Effects of Food in Japanese Internment Camps
By: Doyoung Kwag
In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor that marked the beginning of World War II, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese heritage were forcibly evacuated from the west coast and placed into one of ten hastily arranged internment camps until the war’s end. Some of the many problems that the Japanese Americans endured can be seen in the primary document used in this analysis, a survey of Block 31 in one of the internment camps, which reveals experiences of the Japanese Americans with the food and the mess halls in these camps. In the period of incarceration, food became a way of highlighting racial power dynamics, mess halls promoted American nuclear family structures, and the American menu of the food started to replace traditional Japanese principles.
Throughout the struggle of the Japanese incarceration, the definite hierarchy of power was evident from the attitudes of the Americans towards the Japanese, even in a kitchen setting. One of the main reasons for the Japanese incarceration was due to suspicion and paranoia that the Japanese Americans were secretly aiding the war effort in Japan. The primary document reports, “Mrs. T., an attractive woman in her early thirties informed me that the food was terrible in the mess hall because the cooks knew the people in the block would not dare to complain.” This shows that the American cooks realized and thoroughly utilized their power over the Japanese to keep them under control even under unjustified conditions. “The white cooks did not understand Japanese ways. Japanese people did not eat rice with sweet food. But some cooks served them canned apricots poured over rice.” It’s evident that the white cooks dominated the kitchen, and even though there were also Japanese American chefs that aided them, their status as internee workers gave them very little weight and influence in the kitchen. Health and the repetitive nature of the food were also problems as two girls after eating wieners “every day for the last three weeks were beginning to develop diarrhea at the sight of them.” Diarrhea was prominent in many of the interment camps due to the unaccustomed diet of food, and because there was “little or no provision for medical care” the health of the community deteriorated. This shows the lack of attention that the Japanese Americans received in the camps, and this low level of concern resulted in various diseases and health issues that weren’t treated. On top of that, the food that the Japanese were served was subpar to many nutritional standards as the “rations supplied were low in calories, protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins.” The Japanese attempted at one point to complain about the food, but immediately gave up when the cooks threatened to quit. It was this display of power that was held over the heads of the Japanese that accentuated the power division between the two races. Resistance amongst the Japanese was not common due to this lack of power, but there were instances such as the Manzanar riot that caused uproar within the Japanese incarcerates. Henry Ueno, an intern, revealed injustice in the allocation of food supplies and the existence of a black market that Americans were a part of with their kitchen supplies. The Mess Hall Workers Union was created due to this as the Japanese felt that they would only continue to be ignored if they didn’t organize together. However, the suspicion that forced the Japanese into internment camps was also mixed with the sympathy of some Americans towards the Japanese. In the block interview, the wife of the Council was disappointed with some aspects of the food that the internees received as “she was quite vociferous in her condemnation of the mess hall” as she goes on to speak of the bad diet served in the block. But, this survey was a specific one for Block 31 and cannot be extrapolated extensively to all other blocks or camps, as there could have been some blocks that were even worse, but also some that had better conditions for the Japanese. It wasn’t rare to see many Americans sympathetic towards Japanese as they voiced the need for changes. However, it was difficult to implement these changes because in the end, the white race and the government possessed the power, and no matter how empathetic some of them were, the lack of resources and the urgency of the war in place allowed for the augmentation of the power dynamics between the two races.
Mess Halls in internment camps were created in an effort to promote the ideas of a nuclear family and domesticity within the Japanese, but these were not the outcomes attained. The mindset of the Americans when constructing the layout of the mess halls was to bring families together and emit a homey sensation into the environment of the camps. Unfortunately, the intimacy of family centered meals was actually broken down as “tables were arranged in four long rows running east to west.” Because of the orientation of the mess halls, Japanese families started eating separately, and the commotion and disorganization of the halls further disturbed close relationships within families. The food survey states, “The people instead of enjoying their meal seemed intent on getting through with it quickly so they could rush out as soon as possible.” This shows that instead of using mealtime as an opportunity to bond and strengthen families, the Japanese were more determined to escape the mess halls as fast as they could. An older woman laments the loss of family time as “she hoped that they could have the family style of serving since she detested the idea of having to face ‘strangers’ at meals.” Many of the older generations were more at loss as they wished to eat with their families and even attempted to take their food back to their rooms to conserve their family ties to no avail. Groups based on age and sex began to redefine mess halls as the image of a nuclear family began to slowly disintegrate. Mess halls began transforming into a social arena as traditional family values disappeared. “Apparently the mothers could not discipline their offspring because much confusion and noise emanated from this quarter. I actually saw two boys fighting in one corner while three other youngsters raced up and down the aisle shouting rather lustily.” Adults were more exasperated about the situation as they lost control of their children and basic manners were lost. Even though the large mess halls were developed to produce domesticity, the children being rowdy and disobedient shows the further tear in the idealistic vision of a nuclear family. This resembles the start of many forms of delinquency, further distancing the Japanese from idealistic Americanization. It is ironic how the mess halls were designed to draw a picture of a nuclear family and promote domesticity within the Japanese, but in reality, communal living and eating made the most significant contributions to family disintegration.
The menu of the food became a source of a dominant American culture intruding upon traditional Japanese principals. Japanese internment camps had a healthy mix of both Issei and Nisei, and the generation gap was evident in their taste in food, as the Issei preferred more traditional Japanese food, while Nisei were more tolerable to the American food that was mostly served at the camps. When two couples that were over sixty were interviewed, they stated that they would be “well-satisfied if they could have more frequent servings of typically Japanese dishes like misoshiru, tempura, and tofu.” This was common amongst the older generation, as their palates were not as well accustomed to American food. Also, the prevalence of American foods such as hot dogs and bread over Japanese foods such as rice display the subtle integration of American foods into the diets of the Japanese internees. In the camps, American food slowly started replacing Japanese food in the dining menus. This change of diet was not appealing to many of the older Japanese, as they preferred their routine diets. For example, instead of eating boiled wieners seven times a week, some of the Japanese would take them home and reheat them in soy sauce, a staple of Japanese cuisine. The different generations had differing perspectives on food and this seems to reflect the overall sentiments that each generation had toward this movement towards Americanization as Nisei displayed more active assimilation than did the conservative Issei. With this aspect of encroachment, it is also important to consider the American perspective on this matter as to many Japanese, this increased effort for Japanese assimilation was an unwelcome guest onto traditional values, while an American perspective may believe that through this forced relocation, they were actually helping the Japanese by teaching them American discipline. However, as some Japanese attempted to conserve Japanese-style food with the predominant American food that was served in the camps, a combination of culture and cuisine was observed in the creation of hybrid food. This gave both generations the opportunity to please their palates in the midst of intruding American cuisine. This example of hybrid food shows that rather than the complete assimilation of the Japanese, which is what the Americans wanted, what emerged from the menu of food in the camps was a tentative compromise between two very different cultures. Nevertheless, through their control in setting the menu of food that the Japanese got to eat in the camps, Americans exhibited one of their many attempts in creating a more Americanized culture, a subtle effort in hopes of Japanese assimilation.
With the fear that the Japanese were plotting against America during the war, the Japanese were unfairly forced into incarceration. During this period of time, food became an important icon of race relations and creeping American culture. Through food, the Japanese experienced the power superiority of the Americans, witnessed the gradual movement towards Americanism through variation in cuisine, and revealed the irony of mess hall orientation that resulted in further family disintegration rather than idealized Americanization.
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 Ibid., 3.
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