From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


April 2008 - Stables for Humans: The Assembly Centers

Japanese Americans arriving at Tanforan Race Track, California, April 29, 1942. (from denshopd-i151-00159)
"It wasn't even a barrack -- it was a stall. It literally was a stall. And they told us it was temporary."
   -- May Sasaki

Once President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Army had to move more than 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent away from the West Coast and find places to hold them. And the move had to happen immediately because the authorities had officially told the public that Japanese Americans were too dangerous to be at large. Where did the fleets of buses and trains take them at gunpoint? To hastily prepared facilities where they would live for months while more permanent detention camps were built farther inland. Their new homes were flimsy barracks erected at fairgrounds, migrant worker camps, an abandoned mill, race tracks, and a livestock exposition hall. The unluckiest detainees were assigned to stalls that had recently held horses and other animals. Could they be more humiliated? Not only did their government consider them disloyal; it apparently considered them not fully human.

On April 9, 1942, the military established the Wartime Civilian Control Agency (WCCA) to coordinate the mass relocation. The government called the first detention camps "assembly centers." Fifteen camps opened in California, Oregon, and Arizona and received Japanese Americans by the thousands in April and into May. (Several hundred people of Japanese ancestry had been moved in March from what were deemed highly sensitive military areas.) The WCCA described these first detention camps as "a convenient gathering point, within the military area, where evacuees live temporarily while awaiting the opportunity for orderly, planned movement to a Relocation Center outside the military area."1 In reality, most people spent months in the assembly centers in conditions of discomfort and deprivation.

May Sasaki of Seattle, six years old at the time of the "evacuation," remembers the strangeness of her new home at the Puyallup fairgrounds in Washington State. A single unpartitioned room held May, her mother, father, and two brothers. Her mattress was filled with straw.

MS: Well, you know, it was a former fairgrounds, which I had never been there before, so I didn't know. But the one thing I remembered was the animal smells, you know, that's how fairs are. You have your animal smells. I remember that. That was very different for me, and then the living quarters, of course, were some of the stalls and some of the buildings. But we had one of the row of stalls and so therefore the smells were greater there. And I remember that there were cots and, for some reason, some kind of mattress. It wasn't the kind of mattress I was used to but, and then army blankets. And then we had the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. And each stall is yea big, and there weren't ceilings. They did not come to the top, so the walls didn't come to the ceiling. So you could see all the way across. If you climbed up on something high, you could see all the way to the other end, and voice traveled all the way through...

It wasn't even a barrack -- it was a stall. It literally was a stall. And they told us it was temporary, so they just had to get us all assembled there so that they'll know which camps we're going to. So we had an idea that this was temporary and that's where we're supposed to get ready for this. So part of that was inoculations; we all had to have a series of shots...

But I remember having at least three or four because my arms were just sore and then there were scabs. You know, these black scabs that came out. And I remember feeling like that must be how cows and animals feel like. Because we were all lined up, and we had to have a couple shots at a time, 'cause they couldn't, we couldn't keep coming back. So I remember having two shots and then being very ill for at least... I felt ill about it, and a sore arm.

Japanese Americans refer to being herded like livestock into barbed wire enclosures. Even as a young child, May sensed the analogy:

MS: Well, one of the things I thought were kind of strange was that we had the barbed wire fencing all around the fairgrounds. And there was a road that passed by close to the fairgrounds. And there were, they would bring busloads of non-Japanese people, and they would actually let 'em off and let them look at us like we were, you know, like we were caged animals. And I used to remember, "Why are they doing that?"

Tom Akashi of Mount Eden, California, at thirteen was old enough to object to what was happening to him. After the Pearl Harbor attack, classmates taunted him and he got in fights with bullies who called him a dirty Jap. In his Densho interview, Tom recalls the kindness of a Jewish man who drove his family to the Tanforan assembly center and handed them sack lunches. He describes his reaction to entering Tanforan:

TA: And going back to your question, what my first impression of Tanforan was, a lot of Japanese all centered in one place. The, the guards, the soldiers, and, of course, we had soldiers on the bus and soldiers there. Then you look up and you, you see this barbed wire fence and, and you get the feeling of being a prison-like. I mean, not being a prisoner before, but then being kind of incarcerated in one bunch where there's nothing but Japanese. That's my first impression. Of course, I studied the Constitution and the history, and Bill of Rights in school, and so I says, "Gee, where's my rights? What's happening to me?" As young as I was, I was impressed that all of this was wrong. I couldn't understand why, why we had to go. And the Germans, they didn't have to go. My father was saying, "Jeez, the Germans didn't have to go. The Italians didn't have to go." But we were going.

Densho interviewees echo memories of the barren quarters, extreme temperatures, and a dehumanizing lack of privacy. Couples were allotted 200 square feet; 400 bachelors were housed in a single dormitory at Tanforan. Shifts of 2,000 were fed at the communal mess halls. Worse still, the showers and primitive latrines had no partitions.

Nearly everyone speaks of the awful food, for which they waited in long lines, exposed to the elements. Cheap starch, canned produce, and low-grade meats like mutton and tongue became a steady diet. Contrary to WCCA statements, fresh milk was reserved for babies and the elderly; not even pregnant women received any. And camp to camp there were reports of food being stolen by government workers. Authorities had allotted 50 cents per day to feed each person, but they spent 39 cents. Outside pressure groups who equated the incarcerated Japanese Americans with the enemy wanted camp administrators to spend even less, and routinely accused the government of "coddling" the detainees.2

Following the first chaotic days, a semblance of routine took over, and the detainees found jobs helping to run the camps. To make the best of their situation, they built furniture for their bare quarters, organized recreational activities, and published newspapers. Articles set an upbeat tone, for instance, the Santa Anita Pacemaker quotes a WCCA representative saying, "I am amazed at the morale of the Japanese in the centers." He assures detainees that "the Center managers are doing their utmost to make life 'more tolerable, more comfortable and pleasant for the people.'"

As the story of the Japanese American incarceration becomes better known, the tales of economic losses and physical discomfort grow more familiar. But survivors also testify to the lasting emotional and psychological toll they paid. Some assembly centers were so close to the detainees' homes that familiar landmarks were within sight -- but out of reach because of their captive state. Caucasian friends could come visit, which for some was a mixed blessing.

Chiye Tomihiro was about to graduate from high school when she found herself at the Portland livestock grounds. As an awkward teenager, she was humiliated when friends came to see her. They had to stay on the other side of the fence, and Chiye says, "It was like you were a prisoner, and here you hadn't done anything, but here you were a prisoner. …I think that was the worst part. ..The physical discomforts in the assembly center -- living in what was really an animal pen -- was certainly not very comfortable, and the lack of privacy, all of that, was not the thing that you really thought about at that age."

For the 1981 congressional hearings that resulted in redress for surviving detainees, Haru Isaki, a bride who began her married life in the squalor of a race track detention center, testified that "humiliation, anger, frustration, degradation, guilt, boredom, isolation, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty were my constant companions…I had no future. We had no future."

The immediate future for Haru and over 110,000 other Japanese Americans in the summer of 1942 was to be herded onto trains for another long journey to a strange destination. A new civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority, would become their keepers, and they would soon be penned in freshly built barbed-wire enclosures for humans.


1. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), pp. p. 134. [ link ]

2. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, DC, 1982-83; reprint, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 141-42. [ link ]


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