What they did was to build a brand new society where none had existed. Vacuumed up by the military authorities were literally every profession from fisherman, farmers, business owners, college professors, housewives and even Eagle Scouts. If you made a list of the people who were imprisoned you would be hard put to find a gap in lifestyle, profession, age or education.
Somehow the powers that be had not considered education and the first prisoners to arrive at Manzanar found no school facilities available for the nearly two thousand school aged children that arrived in the early summer of 1942. The camp administrators were ill prepared to offer any kind of organizational help to the inmates beyond very basic shelter. The first buildings only had doors in the ends so that families had to walk through their neighbors to get in and out. A building in every block was finally designated for a school but there was no insulation, no carpet or linoleum on the floor. There were no textbooks, pencils or paper and not even a chair to sit on. Whatever they needed would have to be provided by the prisoners themselves.
“The teenagers had nothing to do and the little children ran around like wild animals. On very hot days they would play underneath the barracks to stay out of the sun. The older boys kept getting in trouble so we decided we had to have schools to keep them busy.”——Momo Nagano
Each block elected a committee and a block manager which petitioned the camp administration to be able to form schools. Once permission was obtained Japanese American teachers were found inside the camp and informal schools put together. School supples were not initially available from the WRA so people donated paper, pencils and what money they could spare so school supplies could be bought at nearby Independence and Lone Pine. Books to form a small library were requested from the Los Angeles Public Library. The National Library Association also came through. None of this was easy. Getting a government agency to move is a very difficult thing but by October of 1942 Formal schools had been approved, block buildings selected and on the 19th all the school age kids went to school for the first time since early spring.
“In the first months at the Owens Valley camp there were no schools. Instead, college-educated evacuees taught makeshift classes in bare rooms or on shady patches of ground outside. There were few texts, so teachers read to their classes from a single book or led discussions on topics such as the U.S. Constitution.” Some Irony there. ——“Chickie” Hiraoka
It’s back to school days for Manzanar children today as hundreds of youngsters returned to their elementary school classes. Still handicapped by lack of insulation, floor covering and furniture the school doors were re-opened nevertheless, on a recommendation by the Manzanar Educational Council. Headed by Marshall Miler, principal, the faculty of the elementary school consists of the following teachers; Genevieve Baird, Eve Beekman, Janice Dales, Miriam Emus, Lois Ferguson, Libby Gratch, Florine Harding, Lois Hosford, Eleanor Jones, Martha Job, Lucille Lewis, Ellen McFarland, Bernice Miller and Marcia Price. ——Manzanar Free Press
Japanese-American teachers were now to be used only as classroom aides not withstanding their sometimes superior education and experience. It was thought the white teachers would be better at teaching an “American” curriculum. When Ellen McFarland was asked years later why she would go out to the desert to teach “Japs,” she said. “I didn’t think it was right, what they did. Some of my UCLA classmates were in the camp.” She laughed and also said, “The pay was double what I could make in Los Angeles and that didn’t hurt. The children were wonderful though and I never regretted it.”
Very quickly organizing committees formed and an atttempt was made to corral the kids that were wandering everywhere around camp. Teenagers would leave the barracks for breakfast and not return until dark, a practice that was mystifying to their more conservative parents. In a way the camps provided a level of personal freedom they had not had at home. Organizing schools and sports for them was seen as a way to re-establish a little control. Elementary school was the first with junior high and high school to follow.
Organizers had little money to spend as no jobs program had been instituted in camp for the internees. That was still to come. Block committees began to scrounge for what they could find in the way of things as simple as pencil and paper. School books were simply not available. A former high school student said one of his teachers in chemistry class actually said, “Pretend this is a Bunsen burner,” which made them all laugh, but that was the state of things at the beginning.
Furniture was hacked together from whatever scrap wood was lying about the camp. There are photos showing small piles of lumber shoved under barracks for future use by the families that lived there. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) provided almost nothing for schools. All furniture had to be made or purchased by the prisoners. In a stark contrast, the administrative staff, known as the, ‘White staff’, lived on site in staff housing that was painted, air conditioned, and had indoor plumbing, refrigerators and whose buildings were fully furnished. Their children were initially bussed into nearby Independence for school but after the camp schools were opened they attended school with the children of the prisoners.
