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.


Jazz Bands, Baseball, and Beauty Queens: Recreation in the Camps

Rohwer Outpost, February 28, 1943, denshopd-i143-00037
"Just to pass time. Kill the monotony of it."
   -- Tom Mine

Life in the remote confinement sites that held 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II in some respects resembled life in normal communities of the time. Responsible for this large captive population, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) created a facsimile of social life in the outside world. Recreation departments saw to it that bored and often idle detainees were diverted by amusements like sports events, movies, dances, and art classes. Critics who considered Japanese Americans tantamount to the enemy accused the WRA of "coddling" their wards by providing entertainment. An alternate view suggests that authorities supplied social and recreational activities as a means of managing, or placating, what could become a restive, even rebellious, population trapped behind barbed wire. The Japanese Americans themselves formed sports teams, music groups, social clubs, and art classes to fill empty time and make their harsh and uncertain situation more bearable.

Chosen entertainments broke down along generational lines. The Issei (first generation) played Japanese board games like go and shogi and enjoyed sumo wrestling matches. Men fashioned furniture from scrap lumber and made wood carvings. Women knitted, crafted jewelry from shells, and made paper flowers for weddings and funerals. They produced objects of beauty from materials foraged on site, sent by friends, or ordered from catalogs.

The Nisei (second generation) behaved like the American youth they were. Dating revolved around weekly block dances with the latest Tommy Dorsey or Artie Shaw number on the record player. (Bing Crosby's "Don't Fence Me In" was popular.) Camp administrators crowned beauty queens and attendants. When security lessened, teenagers went swimming in nearby streams, and hiked up ridges for the view. They played poker and ping pong. Younger children saluted the American flag in their boy and girl scouts uniforms. Baseball scores filled columns of camp newspapers.

Each block of 12 to 14 barracks had a recreation hall, where dances, parties, and meetings took place. Hollywood movie stars graced makeshift theaters. Densho interviewee Taeko Joanne Iritani recalls that at the Manzanar, California, incarceration camp, "We went to movies. I remember seeing Frank Sinatra in Higher and Higher, and I think there were some girls swooning there, just like everyplace else, for Frank Sinatra…There was an outdoor stage and a huge screen…like a drive-in. You took your own chairs. My father made some little folding chairs for us out of scrap lumber."

Deprivation calls for resourcefulness. At the Puyallup Assembly Center, Frank Fujii remembers playing softball and basketball with equipment that a Caucasian friend brought from Seattle. They swept and watered the sand and marked white lines with flour. "But that didn't last long," Frank says. At the sweltering Poston, Arizona, incarceration camp, Tom Mine also applied imagination to a sandy reality. He shares with interviewer Tom Ikeda his way of killing time between work shifts.

TM: I worked in the kitchen. I said, that's the best place to work… You got the cooler and a lot of food there, so I won't starve. Then later on, I said, gee, what am I gonna do in between? ... We were right on the corner. It's Block 210, open spaces, you know…And to get on the other side, there was a lot of open land, spaces, So I asked somebody, "Could I go out there and make a few holes to play golf?" And they said, "Oh, do whatever you want," they didn't care. There wasn't anybody interested in golf in those days. So to pass time, I made three or four or five holes just way out back.

TI: And so how do you make a golf course in the desert?

TM: All we did is for sand, we just kind of raked it and make it level. And going down to the kitchen, got some cans for the hole, made that a cup.

TI: And so the greens were just sand greens.

TM: Yeah, sand greens. We just kind of leveled them, raked it… flattened it out so it looked better than just ordinary sand. Made it look like a green, but it wasn't. Just a sand area.

TI: And what would you do for golf clubs and golf balls?

TM: Well, I finally had them sent to me.

TI: Now, once you had your little golf course set up, did you have competitions or tournaments?

TM: No, we just went out there. And members of Block 220, they did the same thing. They got the idea of what I was doing, so, "Yeah, I guess we'll do that."

TI: So with it being so hot, when would you guys golf?

TM: Early in the morning… The evening. Just a few holes, three or four holes just to pass time, kill the monotony of it.

Donations and mail order helped form George Yoshida's jazz band at Poston. Friends back home sent a set of drums, and fledgling saxophonist George ordered sheet music by mail, including the band's theme song, Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade." Eventually they gathered four saxophones, three trumpets, and a trombone. A drummer was their leader, and a piano player joined them, along with a guitar player who loved cowboy music.

I don't know whose idea it was, but a dance band was organized, and the recreation department, which was an organized part of the whole system in Poston, helped to sponsor a dance band. And there was a young man, Hide Kawano, who was seventeen years old at the time, a high school dropout but very much a whiz at playing drums. And he used to play some swing and jazz before he went to camp, who was the leader of the band. He learned how to play the trumpet somewhere along the line before he dropped out…He was consumed with swing music and jazz -- that's all he wanted to do. And so here was this great opportunity. All of these potential musicians… who played some instrument of some sort that may have made up a dance band. So through the camp newsletter, announcement was made that there was going to be a dance band and please come to the first rehearsal if you're interested.

The recreation department also offered art classes, attended by both Issei and Nisei. Surviving artwork created by detained Japanese Americans ranges from the work of professionals to sketches by amateurs. The paintings, drawings, cartoons, and sculptures they created leave a visual record of their experience in camp. To brighten their dismal surroundings, detainees also used their ingenuity and talent to create oases in the desert. People planted flowers in front of their "apartments," and groups got together to create elaborate gardens between barracks.

As a reporter for the camp newspaper, Sue Kunitomi Embrey wrote about gardens being built by detainees at the Manzanar, California, incarceration camp. She learned that you could order just about anything from a catalog.

When I first got my job as the reporter for the Free Press, I was assigned to go up to Block 6, the very end of the camp, and do a report on a pond that had been finished. They had Japanese goldfish in it, and I was intrigued by that. Evidently they had ordered them through the catalog. It was not just a pond, they had a rock garden around it ...They used the materials right there that they could find, the stones, the rocks...

According to an interview that we did with Harry Ueno, he was concerned because everybody lined up for their meals outside the mess hall and there was no shade and no place to sit, so he talked to the men in the block and they decided they would build this garden. His garden was almost the full length of the mess hall, 100 feet …He had an order for three sacks of cement and it was not enough, so he asked that they keep the order requisition form and not turn it in, so each time that he was finished with the three sacks he would send someone to the warehouse and get another three sacks. We later called it the "three-sack garden," but it really took more than three sacks. I think his garden in Block 22 won the contest for the best garden in camp, and there were gardens all over the place. They wanted to really beautify the place because it was such a barren and windy place, and people wanted to be able to sit there and enjoy each other's company and not have to stand in the hot sun waiting for their meals.

Of Manzanar's prize-winning garden, now being archeologically recovered by the National Park Service, Sue says, "It was a real attempt to beautify their surroundings, and I think it really helped the morale of the people." Interviewees tell Densho they never forgot the barbed wire and guard towers that surrounded them, but that spinning on the dance floor, running around the baseball diamond, even hitting a golf ball into a tin can, could provide temporary escape.

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