Letter from Mrs. Jean Lew Dated 8/14/1942, Poston Arizona

B10F23 notF28 Jean Lew1 B10F23 notF28 Jean Lew2

Esther Hwang                                                                                                                                          11/18/2014

AAS 2130

An Analysis of a letter from

Mrs. Jean Lew dated August 14, 1942 from Poston Arizona


During the early 1940s, the Japanese incarceration camps redefined the family unit based on the unique forces produced by the camp environment as well as policies that helped to shape interracial relationships. Within the evacuation camps, most Japanese American family units deteriorated due to the constricting living situation, conflicts caused by the generation gap, and relatively flat wages across all types of labor. However, for interracial families composed of one ethnically Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent, the family unit experienced drastically different circumstances. The greatest influence that differentiated the camp experiences for these two groups was the relocation policy specifically for multi-ethnic families. Under the mixed marriage policy, created by Karl Bendetsen, the Western Defense Command (WDC) in charge of the internment program released some part-Japanese internees who met the qualifications of being “half or less than half Japanese blood.”[1] During the early to mid 1940s, Japanese immigrant wives and children in the camps often wrote letters to the government authority, appealing their Americanization in order to be exempted from evacuation orders.[2] This policy that provided a means of escape for multiracial individuals, especially children, encouraged interracial families to place their racial identities in their non-Japanese heritage in order to “prove” their Americanized character and disconnect from Japan. The deplorable camp environment coupled with the escape incentives created by the mixed marriage policy compelled interracial families to place their identity in their non-Japanese heritage; their freedom to self-identify their ethnic makeup was subtly obstructed. This fact brings to question the validity of Jean Lew’s accounts as the underlying motives for her claims lie in the possibility of leave that forces her to abandon her Japanese identity.  In the letter, Jean Lew conveys a strong sense of urgency to escape through her arguments of language barriers, ethnic discrimination, and her own racial self-identification, all of which help to convey the multi-ethnic family’s unwritten lack of freedom to determine their ethnic identity.

The primary document that is the topic of analysis is a letter from Mrs. Jean Lew, a Japanese American mother married to a Chinese American man, to officials requesting relocation outside the internment camps. The letter is dated August 14, 1942 and originates from Poston Arizona. The document starts off with a description of her and her sister’s childhood moving from Tacoma Washington to Los Angeles California. The beginning details the background of the sisters’ cold relationship with their father and then moves unto portray their educational careers. The aftermath of her father’s accidental murder of her mother coupled with the new environment of school caused both Jean Lew and Marie Lee, her sister, to experience a deep sense of isolation and abandonment by the Japanese American community. However, this case of estrangement must be differentiated from the ostracism they faced within the camp; while during their school years, Jean Lew and Marie Lee were shunned for their tragic family background, within the camp, they were ostracized purely for their different ethnic makeup. The initial abandonment in their early years led them to find inclusion within the Chinese American community, where both sisters ended up working and finding their husbands. The latter half of the letter is a report of Jean Lew’s experience in the internment camp and the negative treatment of her family as a whole. The letter concludes with a plea for relocation, using her involvement in the Chinese American community and sense of separation from the Japanese to justify her claims.[3]

Through the argument of language barriers, interracial families were able to highlight their separation from the Japanese community with the motive to show U.S. loyalty in hopes of escape from the camps. The underlying tone of desperation supports that mixed marriage policies ultimately stripped multi-ethnic families of their right to self identify with the Japanese side of their ethnic makeup. Jean Lew claimed, “Since coming to this Relocation Center, we (the family) are going through a terrible mental and physical strain. We do not read or write the Japanese language and our children do not understand any other language but the English language. Most of the inhabitants look upon us with curiosity and some even point our children out and tell their friends that they are not Japanese.”[4] Although at first it may seem as though the Japanese community in the internment camp ostracized Jean Lew and her family for their multi-ethnicity, the underlying tone of the entire letter must be applied in context. To some extent, language barriers played a major role in preventing multi-ethnic families from effectively communicating with the Japanese community. However, communication takes numerous forms in body language, facial expressions, diagrams, and more. Additionally, language barriers were a common point of conflict between the Nisei, who often could not speak Japanese, and the Issei. However, the Nisei still identified themselves as Japanese Americans, highlighting that language barriers alone were not the sole motivation of Jean Lew’s disassociation with the Japanese community. Lew’s dramatic self-victimization suggests strong underlying motives of wanting to escape the camp through the mixed-marriage policies. By claiming that the Japanese community rejected them and viewed her family as “not Japanese”, Jean Lew is subtly denouncing her family’s Japanese identity and trying to prove to authorities that her family is not considered Japanese even by the Japanese themselves. By stressing the mental and physical strain the family experienced, Jean Lew is trying to add validity to her estrangement. In order to escape the internment camps, interracial families, by necessity, were subtly forced to emphasize or highlight their non-Japanese identity.

