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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 2010 - Bad Meat and Missing Sugar: Food in the Japanese American Camps

Manzanar incarceration camp, 1942, denshopd-i151-00066
"Americans are being rationed, and these Japs are getting steaks."
   --Frank Kikuchi

When asked to share their strongest memories of the Japanese American incarceration camps, many survivors talk about the food. Life-sustaining but boring is the consensus. Worse than boring was the food served in the early days of the "assembly centers" in spring and summer 1942. Untrained cooks, unsanitary kitchens, and unreasonable food allowances added up to episodes of food poisoning in various camps and increased the misery of the displaced Japanese Americans. While false reports claimed that detainees were being treated to rich and costly meals, in reality they were fed a dismal diet of wieners, dried fish, pancakes, and other cheap starches. Canned and pickled vegetables replaced the bounty of fresh produce Japanese Americans were accustomed to. As with other aspects of camp, food quality improved only through the efforts of the detainees themselves.

The stated policy of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the agency in charge of running the detention camps, was to provide a diet like that of other Americans, but the reality was different. The daily per-person allotment could not exceed 50 cents, the amount allowed for Army rations. In fact, only 31 to 45 cents were spent for each detainee, partly because the WRA was acutely aware of criticism that they were "coddling" their wards.1

Far from being overindulged, young mothers reported that milk was difficult to obtain while they were pregnant or when their babies were born. Minimal provisions were made for individuals with special dietary needs, such as people with allergies or diabetes. Food was contaminated by insects and windblown sand. At the Minidoka incarceration camp in the Idaho desert, Frank Yamasaki remembers, "When you go to the mess hall, when you chew the food, you can feel the grit of the sand. And it's amazing, even that you get used to it. I gradually got used to the mixture of sand and food. It was terrible."

Male interviewees who were fast-growing teenagers at the time complained about never getting enough meat, and what they were served was revolting: organ meats, tough mutton, and Vienna sausages. At Minidoka, Gene Akutsu forced himself to eat beef tongue and boiled liver: "It was a matter of either eating it or going to starve. And me being raised through the Depression, I learned to eat anything. If it tastes bad, just don't breathe and just chew it and swallow. And that's how basically I got through without starving." Frank Kikuchi, who was at Manzanar, California, recalls craving meat.

Meat was a precious item. You would hardly ever get meat. And what's galling to me, even now, is when I think that the Hearst newspapers used to always say, "Here outside Americans are being rationed, and these Japs are getting steaks and chops and eggs and eating high off the hog," which was an absolute lie. ... I never had steak in camp, not even once. The only thing resembling steak was they would bring in mutton once in a while and they'd slice and bread the holy heck out of it so it would be a decent thickness, and I guess you can call it chicken fried steak... And you might have weenies or bologna served for dinner once in a while. That's about it for the meat.

The lack of decent meat and an accompanying shortage of sugar--both rationed food items--were explained by numerous reports of corrupt WRA employees stealing food to sell on the black market.2 Densho interviewees relate how Caucasian workers were caught with food intended for the detainees concealed in their car trunks. Jim Akutsu, who was sometimes escorted from Minidoka to work with government engineers in the town of Burley, tells how he learned of the food theft.

To go out to Burley, Idaho, we had to stop in a place called Eden to have coffee. At the beginning, the proprietor of a small cafeteria, run by a man and wife, we weren't talking too much. But I'm kind of curious so I get talking to him, and he told me how the camp is being ransacked. He says, "The coffee you're drinking, hey, somebody stole it from camp. The sugar you eat, stole from camp." So, I said, "Well, who is it?" "It's the camp personnel." And they said, the big boxcar from where they steal these things, you got two big doors. They come together and have a one-inch iron bar and at the bottom have a flange with a hole. So they line the holes up and instead of snapping the lock, they would just line it up so somebody could come up and just turn the lock open and steal whatever -- and at our cost.

In addition to unappetizing food, former detainees recall having to stand in long lines for an impersonal group feeding. Some who were young children complain less about the food. At Manzanar, Shimako "Sally" Kitano remembers, "All I know is we were always in long lines. That's all I can remember other than carrying those heavy, heavy plates and mugs, and the food never bothered me." Sally liked pancakes, and Manzanar served plenty of eggs because the camp had a chicken ranch.

The overall diet improved as Japanese Americans, of their own volition and at the behest of authorities, established farms and planted vegetable gardens. They raised livestock as well. On September 1943, the Minidoka newspaper ran the story, "Local Hogs Slaughtered; Debut on Mess Hall Tables Seen in Near Future," which detailed the arrival of pork in the camp's butcher shop. The article goes on to enumerate the harvest of "12,240 lbs. turnips, 13,250 lbs. of squash, 14,722 lbs. of peas," and other vegetables as well as the "much anticipated watermelons." Large quantities of produce were shipped from camp to camp as needed.

With one mess hall serving each block of barracks, some were luckier than others in the assignment of cooks. Edith Watanabe, who was sent to Tule Lake, encountered a couple her family had known in their hometown of Burlington, Washington: "I can't remember ever seeing him do any cooking at home. His wife did it all. But when he went to camp he took on the job as cook. Oh, wow, but the food was terrible." Yukiko Miyake was luckier at Minidoka.

We had real cooks that used to be cooking before the war, and so they came in and took over. I even remember the cook's name: Mr. Ogawa. I don't know the block 40 names, but they were supposed to be real good cooks. And so he really tried hard to make things easy for us. Otherwise, we had hard-boiled eggs or fried eggs. Oh, god. And then cold toast or hot cakes and by the time we got it, it was so cold we couldn't eat it. So Mr. Ogawa used to make Japanese food for us and that was more enjoyable.

More enjoyable still was regaining your freedom and being able to choose your own food, even if it was modest. Edith Watanabe was released from Tule Lake because her fiancÚ, who was in the Army, successfully argued that her health was in danger. After a lonely bus and train trip across country, she and Harvey married and moved to Minneapolis. In their first months together, they lived on Harvey's Army pay of $21 per month. When asked what kind of food they could buy on that budget, Edith replied, "Well, for our first Christmas dinner we had a bag full of White Castle hamburgers. They were a nickel a hamburger, and we bought twenty of them. But you know, when you're in love and you're first married, anything is good. We were together."


1. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1982-83; reprint Seattle: University of Washington, 1997), pp. 162-63.

2. The Manzanar uprising in December 1942, which resulted in the fatal shooting of one detainee and the wounding of ten others, escalated from Harry Ueno, a camp cook, discovering that sugar was being diverted to and stolen by WRA staff.


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