“Food Survey Block 3B – Supper” – The Effects of Food on Japanese Incarceration
By: Grace Becker
On orders of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into confinement.[i] This order, a direct result of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, authorized the placement of these Japanese Americans into internment camps, spread across the US. In these camps, they found jobs and went to school, whilst living in extremely close quarters with their families, as well as the rest of the community. Though it may not seem as important to the camps as policy or education, food and the management of the food system do a good job of representing the results of the camps on the Japanese American community. “Food Survey Block 3B – Supper,” an interview of the daughter, Lillian Sugita, of the chief steward of the kitchen in Block 3B, shows the effects that interment camps had on families, the Americanization of younger generations in the camps, and the differences in attitude between working class and councilmen.
First, the description of the arrangement of tables and people in the cafeteria in this document acts as a gateway to the changing attitudes and relationships between families in these internment camps. The internment time led to an end of close family unity, and the beginning of peer-bonding. After the white female author of the document asked the daughter she was speaking with about the arrangement of the tables, “[Sugita] said at first they had the tables reserved for families but it was changed…any friends who wish to sit together must come in together.”[ii] Later, when speaking with the camp’s councilman, the author was told that “families are not together but the boys particularly like sitting together so they like it this way.”[iii] These two quotes show how life in the camps changed from being family oriented to more focus on the interactions between peers. Nuclear families, though they did exist, became less important in daily life. As stated in Heidi Kathleen Kim’s chapter on food and incarceration in Eating Asian America, “groups based upon age and sex differences replaced the family as the traditional meal-time group and became a set pattern in several centers. They also became the organizational modes of social life.”[iv] The busy and varying work schedules of each member of the family also made it much more difficult to find a time to eat together, so mothers and children began to eat together, while fathers and older men ate together and older children with their friends and peers, redefining the mess halls.[v] In an article from Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, she argued, “family unity deteriorated in the crude communal facilities and cramped barracks.”[vi] This document, through the lens of a food study, is able to represent this deterioration of families in the camps and an emphasis towards peer culture.
The decline of nuclear families also had a direct effect on the conflict between Americanization and tradition in the camps. Because teenagers and younger children weren’t spending as much time with their tradition-oriented parents, they began to value American ideas over their parents’ Japanese-oriented ways, even more than before their incarceration. In Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir in Eating Asian America, she recalled “a time that included three years of her brother’s enlistment against her father’s wishes, and her near conversion to Catholicism”; this was a time, she said, caused by the mess halls.[vii] At the core of these transformations are the mess halls, and their effects on familial ties. This Americanization can be seen in the “Food Survey,” when the interviewer asked if she could stay for dinner, and Sugita replied, “that I had come at the wrong time because at noon they always have the best food, the American food and at supper they always have Japanese food.”[viii] This could be because Sugita assumes the white woman wouldn’t want the Japanese food, but it is more likely that the young girl, being raised in America herself, prefers the American food herself. Meals without her parents reminding her to eat the traditional Japanese food let her form her own opinions on the food she likes. Either way, the decline of nuclear families, caused by food distribution in the camps, brought on an Americanization and loss of Japanese traditions in the younger generations of the camps.
Along with the Americanization of younger internees, another general trend that the study of food surveys reveals was the difference in approach that the councilmen have with Americans than that of the service workers in the camps. The author stated in the document that “[the daughter of the chief steward’s] first statement was that they haven’t had any complaints about the food. It was good and they had plenty of it.”[ix] Even if she, personally, had complaints, she was perfectly polite and cordial to the visiting interviewer. On the other side, the author described her experience with the camp’s councilman: “Immediately the councilman burst out ‘well when its all garbage and that’s what you get used to, its hard to tell whether its good or not. The food is very bad and everything is awful. For three months we didn’t get enough to eat, and what there was you couldn’t eat. It made me throw up when I tried.’”[x] He did nothing to cover up his opinions on the food at the camp, revealing a difference in character between the working class and the governing body in the camps. This councilman was probably used to a better standard of living than the young Japanese American girl, making it clear the extent to which the entire race was discriminated against. Executive Order 9066 was a blanket law; it wasn’t just the working class Japanese Americans that were incarcerated, but the successful men and women as well.
Though “food” may seem like a sparse topic in the midst of Japanese interment, studying food surveys and reports gives readers a glimpse into the daily life of incarcerated Japanese Americans. This report, “Food Survey Block 3B,” is, in reality, a gateway into understanding the change in families, Americanization of younger internees, and the general attitude of governing figures versus working class Japanese Americans. Though they were eventually released and resettled during 1942, the entire Japanese American race was forever affected by this internment, which is why the study of their time spent there, is so important.
[i] Gary Okihiro, Encyclopedia of Japanese American Internment (Greenwood, 2013) 219
[ii] Food Survey Block 3B – Supper, Box 9, Folder 17, Japanese American Relocation Records, Cornell University, 2
[iii] Food Survey Block 3B – Supper, Box 9, Folder 17, Japanese American Relocation Records, Cornell University, 6
[iv] Heidi Kathleen Kim, “Incarceration, Cafeteria Style: The Politics of the Mess Hall In the Japanese American Incarceration,” in Eating Asian America, ed. Robert Ji-Song Ku (NYU Press, 2013), 128
[v] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During WWII (University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 8)
[vi] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During WWII (University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 8)
[vii] Kim, “Incarceration, Cafeteria Style: The Politics of the Mess Hall In the Japanese American Incarceration,” 140
[viii] Food Survey Block 3B – Supper, Box 9, Folder 17, Japanese American Relocation Records, Cornell University, 1
[ix] Food Survey Block 3B – Supper, Box 9, Folder 17, Japanese American Relocation Records, Cornell University, 1
[x] Food Survey Block 3B – Supper, Box 9, Folder 17, Japanese American Relocation Records, Cornell University, 4