Similar to the consequences of language barriers, multi-ethnic families used the ostracism imparted by the Japanese community onto the interracial families in the internment camps as a means of leave. Although discrimination against multi-ethnic families may have existed among the Japanese community, multi-ethnic families learned to emphasize these occurrences to victimize themselves and to prove their ‘non-Japaneseness’ to authorities. Jean Lew perfectly captured this sentiment when she expressed her concerns for her children. Although she was “glad for our children they aren’t pure Japanese but I don’t want people to stare at us as we were circus freaks… we feel we are being ostracized, some jeer at us and others look upon us with pity.”[5]Jean Lew attempts to prove her family’s loyalty to America by highlighting their non-Japaneseness in order to escape the interment camps. She is ultimately trying to prove to authorities that her family doesn’t identify with their Japanese heritage and are more appreciative and in-tune with their American or Chinese side. Additionally, in her description of her family’s estrangement, Jean Lew claims the Japanese community viewed them as “circus freaks”, and continues to victimize herself with claims of being “ostracized” and “jeered at… with pity”. The emphasis on the negative treatment and alienation by the Japanese clearly exemplifies Jean Lew’s disdain for the Japanese community and helps to solidify her family’s ethnic identity in their non-Japanese side.  By describing a dramatic picture of the discrimination in order to make claim for leave, Jean Lew proves that the mixed-marriage policies allowed multi-ethnic families to leave internment camps at the cost of seceding their Japanese identity. This combination of general anti-Japanese sentiment along with the opportunity provided by race policies allowed the families to navigate this political terrain at the expense of disassociating with their Japaneseness.

Ultimately, Jean Lew’s own ethnic self-identification clearly depicts her attempt at proving her family’s American loyalty. Jean Lew ends the letter saying that “we are loyal American citizens and our wish is to… live and raise our children as the American in our own American Chinese community.” [6] Jean Lew and Marie Lee may in fact identify themselves more as Chinese than Japanese, however, the repetition of the word “American”, and the placement of the word “American” before the word “Chinese” underscores their true intention of trying to escape the camps through displays of loyalty. Instead of saying that they are “Chinese American”, Jean Lew chose to identify her family as “American” and her community as “American Chinese”. The policy that was skewed in favor of ‘saving’ multi-racial families drove them to attempt proving American loyalty by essentially giving up their ethnic association with their Japanese heritage. McCloy, a member of WRA, “suggested that loyalty to the U.S. would be a better standard than race for dealing with ‘mixed marriage’,” compelling multi-racial families to do everything in their power to display American loyalty.[7] These measures included not only illustrating their devotion to the U.S., but also denouncing their Japanese identity. By bringing the anti-Japanese sentiment into policy, the U.S. government essentially stripped away multiracial family’s incentives and freedom to identify with their Japanese heritage by providing an opportunity for leave from the internment camps that ultimately shaped their motivations.

The family unit underwent contrasting transformations based on composition; while traditional Japanese American families experienced a deterioration of family structure, multi-racial families were forced to draw closer in their disassociation from their Japanese heritage and self-identification to their non-Japanese side. The mixed-marriage policies that provided a means of escape for multi-ethnic families subtly restricted the family’s freedom to self-identify their ethnicity. In Jean Lew’s case, her family was forced to identify as “American-Chinese” rather than “Chinese-Japanese-American”. The underlying escape motive manifests in multiethnic families’ letters to authority describing language barriers, discrimination, and loyal self-identification. These accounts that put the multi-ethnic families in a victimized light highlight their desperation to leave the camps. The combination of different social, cultural, and political dynamics essentially stripped multiracial families’ freedom to identify as a combination of Japanese and non-Japanese ethnicity. Whether this experience unique to multiracial families was a blessing or a curse is another whole topic of analysis…


[1] Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.: Commission :, 1983. 220.

[2] Kwon, Eunhye. Interracial Marriages Among Asian Americans in the U.S. West, 1880-1954. University of Florida, 2011. 143

[3] “Letter from Mrs. Jean Lew,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[4] “Letter from Mrs. Jean Lew,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Letter from Mrs. Jean Lew,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[7] Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.: Commission :, 1983. 220.


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