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Japanese American Relocation Archives

Daily Life

Questions to Consider

How did living quarters in camp differ from internees’ pre-war homes?

How do you think lack of privacy affected internees?

How did people try to recreate a sense of home in camp?

How do you think the realities of camp life affected family relationships?

About the Images

With thousands of residents, the internment camps inevitably became communities where families carried on with the details of daily life: adults worked, children went to school. This topic illustrates much of the daily life of internees, including camp administration, sleeping/eating/personal care, work, social life, study, events, relocation, and resettlement. The images show daily life as the government portrayed it in "publicity" photographs taken by government photographers, and through the art and camera lenses of the internees who lived it.

Overview

Because of the numbers involved — the Tanforan Assembly Center housed 8,000 people, for example — efficient administration was crucial. Several photographs show the government bureaucracy in action. A toddler is given a medical exam on entry; and Japanese American nurses are shown working in a clinic at Tanforan. Another photograph shows the housing office, where workers administered the day-to-day operation of the camps. A list of rules gives some idea of the restrictions placed on personal freedoms at the camps.

Two photographs show the interior spaces of barracks looking cramped and small. In one, cloth partitions are used to create private spaces, because entire families occupied one room. In the other, a man rests on a cot beneath his clothing, which hangs on a rope above his head. According to the caption, the government only supplied the cot and mattress. Three other WRA photographs show people living in exceptionally neat rooms, spacious by comparison. These are in stark contrast to Estelle Ishigo's brown-toned painting of a family around a table, At Home at Heart Mountain.

Meals were served cafeteria style. Two photographs show internees lining up for meals in the mess hall. According to one caption, they had to carry their own utensils and wash their own dishes back in their barracks. (Although these images show family groups eating together, historians and social scientists note that overall, family members tended to eat separately, weakening family ties.) Another photograph shows that evacuees worked preparing food for one camp in Arkansas.

Internee Henry Sugimoto's painting No Second Service shows a family eating in the mess hall. Signs on the wall warn "No second serving!" and "Milk for children and sick people only!" In his diary, Sugimoto commented, "They knew that the Japanese really liked rice, so rice was always part of the menu at least once a day. However, there were times when the rest of the meal didn't really go with rice. At times, there would be food that just wasn't appetizing at all, so you had to either try to eat at least one bite or just go without the meal."

With so many people, privacy was an issue. Bathing presented problems, as shown in Ishigo's painting No privacy for women and children, and her drawing The men had no bath tub so the[y] made one. Tak Sugiyama's photograph shows a man bathing in one of the home-made tubs, a sawed-off pickle barrel.

Adults worked in the camps. In addition to administrative jobs (such as nurses, office workers, and food service), internees also worked in the fields. Many of them, according to WRA captions, had also worked on farms before the war. The man shown feeding turkeys had owned and operated a turkey farm in Marysville for 26 years before internment. Another photograph shows the staff of the Pomona Center News, a camp newspaper (artist Estelle Ishigo is pictured second from right in the front row). Some adults, judged "loyal" by the US government, were released to work outside the camps due to wartime labor needs. A photograph taken at Granada Center shows residents registering at long tables.

Despite internment, daily life for children still consisted largely of school and play. Photographs show boys playing marbles, a girl on a swing, and children enjoying softball and basketball. A group of children walks through the muddy street to school during a rainstorm. High school in camp had many of the attributes of high school in peacetime. Images show a school band practice, a dance in the gym, and art classes. Other students just enjoy hanging out together on the campus. Several captions emphasize that internees served as teachers, and even earned teaching credentials in camp.

The small and large events of daily life also continued for adults. These photographs show women in a beauty salon, and a group of people forming a YMCA branch at camp. One couple is shown getting married at Santa Anita Assembly Center, looking happy despite the circumstances. In another image, nurses hold babies born at the Tule Lake center. Inevitably, people died during internment. During the three years of its existence, the camp in Amache, Colorado, recorded 412 births and 107 deaths.

Some camps experienced resistance from internees. The photograph of a large number of people attending the funeral of James Wakasa in Topaz, Utah, is one example. Wakasa was shot and killed by a military sentry who claimed he was trying to escape. Residents demanded an investigation and a funeral outdoors, on the spot where he was killed. When their demands were refused, they stopped work in protest. Even after the funeral was allowed, the work stoppage continued. Eventually, the sentry was court-martialed and found not guilty. To prevent more protests, the government censored this from being reported in the camp newspaper.

When the war ended, the bureaucracy continued as interned citizens were released and resettled. The government hoped to disperse Japanese Americans throughout the country to prevent the emergence of Japanese ethnic enclaves. Scenes of assembly were now reversed. "Moving day at the Jerome Center" shows belongings being removed from barracks and loaded onto trucks. Another photo shows crowds waving goodbye as former camp residents board a train leaving the camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and heading to postwar life.

Selected Browse Terms

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

About WRA Photographs and Dorothea Lange

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) records represent the official documentation of the evacuation, internment centers, and resettlement of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946. The WRA photographs and their captions are the official documentation of the WRA and reflect the point of view that the WRA wanted to present to the citizens of the United States during World War II. They present an idealistic view of the assembly centers and camps that does not reflect the sacrifices and hardships endured by the Japanese Americans.

Photographer Dorothea Lange is most famous for her Dust Bowl photographs, which showed the human face of "hard times." Although she followed the “letter of the law” in her WRA photographs, her striking images silently portray the raw emotional experience of internment. Not surprisingly, 97% of her WRA photographs (including many Calisphere images) were never published.

Racial Slurs

Some primary sources in this topic may contain racial epithets, such as "Jap," that we recognize as offensive today. The original captions from the WRA photographs, many of which were published in the Los Angeles Examiner, contain cultural references that reflect 1940s terminology. The University of California does not condone this language, but includes it in the interests of historical accuracy.

Terms to Understand

Assembly Centers/Detention Centers: Temporary local housing for evacuated Japanese Americans before they were assigned to relocation camps.

Evacuation: The removal of Japanese Americans from their homes due to Executive Order 9066, signed in 1942 by President Roosevelt.

Internment/Incarceration: Between 1942 and 1945, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were held in camps scattered throughout the West and South. Although popularly used to refer to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the term internment more accurately reflects the arrest and trial of non-citizens belonging to a nation the United States was fighting during World War II. Internment procedures were largely regulated by the Geneva Convention. The term incarceration more appropriately reflects the unconstitutional removal of Japanese Americans from their homes to the camps.

Issei (or Isei): Literally, "first generation"; issei (ee'-sey) are Japanese who immigrated to the United States after 1907 and were not eligible or citizenship until 1952.

Nikkei: All peoples of Japanese ancestry in the Americas.

Nisei: Literally, "second generation"; nisei (nee’-sey) are the American-born children of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.

Sansei: Literally, "third generation"; sansei (son’-sey) are the American-born grandchildren of Japanese immigrants and therefore American citizens.

Relocation: Used by the US government to mean being transferred to the camps.

Relocation Camps/Internment Camps/Concentration Camps/Evacuation Centers: Terms often used interchangeably to refer to 10 remote camps in the Western and Southern United States, where more than 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were incarcerated during World War II.

Resettlement: Term used by the US government to refer to the release of the internees and their transition and reintegration into postwar American life.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)