Scrounging became the order of the day, nothing was wasted and if an opportunity to add to the stockpile of usable material appeared it was taken advantage of. This was not without some peril though, a soldier shot Hiyoki Takeuchi in the chest for stealing wood from a scrap pile. He said, “He was warned to put it down and then ran, so I shot him.” The boy who survived his chest wound said he asked and received permission before he was summarily shot. The soldier was later reported to have said “I got my Jap.” Admin ruled the shooting justified and no punishment was ever applied to the soldier.
Many of the communities from which the Japanese Americans came sent inquiries to the camp administration about sending school books, materials and other supplies for the kids that had been in their schools. In this way the various grade levels began to acquire curriculum materials. Public libraries through out the western states also sent books to staff libraries. By the fall of 1942 schools had been organized for every level of student, white teachers hired and imported and most all of the functions of normal school life existed. Their were music programs, dances for the older kids, and a complete set of athletic programs. At its peak, Manzanar could field a hundred baseball teams from grade school to adult leagues. There were cheerleaders, majorettes with their own handmade uniforms topped off with high crowned hats with feathers made of paper. All of this from almost nothing.
School organization was a major endeavor led by the adult leaders at Manzanar and by 1943 all grade levels were functioning smoothly and a new Junior College was opened that fall. Transfer students to Eastern universities was allowed by government and many students began to take advantage of it and it was deemed necessary to initiate a JC to facilitate transfer.
Throughout the time in camp, parents and kids worked hard to foster a sense of normalcy, albeit it behind barbed wire and guarded by soldiers with guns loaded. By the end of camp, schools were fully functional and were sending graduates to prestigious schools for further high level education such as Yale, or Harvard. Japanese-American kids were allowed to go to east coast schools but not the west. Some very famous schools refused admittance such as the all girls school Smith College, though they denied it after the war. Attending an eastern university was a way to escape from camp and many older students took full advantage of it. The number of prestigious school attended by children of the internees is astounding considering the number of college age kids eligable who left for higher education over the roughly three year period the concentration camps existed.
You see, children of any so-called racial group are really the same. The contents of the suitcase they each carried is fascinating. They carried books like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Secret Garden. They packed their clarinets and trumpets, some took their high school baseball uniforms. They took as much of their normal life as they could. For comfort and security are important to children.
Fortunately adults took things like the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Since they couldn’t leave the camps the catalogs became a way buy things that weren’t available inside. People had very little money so the sent away for things they considered necessities. Whatever limited money we had we spent it on purchasing things to make the camp life a little more comfortable. And one of the most popular things that people purchased, and the stores kept running out of, were chamber pots. Maybe you don’t know what a chamber pot is. They’re little ceramic pots, with a lid and that’s what you used to defecate and to urinate in. Because our toilets and bathrooms were way far away and in the middle of the night, people didn’t want to go in the freezing cold to go to the bathrooms. And so they’d use those. All modesty was gone they hid behind a curtain, hoping nobody could hear all this tinkle, tinkle and whatever. It was a new way of life.
My mother packed one entire suitcase with Kotex.—-Grace Nishi.
I took my Guadalupe YMBA baseball uniform.—-Tetsuo “Tom” Fukunaga.
My father took the Pasadena telephone book.—-“Mits” Kaminaka.
Mother packed only summer clothes, we lived in Glendale and didn’t know winter.—-Nami Dohi.
“My little brother “Teddy” packed his little suitcase with comic books. My mother was upset but it made him very popular with other kids.“—-Yoshi Akinaka
The administration allowed Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange to come in and document life at Manzanar though they imposed restrictions on what they could portray and then censored all of their work. The intent was to whitewash as best they could the life there. The prints from the National Archives used here all have censors comments on the reverse as to whether they could be released for publication. A subtext of the camp story was that many in government were opposed to relocation and the powers that be were careful not to give them any ammunition that could be used by any critics of official policies.
