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.

Families Untied: The Effect of Camp Life on Parenting

Manzanar incarceration camp, California, 1942, denshopd-i151-00369
"We don't have any family table anymore."
   -- Eiichi Edward Sakauye

Of the countless ways in which the World War II incarceration negatively affected Japanese Americans, the damage to family life ranks among the saddest. Several thousand Issei men were interned separately from their families. Nisei children exited the camps before their parents to attend college, take sponsored jobs, or serve in the military. The badly conceived loyalty registration created fissures between parents and children and among siblings. Not only the traumatic events strained family ties, but stressful daily living conditions taxed family relations. Crowding whole families into a single room paradoxically resulted in splintering families apart.

Before the mass "evacuation" of families after the signing of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, several thousand children lost their fathers in FBI arrests immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many interviewees in the Densho Digital Archive describe the shock of watching their fathers being whisked away to unknown locations. Eventually they received censored letters penned in War and Justice Department camps in Missoula, Montana, Lordsburg, New Mexico, and elsewhere. No one knew when the families would be reunited, and wives left behind had to cope on their own with selling family belongings and caring for children as they were suddenly forced out of their homes.

Densho interviewee Mako Nakagawa describes her mother's plight after her father was taken away:

My mom, she paid a high price. I think most of the Issei women paid a dear, dear price with getting no recognition for the kind of pain that they went through. Not only was she in dire straits, she had four little girls. The oldest one was just eleven and the youngest was just a baby… I wonder where did she find the energy to pack up everything. And not only that, most of your friends are in the same shape you were in. They were not in any way to help you. The money was frozen so it was harder for her to -- I do recall a story where she went to one family and said "I know that things are tight now. It is for everybody, but if there is any possibility that you pay back some of the money that we loaned you, we would really appreciate..." And she said she could have taken it if the family just says, "No. We just don't have any extra money now," but she was cold-bloodedly told, "We borrowed this money from your husband, not you." The Japanese American community in those days were pretty brutal to woman that are single. ..I'm sure that she had to cope with a whole heck of a lot more than she ever told us about. But she's a tough lady. She made it through...And then by the time that we really had to get on the buses to leave, the oldest daughter, the eleven year old, had to carry the baby.

Letters in the Densho collection reveal how the Issei men worried about their wives and children left behind, exposed to hostility and an uncertain destiny. Touching examples are letters sent by Genji Mihara from Fort Missoula to his wife Katsuno in Seattle. In one letter he advises Katsuno to safeguard his alien registration card and the boys' birth certificates. He tells her his letters are limited to three per week, and that they are read before he receives them: "This is Dec. 31st noon... I think you are very busy and tired at night so you haven't time write me but will you spare time for me and write letter. .. Just worry about your health…How is boys. Working hard? I worry about Arthur. 1st time I dreamed you this morning about 5 o'clock …but I can't tell you by letter. Some day will tell you when meet. Most everybody just waiting letter from own home. ..Tell boys write me soon anything to tell but it be open before I receive..."

With little warning or explanation, some Issei fathers were moved from internment camps to rejoin their families in the War Relocation Authority camps. In many cases, years had elapsed so that young children didn't recognize their own fathers. Frank Fujii describes a painful experience upon being reunited with his father at Tule Lake in California:

Yeah, I think when the Justice Department okayed his release from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Tule Lake and I said, "Dad's coming back, man."…And so we knew what day -- they didn't tell us what time. So waiting for a truck to drop him off, and we waited and waited -- and I remember it was in the afternoon, and it was a hot day, and the truck dropped him off, and he had to get off the back, and I grabbed his luggage and I brought it inside. Now, I didn't see him from '41 December 7th 'til something in '44. So that's a few years, and I've grown up so much... my body's changed, my looks changed and I'm more a man. I've grown about 5-6 inches...But the bad scenario was, as he went around the room, nodding his head and greeting everybody by looking at them, and kind of saying, "I think I know you, but, hi, how are you." But then he points to me, of all people, and he says, "Who's this boy?" And, you know, that, that really shook me. But I, I never forgot that, because I felt lost at that time. And I think that mental part of it all, I think the effect of camp does to you. It isn't the monetary things that get to you. 'cause you could always sort of adjust. But the loss of a family tie. It was tough.

