a man I knew would provide for her adequately” (Yamasaki) Combined with the loss of parental supervision, the closed, confining nature of the camps thus allowed for young romances to blossom and develop. Yamasaki’s recognition that he could not prevent his daughter’s romances affirms that young Japanese girls spent the majority of their time with their peers rather than with their families in the barracks. This cultivated their desire to marry out of love rather than practicality, as Yamasaki further alluded to the traditional custom of the arranged marriage. This reformed view of marriage is further evident through the focus on fashion for girls who sought to "impress" boys in the camp.
Many camp-run newspapers such as The Daily Tulean Dispatch’s “Strictly Feminine” provided young female readers suggestions for how they could impress boys through the use of certain hair products and through wearing certain clothing (“Strictly Feminine”). This critical focus on aesthetics and appearances points to shifting marriage patterns by demonstrating the psychological impact of the camp’s structural setting on Nisei girls. It implicates not only the increasing independence the camps gave Nisei girls by bestowing them the freedom to choose their own spouses but also their desire to replace the traditional arranged marriage with the practice of marriage based on love. This reformed view of marriage mirrors the American tradition of marriage, revealing that the camp setting instilled American values and beliefs in Nisei women and further aided their assimilation into American society.
In altering family dynamics, the internment camps also gave Issei Japanese women more economic status in the family by diminishing their traditional responsibilities and offering both men and women equal opportunities to work in a variety of jobs. In a letter written to her white friend in San Diego, Margaret Ishino gleefully declares that “I did not have to cook or wash the dishes as there are many cooks and waiters in the cafeteriathank heavens I do not have to do the dishes!” (Ishino). Ishino’s letter reveals her relief that she no longer was obligated to perform arduous domestic tasks that she was previously expected to do because of the communal structure of the camps. Ishino notes that she instead “gets [her] exercise playing dodge ball, catch, or softball. Once in a while [she] types manuscripts for [her] friends.” The camps relieved Issei women such as Ishino from domestic drudgery and allowed them to enjoy a life of leisure. Furthermore, they had the freedom to fill their time engaged in either leisure activities or revenue-earning employment that before had been shut off to them as a result of the crippling patriarchy. While Issei Japanese women escaped the drudgery of domestic work, Japanese men were often employed as domestic workers. Two photographs published in Life magazine depict men working in the kitchen cooking the food for the mess halls as well as serving food (Adams). These photos emphasize that men worked in untraditional settings and were often assigned jobs typically given to women. Through juxtaposition of the two photographs with Ishino’s letter, it becomes clear that the camps equalized Japanese men and Japanese women by assigning labor communally rather then according to presupposed gender roles. Furthermore, Issei women found more economic power, which is evident in Houston’s memoir. Houston recalls that her mother worked as soon as they arrived at Manzanar because “she had a monthly fee to pay the warehouse in Los Angeles where she had stored what remained of our furnitureshe worried about this constantly” (Houston 28). Houston’s observations about her mother’s concerns elucidate the economic responsibility Japanese women possessed during internment because men’s means of livelihood were shut off indefinitely as a result of the American government’s increased suspicion towards Japanese males. As a result, women’s economic contributions became equally vital for the livelihood of Japanese families during and after the war.
The structure of the camps further promoted such gender equality in the economic sector through the parity of wages, empowering both Issei and Nisei women as they became major contributors to the family income. The camps offered several different jobs because they were run by departments with government administrators who were in desperate need of help not only in respectable sectors such as accounting, education, agriculture and medical care but also in blue-collar work (Houston 21). Houston noted that upon arriving at camp, all able-bodied individuals with any kind of skill were expected to “offer their [work] services” both skilled and unskilled in order to prove their patriotism as Americans (Houston 28). Regardless of gender, labor shortages in the camps created a vacuum for both male and female laborers to work and receive the same meager pay. As a result, women were empowered because now they were now making as much money if not more than their husbands and fathers were. Miyeko Yoshimura, a twenty-one year old Nisei woman detained at an internment camp located in Rahr, Arkansas, recalls:
My mother, Michiko, was a nurse, and she earned 16 dollars a month. My father found work as a doctor, for they were in demand, and he earned the same amount as momdid: 16 dollars a month. It was new feeling for me and my momto help the family with our low wages that equaled those of my brother and father.
Yoshimura’s reflections elucidate not only the equal wages offered in the camps to men and women for their services, but also that Issei women were able to gain experience in reputable jobs such as a nurse, just as Yoshimura’s mom does. Such opportunities had previously been shut off to Issei women as a result of not only because of the domestic obligations they had been confined to in the traditional patriarchy but also because of U.S. racism towards the Japanese. The transient economic equality experienced by Japanese women in the camps empowered them, as many took advantage of their opportunities to work for minimal wages in order to contribute to the family economy.
Nisei women also found more opportunities to engage in a wide variety of jobs such as clerical and managerial work that was much more highly regarded then what they were used to; this provided them with valuable work experience in the camps that could help them pursue such reputable work outside of the camps and succeed in postwar America. Discussing her labor experience in the camps, Yoshimura asserted: “I worked as a secretary for the optometrist for the entirety of my internment experience. I loved it because it was respectable work I never had the opportunity to do before the campsand it was not servant work in the home, which I was very unaccustomed to before camp” (Yoshimura). Thus, it is evident that Nisei women were able to gain valuable work experience in more respectable jobs that had been shut off to them before internment, as she says that previously could only find domestic work. A photograph from Ansel Adams’s collection from Manzanar depicts a young, smiling Japanese stenographer for the Education Office in Manzanar named Yoshiko Joan Mori (Adams). This picture points to the type of white-collared work that opened up to women in the camps. Mori’s smile suggests her excitement over having access to such opportunities.
