Most exiled West Coast Japanese Americans were first sent to short-term detention facilities run by the army that were euphemistically called “assembly centers.” The “assembly centers” utilized existing facilities such as fairgrounds and horse racing tracks located near the areas where Japanese Americans were being removed. In the largest of these facilities—Santa Anita in Southern California, Tanforan in Northern California, and Puyallup south of Seattle, Washington—many inmates lived in recently vacated horse stalls and slept on straw mattresses. “Of course, it was smelly there,” recalled Shoji Horikoshi of Tanforan, “The floors were wooden but I think they painted the walls with very thin paint, like whitewash, and the odor of the horses was strong.”
After stays ranging from a few weeks to a few months, Japanese Americans were moved to ten concentration camps run by a newly created federal agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Located in desolate desert or swamplands throughout the West and in Arkansas, these “relocation centers” were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, and were still being completed when the first inmates began to arrive. Inmates lived in blocks of barracks with communal bathrooms, laundry facilities, and dining halls. Many cited extreme weather, dust storms, the lack of privacy, and inadequate food as among the many travails of living behind barbed wire. “And just seeing the living arrangement was, it was a real bummer. Thinking that, wow, this room has one light bulb,” remembered Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga of Manzanar. “And there were seven of us in one small room.…it was not very comfortable for newlyweds, especially, or any family, to live that close, not have the privacy. Which is the thing… I think liberty and privacy is what I miss the most.”
Others pointed to the breakdown of the family unit, due to communal life that saw children spend nearly all their waking hours, including mealtimes, with friends rather than family and to WRA policies that favored the American-born Nisei over their Issei parents.
The WRA tried to run the camps as if they were small towns, establishing schools and recreational activities and even holding elections for “self-government.” Inmates took on much of the work to keep the camps running, from preparing and serving food in the mess halls to felling trees for firewood, all for a paltry $12 to $19 a month. Inmates worked hard to beautify their own barren surroundings, planting gardens and making a wide variety of furniture and decorative items for their units. But at the same time, the reality of imprisonment was lost on few.