The prisoners themselves had little subversive groups among them, particularly amongst younger adults who were absolutely and completely Americanized. The educated knew the constitution and their rights as American citizens and worked to document the real life in camp not the homogenized version released to Life Magazine where the “Volunteer” internees were happy and smiling in their new life. The camps “Were just a MINOR CONVENIENCE and the Japs were happy with their little farms and gardens, safe and protected by the United States Government.”
Toyo Miyatake was one. A professional photographer from the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, he was removed to Manzanar with his wife and children in 1942. As radios, firearms and cameras were forbidden Japanese-Americans, Toyo took geat pains to very carefully smuggle two camera lenses into camp with his luggage. He found a woodworker friend who made him a little wooden lunchbox which was really a secret camera and he then went about photographing true camp life. The photograph of the three small boys at the barbed wire fence is his, a photo that would not have been permitted under any circumstances but which trumps anything taken by Adams or Lange.
Toyo worked with a man he had befriended years before in Los Angeles who made a business call at Manzanar once a month and smuggled in photo supplies. If the items were small he would leave them in his jacket pocket, tell Toyo, “The jacket is hanging on the coat tree in the Admin office” and Toyo would get a camp policemen to go and retrieve it. If the items were too large for the pocket he would leave the trunk to his car slightly open and again a policeman would fetch them.
There was a surreal twist to this method of retrieval because the uniformed camp police officers, excepting the chief were prisoners themselves. In a strange twist of fate the government had made those who were prisoners the guarantors of their own imprisonment.
Miyatake took wedding photographs and family photographs, He took graduation photos and did engagements. He did sports too. He also continued to document camp life with all its warts and then smuggling the film out of camp to be printed by a white friend in Los Angeles. His courage and superb eye for detail has left us a true image of camp life the government went to great pains to conceal. Eventually he was able to strike a deal with the camp administrator to become the “Official” camp photographer because he argued that people in camp wanted photographs to commemorate their time there. On the surface this seems strange but there were so many requests that he had to set up a rigorous schedule, allowing only two photos per family in order to keep up. If he had been caught with his clandestine photos he would have been immediately transported to the punishment camp at Tule Lake California.
On April 11, 1942, the first issue of the camp’s Manzanar Free Press was published. The first newspaper to be published in a U.S. internment camp, this independent record of the internees’ lives at Manzanar was distributed in the camp until shortly before Manzanar closed on November 21, 1945.
The entire staff were internees and worked without pay.
The hypocrisy of the papers name didn’t go un-noticed by administration, but in the interest of harmony it was allowed to stand. Still each issue was submitted for review by officials before publication was allowed.
Aside from the enjoyment of the work and the relatively liberal minded staff, “The human element did not appear in the printed pages. There were no personal views from any writer. We could and did not write about what was happening to us, the poor food, the poor medical care, the lack of privacy, having to take showers together, overflowing toilets, being behind barbed wire, never free. We knew if we wrote about a certain thing, it wouldn’t get in the paper. The complaints of the internees was not ever voiced in the Free Press.” ——Sue Embrey, Editor
There was also some degree of irony because General DeWitt dropped by for a little visit and to look over his handiwork. A small article on page one of the newspaper was addressed to DeWitt, complimenting him on his understanding and humane operation of the mechanics of the evacuation. According to John D. Stevens, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Michigan who researched assembly and relocation center newspapers, these were the “first and only kind words which ever appeared in an evacuee publication about the man most” evacuees “blamed for their removal.” A week later DeWitt, perhaps influenced by the article in the Manzanar Free Press, gave official blessings to issuance of newspapers in all centers. Few are immune to flattery, even a Major General.
Interestingly, the Manzanar Free Press combined a national outlook with a newsletter feel. One can find articles on such topics as mess hall rules, school graduations, and results of games in the camp’s eight-team adult baseball league, alongside articles touting the contributions of Japanese-Americans citizens and soldiers to the national war effort. Like all American newspapers of the time it even ran an “Our boys in the Service” column.
Camp newspapers kept residents informed, relaying administrative announcements, orders, events, vital statistics, news from other camps, and other tidbits concerning daily camp life. They published not only straight news, but also editorials, opinions, human-interest stories, and entertainment pieces such as sports news, literary works, and comic strips. They recorded the daily activities of residents for whom, even in detention, life continued.