Former detainees consistently describe how family life was weakened by living in open barracks "apartments" rather than private homes, and by eating in communal dining halls. Children chose to eat with friends instead of their parents, and an important means of familial bonding was lost. Discipline broke down as parents lost control of children who could roam free from block to block.

Confined at Minidoka, Idaho, Aki Kurose recalls the change in her family's pattern of behavior:

Well, the thing I felt most was the lack of privacy, and that there wasn't any place you could just go and sit down and reflect. It was, hey, everybody's around, no privacy. And also the warm interaction with the family was missing, because we used to spend so much time together talking, and joking, and singing and all that. You don't have that kind of opportunity in a barrack with six cots lined up and your meals are at a mess hall. You know the mealtime used to be a happy time, where we discussed things and had fun, and share things. And so, it was just a lack of that kind of comfort…My parents never complained, but we also never got together like that anymore. We didn't sit down and share food together; we didn't sit down and eat together. And we're all going in and out of the barracks at different times. And so, there was a lack of that kind of communication as well. But we didn't have the real stressful, anxious times that some of the other families had because of the age situation. We were old enough so we could listen to our parents and not rebel. But the youngsters, the real youngsters, kind of fell apart without much structure and a lot of freedom.

May Sasaki tells how living in camp loosened connection with her parents. Obasans (aunties) and ojisans (uncles) filled in when her parents were working, but her older brother went his own way.

My mother took on the waitressing at the mess hall because they wanted a lot of help there, and they asked the camp internees to take those roles. She eventually became a head waitress, which meant she spent more hours away from home…She knew I was supposed to go to the mess hall and so we usually went with our girl friends and boy friends, little ones that went with us. Or the obasan would see that we got there and we ate. But we never could eat with family because my dad became a block manager, which then took him away to other responsibilities. So both my parents were no longer always around as they had been, and now my brothers and I were kind of left to our own devices. I was young enough so that I could be told to behave by the friends of my mother and father. But my oldest brother loved this freedom, and he felt that now he could do what he wanted with his cohorts, and they became kind of like a gang in camp. They were not bad boys, but they certainly liked to do things that were not always things that their parents wanted them to do…There were often many little gangs that sprung up, and they would have their own meetings and their own rituals. I knew my parents were always so upset about the way Jimmy was sticking with those bad boys, and they were making him bad, you know. And yes, he wasn't as obedient. I remember him talking back to my dad which he never did before.

Camp administrators further undermined family structure. They considered the Issei too Japanese and barred them from holding elected positions. Their policies almost overnight reversed the roles of the two generations, rendering the children more powerful than their parents. When asked if there was tension between her father and brother, May Sasaki replied, "Yes, I think that occurred in a lot of places there. The Isseis used to be the leaders of their family, but once this whole thing came about, they didn't all have the ability to speak the [English] language, so that the people in the leadership positions in camp became largely the older Niseis. So the Isseis had to take a lower role, which was hard for them."

Teenagers and young adults found other ways to evade parental control. Social life revolved around weekly block dances, where young men courted girlfriends and future spouses. Mitsu Takahashi in his interview answers questions about dating at Minidoka, in contrast to earlier life in Seattle:

Takahashi: I imagine the parents were quite concerned about not so much the boys, with the girls I think they were. Because they really didn't have strict control over them. Whether you were young kids or teenagers, you went with your own friends in your dining room. Maybe in the breakfast you got together with your folks, but lunch and dinners, a lot of us never did get together with our parents. So I think for our mothers that had daughters, I think especially if they're teenage girls, I think they were much more concerned about their kids than they were with boys….As a casual date or something, chances of going in and meeting the family were very, very rare. Because you know, they're in a small room, there may be two or three others in there, so I mean, did the fellows go pick up, meet the girls and take 'em back home, or was it a common knowledge to say, "I'm going to the dance and I'll meet you there"? I think it was more casual that way instead of going over to pick up the girl in her barrack room, or nicer word would be apartment, but it's just a barrack. It was more or less a verbal thing, "I'll meet you at such and such a block at..."

Densho: So it's almost like your dating could be under the radar of the parents because you could more casually just meet at these places. And if you were in Seattle, you would have to sometimes pick her up and then perhaps meet the parents.

Takahashi: That was the breakdown of the family, which was, I think, in a lot of ways, a very sad thing for the parents to see.

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