Because so many different job positions opened up, Yoshimura details how the camps provided her and other women great opportunities to experiment with jobs, as ironically more job opportunities for them existed within the camps then were offered previously outside of them. She says: “I didn’t know exactly what kind of work I was looking for. The thing about the camp is that it allowed me and my friends to experiment and figure out what kind of work we liked”(Yoshimura). Her upbeat tone conveys her glee at the freedom she possesses to choose what kind of work she could engage in during her internment. Her experimentation in different jobs suggests her desire to find work that she enjoys and exposes how labor opportunities in the camps empowered her. Such job opportunities provided Nisei women with the experience in highly regarded jobs that they could pursue outside of the camp setting and developed their growing awareness of their capabilities as workers. Confident in their abilities, many Nisei women such as Yoshimura left the camps with the assistance of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council to work. Yoshimura left camp in 1943, and with the help of the War Relocation Authority found housing and a clerical position on the East coast, earning revenue that enabled her to contribute to the family income (Yoshimura). Thus, the camps sometimes allowed Nisei women to gain valuable work experience in reputable jobs, which fostered an independent spirit within them and encouraged them not only contribute to the family income from afar. In doing so, the camps encouraged young women to assimilate by providing them the tools within camps to succeed and be accepted outside of the barbed wire.
The internment camps further fostered this feeling of independence by opening up new opportunities for Nisei women through education, which further helped them assimilate into mainstream US American society. In Margaret Ishino’s letter, Ishino depicts a positive of the camps as a place of opportunity. The majority of the content focuses on how happy she is that her daughter Florence attends school every day, indicating that opportunities for education may have been restricted to girls prior to internment (Ishino). While it is important to note that Ishino may have kept hidden the trauma she felt during internment because she was addressing a white cohort, her letter nonetheless supports the notion that educational opportunities for young Nisei presented themselves in the camps. Prospects for Nisei girls to receive a college education outside of the camps had also largely been closed off to them previously due to inhibitions placed on them by traditional family patterns as well as racism in US American society.
Nobuo Yamasaki recounted his oldest daughter’s lamentations over not being able to go to college prior to camps and her ensuing jealousy at how much easier camp programs enabled Nisei to earn their “all-important American college degrees” (Yamasaki). Student relocation programs provided by the camps further shows how the camps broke down the patriarchal constraints on Nisei women by allowing them to leave the camps to complete their college education. This gave them access to an American education, which would subsequently enable them to more easily find work in America. Thus, the camps provided them the tools to be accepted into American society by giving them educational opportunities that they had previously been barred from. In addition, the education experience within the camps provided the Nisei women with tools to be able to assimilate into American society. In his famous photograph collection, Ansel Adams captured a photograph of fashion class run by Mrs. Ryie Yoshizawa. A group of eleven young, female students learn about fashion from popular American fashion magazines; in the center of the picture sits a Vogue magazine, which indicates that the camps taught young girls how to dress according to American fashion trends (Adams). Such classes provided the Nisei with the tools to assimilate into American society in order to be accepted as Americans
Through photographs, taped oral interviews, detainees' letters, and local camp newspaper accounts of the internment experience, it is evident that the camp setting profoundly altered traditional gender and familial patterns by breaking down the patriarchal structure. In doing so, it affected Japanese women in unique ways within a generational context. The communal setting of the camps broke down the patriarchy by stripping power away from the Issei men, who no longer represented the breadwinner of the family, as they earned equal wages to their daughters and wives. Both Issei and Nisei women gained a prominent role as economic contributors the family, which is evident through the parity in wages between men and women of all ages in the camp. While Issei women experienced freedom from their burdensome domestic work through increased leisure and the ability to work for wages, the Nisei women benefited the most from the camp experience within a generational context, as it helped them assimilate into US American society. The confining nature of the camp setting and the diminished parental control gave the Nisei girls more freedom to form romances as well as pursue their labor and educational goals. Thus, the camps fostered an independent spirit and a newfound sense of freedom and empowered them to leave the camp with the mindset that they were capable of achieving outside the barbed wire. In doing so, the camps provided the Nisei with the tools to assimilate and be accepted into US American society. These unintended effects of the Japanese American internment experience on Japanese women is significant because it reveals the intersection of the social constructions of gender and race, as women momentarily made progress towards gender equality during a time of great racial discrimination. It also reveals how Japanese women—a racially oppressed group that was traditionally subjugated to men on the basis of their gender—rose above America’s inherent racism and worked towards achieving the American ideal of equality within the context of a dire situation.
Adams, Ansel. Mealtime at the Manzanar Relocation Center. 1943. Manzanar War Relocation Center photographs, Manzanar.
Harris, Catherine Embree. Dusty Exile: Looking Back at Japanese Relocation during World War II. Honolulu: Mutual Pub., 1999. Print.
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar; a True Story of Japanese American Experience during and after the World War II Internment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Print.
Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
Nobuo Yamasaki, interview, May 23 2006, Lodi California.
"Strictly Feminine." The Daily Tulean Dispatch [Tule Lake] 29 Sept. 1942.
Wheeler, W. and S. Becker. Discovering the American past: A look at the evidence (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1990.