Meeting of Poston Temporary Community Council (8/12/1942) – Mess Hall of Block 21

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Disorganization and Inability to Maintain Effective Community Governments

By Kenneth Kang

As first and second generation Japanese—coerced and emotionally broken—began their new chapter of life in the internment camps, the issue of community governing loomed over the American military personnel who decided it was a good idea to contain hundreds and thousands of people in captivity. Not even a month into the internment project initiated by General John L. Dewitt and ordained by Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, the Americans in charge of the Poston, Arizona camp ran into problems. There were a lot of issues that arose when creating, maintaining, and operating Japanese internment camp community governments.  In the “5th Meeting of the Poston Temporary Community Council,” the white administrators and representatives from each unit in the camp (kitchen, law and order, etc) discussed ways to govern effectively and improve the functionality of the camp community. With so many issues needing to be addressed, this overarching white community government—the Poston administration—tried to implement and maintain fair representation, organized dietary care, and endorsement of law for the internees by calling for the creation of an Issei Advisory Board, an effective food distribution, and a solid judicial administration, respectively. However the administration’s attitudes and disorganization speaks volumes of the ineffectiveness of its governance and the internment effort itself, revealing the racism and incompetency of the role-model nation.

In an effort to include more Issei into the already existing yet limited-to Nisei community council, the Poston administrators attempted at a separate advisory board through democratic election consisting of only Issei representatives—all the while displaying their racism by highlighting Issei deficiencies (i.e. proficiency in English). Representation of Issei and Nisei was presumably skewed because the Nisei were more more proficient at English and more exact on showing their unwavering loyalty to the US. Although the American administrators do show attentiveness and inclusiveness for the Issei community, their plan was ultimately postponed for “further consideration” and never materialized. Furthermore, scholars Fugita and Fernandez affirmed the discrimination against Issei by white administration: “At first only Nisei could serve on camp community councils. The justification given by the agency was that the Issei would impede the creation of a “community as nearly American as possible.”[1] This proves that the Nisei was heavily favored as it is most acculturated to American standards. All in all one thing is clear: the atmosphere and attitude of supremacy emanating from the administrators overwhelms the meeting. When asked if the meetings with a possible Issei board were to be conducted in English, the chairman replied matter-of-factly that “he couldn’t see how they would get anything done if the meetings were held in Japanese.”[2] Rather than dismissing a valid question so hastily, they could have come up with ways for the Issei board to come into fruition, as the language barrier was the most probable reason why the board could not have started immediately. After all, Toyo Suyemoto Kawakami, an internee teacher in the camps, recalled teaching basic English to Issei, and that most of the “beginning adults” were Issei.”[3] With such low level English skills, an Issei Advisory Board that congregated with the administration certainly seemed improbable in the immediate future. In essence, the administration displays racism by favoring English over Japanese, and favoring Nisei leadership over Issei leadership.

The scarcity of meat and other good foods, coupled with the improper dietary care also presented a hindrance to the smooth functionality of the Poston camp and a headache to the governing white community. In a separate survey that captured the negative and positive memories of experiences in the WRA camps, 26% of the internees recalled food as one of the most negative aspects of the camps.[4] Administrators listed problems of: a lack of a “contact man who could coordinate the information on the needs of the individual kitchens,” lack of warehouse space for food, spoiling, and a “lack of proper timing and proper correlations with the needs of the kitchens.”[5] Furthermore, the rising retail costs of food caused the kitchen to “cook weeds in the camp.”[6] These problems represented disorganization and dietary care for the internees—two very alarming problems if it’s one’s duty is to quarter and accommodate thousands of incarcerated people. While the administration acknowledges its faults in this sector and show (slight) sympathy for the internees, it is so disorganized that the administration reveals their incompetence in such a crucial sector of the camp. The Poston administration further mires its case to govern effectively when it continually labels the food they provide to internees as “disgusting slop” or when it ridicules the Chinese markets that charge the camp’s food sector exorbitant prices for food.[7] Facetious quips such as “I’ll bet they bought it from some Chinese” underscore the incompetency and the unprofessionalism of these people who are responsible for the lives and welfare of thousands of lives.[8]

The Law and Order Committee and the discussion of the Board of Judges are the final pieces of community governments that the Poston administration deemed important in maintaining and operating camp government successfully, but ultimately proved once again its incompetence in governing and maintaining stability. Issues still lingered even after the Poston administration addressed them. For example, the problem of gambling was not included in the formal agenda (which should be because it is a legitimate offense listed in the Code of Offenses) but rather discussed casually amongst some of the councilmen. The councilmen showed no effort to revise the gambling provision—a provision that gave cops too much power to distinguish a friendly game from a gambling game.[9] This can lead to friendly games being misinterpreted by the white police force as gambling and gives the police a channel to abuse its power. Furthermore, the issue of illicit co-habilitation—couples living together who aren’t officially married—was brushed upon very briefly and without much thought. The administration admitted to the possibility that the problem of illicit co-habilitation could get very ugly, yet chose to ignore the problem temporarily. The administrators show their disorganization, inconsistency, and laziness when they agree to address the issue once it becomes a bigger problem and that when that time comes it could “amend any section (of the Code of Offenses)” to rectify their failure of dealing with the problem as soon as they realized it.[10] Not only should this be a jurisdiction left only to the Law and Order Committee and discussed with the camp beforehand, the administrators are basically abusing their power and giving themselves a “jail-free card” by having the power to change the rules as they see fit anytime. In addition the Law and Order Committee added insult to injury when it suggested creating a Board of Judges that “understands the English language” and that the judge be a layman.”[11] The administrators underestimate the internees’ aptitude and also leave the Issei out in the cold, as the majority of Issei are not proficient in English. One cannot deny the racism and the air of superiority in which the administrators carry themselves.

Ultimately, the white administration’s way of alleviating the issues that arose within the Poston community governments were very lackluster. During the meeting, very few problems were actually solved; a lot were pushed to another date for further consideration. While internees combatted hardship and lack of resources by making their living conditions more bearable,[12] the people in charge of the camps—military and administration—did a shoddy job on their part to accommodate the lives they have just displaced. Although an effort was made to improve the conditions of the Poston camp, it was a very measly effort at that.



[1] Fugita, Stephen and Marilyn Fernandez. Altered Lives, Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember Their World War II Incarceration, 137.

[2] “Meeting of the Poston Temporary Community Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 2.

[3] Grapes, Bryan J., Japanese American Internment Camps, 148-149.

[4] Fugita, Stephen and Marilyn Fernandez. Altered Lives Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember Their World War II Incarceration, 61.

[5] “Meeting of the Poston Temporary Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare And Manuscript Collections, 5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Meeting of the Poston Temporary Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 7.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] “Meeting of the Poston Temporary Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 7.

[12] Grapes, Bryan J., Japanese American Internment Camps, 136.

 

 

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