Digital History
Experiencing Internment
Digital History ID 46

Author:   Keiho Soga

Annotation: For Japanese Americans, internment meant severe economic hardship, physical dislocation, and a sharp reordering of family roles. Some families were given as little as 48 hours to dispose of their homes, businesses, farms, and personal property, which were sold for a fraction of their worth. The internees were only allowed to take what they could carry. Even pets had to be left behind. Children with serious disabilities were barred from the camps. Mary Tsukamoto’s son, Toyoki, who was blind and mentally retarded, was taken away by a social worker and died within a month. Japanese Americans remained in the camps for an average of 900 days.

The camps’ barracks were built of tar paper over pine boards. When the pine dried, the floorboards separated, allowing dust to blow through. Wintertime temperatures in the camps sometimes fell to 30 degrees below zero, and the buildings were uninsulated. The “apartments” consisted of a single drafty room, averaging 16 by 20 feet, shared by an entire family. Nine members of Marge Tanwaki’s extended family lived in a single room in the Amache Relocation Center in southeastern Colorado. Furnishings were limited to cots, blankets, and a light bulb. One young Japanese American described conditions in his family’s camp:

The apartments, as the Army calls them, are stables…mud is everywhere…We have absolutely no fresh meat, vegetables, or butter. Mealtime queues extend for blocks; standing in a rainswept line, feet in the mud, for scant portions of canned wieners and boiled potatoes, hash…or beans…and stale bread.

The internees slept on cotton sacks stuffed with hay and fashioned furniture out of discarded crates. They used communal latrines, washed clothes by hand, and ate meals in a mess hall. Phones were forbidden and there were no stores. Food poisoning, measles, and pneumonia were rampant.

The internees’ biggest complaints were a lack of privacy and proper schools for their children. Toilets, showers, and dining facilities were communal, precluding family privacy. Dining ceased to be a private family ritual, and strict parental control over children loosened. Children attended make-shift schools, lacking books, blackboards, and other teaching supplies. Students often had to sit on the floor. At one camp, physics was taught in a laundry room because it was the only available space with running water.

The internment camps tended to invert traditional roles and relationships within Japanese American families. Men and women, regardless of age, worked at interchangeable jobs paying $12 to $19 a month. Within the camps, influence shifted away from the older generation, the Issei, who had been born abroad, to the younger generation, the Nisei, who had been born in the United States. A disproportionate share of those who were the released early from the camps was from the younger generation.

Document: Like a dog
I am commanded
At bayonet point.
My heart is inflamed
With burning anguish.

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