Camp cartoonist Iwao Takamoto went on to work for Disney Studios after Manzanar and then Hanna Barbera and was one of their chief designers responsible for, among others, Scooby-Doo and the Jetson’s dog Astro. Another cartoonist, Chris Ishii who was snatched out of the Disney studio wrote Lil Neebo. A “Little Nisei” boy who had all kinds of camp adventures.
Editorially, the Manzanar Free Press was devoted to the expression of American patriotism and mindful of the synthetic distinction of ethnicity made to limit Japanese-American participation in the war. In a January 1, 1944 editorial addressed to the “People of America,” the paper eloquently captured the resolve of these loyal, yet nonetheless demonized people:
In three months, we will have spent two years in these centers. We have had time to rationalize our own predicament. The tragic experience of evacuation, the untold volume of business losses of the evacuees, the unwarranted hatreds engendered toward us by some people because of our hereditary kinships with the Asiatic foe—these we write off our ledger.
She looks exactly like any teenage girl. This photo, taken by her friend Wilda Johnson who drove up from Glendale to visit her in the camp shows a trendy young girl right on the edge of womanhood. White tennis shoes and socks, gray skirt and a blouse with a Peter Pan collar fastened at the neck by a small brooch. She has her hair up in Victory Rolls, the fashion of the time and is flashing a bright and genuine smile. Her brothers Roy and Akira have the shy, reserved look of teenage boys, not quite sure what they are expected to do. No such thing for Honey though. Wouldn’t you like to know her?
We know about her today because her letters from camp were saved. She wrote in a beautiful copperplate hand with long graceful serifs. The letters are genuine. She tells of Christmas parties where everyone from her block attended, “Little tiny babies and the Grandpapas.” Santa Claus in his beard and red suit chuckled as he handed out presents to the little ones. She is captivated by the first snow on the Sierras, something she had never seen in Glendale. She talks about the freezing weather, both inside and out. She talks about the constantly swirling and dusty dirty wind and the affects of war rationing. “Only tiny babies get milk,” she says. In a bit of wonder, she never really complains about anything. She mentions the requirement that all visitors must apply for permits. Honey also mentions the prospect of being in Manzanar for a long, long time. She also says that camp life will not stop them from having fun, such as a picnics and teen dances with live music. She mentions “weiner bakes” along with hot, dusty conditions. She also notes that her free friends work on swing shifts and urges them not to let the work get them down, but rather to “do your part for the U.S.A. – ‘Keep them flying!'”
The sense of wonder and everlasting optimism of teenagers is hard to kill.
Song in Exile
Printed in the Manzanar Free Press, August 17, 1942
Song in exile
The other night we sat enchanted in the deepening dusk
before a drab recreation hall listening to the ageless strains
of a Brahms symphony.
Around us was the oppressive monotony of black bar
racks and dusty roads beyond, the jagged outlines of the
towering peaks softened now to a blue shadow. As we sat
there night slowly cast its black sorcery over the land and
as the violin quivered on a tremolo note the first evening star
appeared miraculously in the sky, shining in the gathering
darkness like a symbol of the beauty that still flickers in a
We let the mystical exoticism of Debussy fill the night
as each star came out to take its exact place in the wheeling
universe, until the night was misty with a million stars.
Man’s universal love of art and beauty is inextinguish
able. “Wherever beats the human heart, in the lush jungles of
Bataan, along the muddy banks of the Yangtze, in bomb
scarred Sevastopol, and even in Manzanar, man yearns for
The democratic universality of art does not distinguish
between nationality or race. Brahms was a German Debussy
French. Tschaikowsky was a Russian.
As we listen to the music of these great men let us
breathe a prayer for the men who are today giving their
lives that men may not only live again in peace and security
but that art may again be unfettered and freed from the
fascist censorship that would stifle it.
Closing the Circle….
On Wednesday afternoon July 28th, 1944, the boy found Mrs Takeyoshi Arikawa sitting on the steps of her barracks Block 31, Building 3, Apartment 4, in the Manzanar California concentration camp. He walked slowly up to her, removed his cap, bowed and handed her the envelope. He knew what was inside. She did too…..
Coming August 17th.