Breaking Down the Family: An Analysis of Meeting Minutes of Committee on the Family Subject: Recreation Plans for Summer
By: Marina Yamasaki
The reaction of the United States Government in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor had devastating implications on Japanese Americans. Fueled by fear of future attacks and the desire for retribution, the American public was quick to turn on anyone of Japanese descent. With the signing of Executive Order No. 9066 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, February 19, 1942 marked a key turning point in shaping the cultural and family dynamics of Japanese Americans. Meeting Minutes of Committee on the Family Subject: Recreation Plans for Summer illustrates the family degradation that occurred as a result of Japanese relocation and internment. The primary source document captures the meeting between internment camp administrators at the Poston Camp in Arizona on May 7, 1943. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss possible recreation activities for Poston families over the summer. During the conversation, the administrators identify several family issues within the camps and propose possible actions to combat these issues. Although the Poston administrators do not experience the difficulties of internment first-hand, their account sheds light on the general family experience. Having interviewed and observed the Japanese Americans for over a year since the establishment of Poston, the administrators’ observations highlight the gradual degradation of families through separation, loss of privacy, and the transfer of parental responsibility to the community.
Many Issei, or first generation Japanese immigrants, with prominent standing in the Japanese communities, were immediately arrested by the FBI after Pearl Harbor. The American government believed that the Issei had close ties to Japan and therefore posed a dangerous threat to the United States. Approximately 1,500 Issei were detained and brought to Department of Justice internment camps and identified as enemy aliens. As a result, numerous families were broken apart. Ties between family members and their fathers were broken and often the relationships between the remaining family members were strained. In an anecdote provided by a Poston camp administrator, the arrest of a father caused a rift between mother and son. During an interview, when asked what he does with his time, the son replied he stayed away from home. The son had grown tired of his mother’s “bitterness” regarding her forced separation from her husband. The act of separation, itself, was harmful and the families continued to suffer long afterwards. Even after families were brought together again, family ties remained strained. Often, children did not recognize their parents when they reunited. In one example, two sons were to be reunited with their sick father in another camp. However, having already established their lives in their current camp, the older brother felt conflicted. A Poston administrator noted: “It is evident that while he [the son] signed the petition [to relocate], he has never been able to reconcile himself to going into the camp. He is in great confusion. All his future plans on one side, his family feeling on the other. The feeling that if his father dies from not being at the low altitude camp he could never forgive himself.” Having settled into life at Poston, he was forced to choose between joining his sick father and his personal happiness. If the father had not been taken from his family, the children would not be forced into these dilemmas. The limitations of movement to the confines of camps and continual upheaval forced families to make tough choices. In these examples, the difficulties of dealing with broken homes made maintaining family relationships a burden.
The degradation of the family unit was also a consequence of the lack of privacy within the camps. Apartments within internment camps were 20’ by 25’ and often housed two families. In Poston, the average apartment housed approximately 5 people. Both before and after relocation, families were apart during the day. Typically kids attended school while parents worked or participated in leisure activities. Prior to relocation, quality family time and bonding occurred over the dinner table. In the camps, however, families were rarely afforded privacy and had little opportunity to talk during dinner. During their meeting, Poston Camp administrators expressed concern over the rules of the mess halls. “I think many of the mess halls are seating people by family groups. But this is defeated by the insistence in the mess halls that people eat quickly and get out. So that opportunity is lost.” Although the administrators sought to “build the home” and strengthen the family, their attempts were failing in the camp environment. The structure of the camps limited the quality time parents shared with their children. Typical families use meal times as a chance to share the events of their day and create memories. The camp environment took away that opportunity for family bonding. Poston tried to seat families together in the mess halls, but by rushing meals, family time was impeded on. Moreover, many camps did not require families to eat together and “family members gradually began to eat separately: mothers with small children, fathers with other men, and older children with their peers.” The dynamics within the mess halls are indicative of family members choosing their friends over their family. Time spent together is invaluable in forming relationships. By limiting family interaction, family ties suffered.
Another result of living in such close quarters was the strengthening of community ties at the cost of weakening familial ties. The process of building community encroached on parental responsibilities. Once in the camps, mothers and fathers could no longer fulfill their traditional roles. As the government provided food and housing, fathers were no longer prized as the “breadwinners.” Mothers, who were once responsible for maintaining the household, found themselves with much more free time. Activities within the camp provided supervision for children. The interdependency inherent within the family unit outside the camps did not apply within the camps. The tasks usually assigned to mothers and fathers were taken on by the community. In the camps, administrators took over the responsibility of organizing activities for the children instead of the parents. During the summer of 1942, youth leaders from the church organized and created activities for the children. For the summer of 1943, Poston administrators met to create recreational activities for the kids. During the meeting, an administrator proposed that the mother’s would supervise the kids on a rotating basis. When an administrator “asked a question of a mother, if they would be willing to accept the responsibility [of caring for the children], and she [the mother] made the suggestion that they be put on the payroll.” Caring for their own children was no longer seen as an obligation but a job. The responsibility of a mother to look after her own child evolved into a mother looking after every child. By caring for the community, not just one’s own family, the unique connection between family members was lost. One assertion during the meeting was “you don’t have in a great many apartments in the block a family or home unity. It’s just 4 or 6 people living together. And a group of neighbors or friends are more apt to get together than those in the same apartment.” In caring for their own children, a personal tie is established between the parent and child. Within the camp communities, however, community activities strengthened community ties over family bonds.
Experiences in Poston are indicative of the dynamics in many of the internment camps. Poston administrators touch on many problems within the camps during their meeting. The confinement of Japanese Americans promoted a tight-knit community but in exchange broke down the family unit. Forced separation of families caused significant strain and burden on family members. Limited privacy inhibited the formation of family ties. The structure of the internment camps diminished the need of traditional families. When the United States government created the internment camps, one of the primary goals was to break the ties between Japanese Americans and Japan. The degradation of the family unit is one example where the internment camps are successful in reaching this goal. The family is a valuable system of support but also a means to pass on traditions. Parents share stories of their life experiences and the experiences of their ancestors. Parents discipline their children to raise their children with their cultural values. By breaking the parent to child bond, the oral tradition is broken, and the ties between future Japanese Americans and their Japanese heritage effectively diminished.
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