Food Survey of the Community Council box

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Japanese American Incarceration: How Caucasians Administrated them with regard to Subsistence

by Robert (SangYeop) Lee

            Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that ultimately led to the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast, although more than half of them were American-born citizens. Living behind barbed wire, these internees were under constant surveillance by United States military personnel; they also had to share a small number of bathrooms, kitchens, and cramped quarters which greatly diminished their privacy. Other than these issues, incarceration triggered many inconveniences, one of them being the food provided to them. The food that the United States government provided to the incarcerated Japanese Americans was far from superb, causing many complaints among them. However, Food Survey of the Community Council that took place in August 18, 1942 by the Food and Housing Committee proves that regardless of the complaints, Caucasian members of the committee did not put much effort into solving the problems that the Japanese Americans went through; they endeavored to make excuses for themselves and even blamed the internees in respect to food shortage, lack of assimilation, and accounting-related matters.

The shortage of vegetables was mentioned in the meeting as one of the issues, and Caucasian members of the committee accused the internees for not producing their own supply of food. Specifically, one committee member K. A. Best said, “there is an acute shortage of vegetables because of the evacuation of the Japanese people who were the chief growers on the coast.”[1] In a quick glance, Best’s argument may sound logical. In 1940, 113,000 Japanese Americans lived in the Pacific States, which was 88.5% of total Japanese Americans; among them, 51.4% of the males and one third of the females worked in agriculture, forestry, or fishing.[2] As a matter of fact, Japanese Americans who dwelled in Hawaii were not incarcerated because they consisted of one third of the total population, and incarcerating them all would have severely damaged Hawaiian agriculture. Clearly, the United States government was aware of the results that incarceration of Japanese Americans would bring to American agriculture. The irony stems from the fact that Caucasian committee members blamed the lack of Japanese Americans for the shortage of vegetables, while they were the ones who carried out the incarceration and caused food shortage. Best also said, “the best solution to the problem is for the residents in this camp to get busy and raise their own vegetables,” basically telling the internees to deal with this problem themselves.[3] Best’s comments reveal the detached attitude of Caucasian committee members regarding the problem of food shortage. Oblivious of the role that Caucasians had in this food shortage, Best perceived the situation as a third person and considered it an issue for Japanese Americans to figure out alone. The fact that Caucasian committee members did nothing substantial to help the internees with their farming in the incarceration camp also proves the emptiness of Best’s comments.

When a complaint regarding food shortage was brought up by a different group of people, Caucasian members of the committee put blame on the incarcerated Japanese Americans again, this time for their lack of efforts to assimilate to the United States. Workers in the incarceration camp were provided with coffee, toast, and cereal, but they did not like the cereal, which triggered workers’ complaints regarding lack of food. Regarding the issue, Best responded that “the people here are not trying to adjust themselves to the new life,” meaning that the internees were expected to accept whatever American food that was given to them.[4] The fact that Caucasian members of the committee blamed the internees for their lack of effort to adjust is quite ironic. Japanese people had been considered exotic and foreign ever since they first immigrated to the United States. They had been through disadvantages in job markets, and the anti-Asian sentiments eventually led to the Immigration Act of 1924 that banned the immigration of Japanese. When Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, however, the United States government was concerned that Japanese Americans may take Japan’s side. That the United States government “arrested a disproportionate number of Japanese Americans relative to their total population in the United States” shows the serious anxiety that the government felt regarding the possible infidelity of Japanese Americans.[5] Incarceration was one of the methods the government used to facilitate their Americanization, and the internees later on were even demanded to fight for the United States in World War II. The United States basically excluded Japanese Americans from the American community until the government was in need of them. Apparent irony exists in that before the war, Japanese Americans were never treated as Americans regardless of their efforts, but after the incarceration, they were all of a sudden expected to eat American food and act American.

The Caucasians that the internees dealt with were on occasion far from the most reliable people; accounting issues regarding the food supply occurred, one of which is depicted in this food survey. One internee gave as an example “the case of silk, which one of the invoices charged 13.5 cents a quart and recorded in the books at 14 cents—a discrepancy of 0.5 cent.”[6] Regarding this, the Caucasian committee member K. A. Best simply replied that “according to his knowledge the prices of a quart of milk in Poston is 14 cents,” and when asked to show the invoice, he said he could not find it.[7]—This is rather suspicious, although no evidence exists. Another complaint was related to the fact that each Japanese American in the incarceration camp was supposed to receive a meal that was worth 40 cents, something many people doubted. Contracts that were made with food suppliers were requested to prove to internees that their meals were indeed worth 40 cents. However, a Caucasian committee member H. W. Smith “pointed out that figures were not available at the present time…and these facts were not always available on request,” and another member R. M. Gelvin said “the 40 cents entered the picture was as an average—sometimes it may fall short of that average, sometimes exceed,” making more space for excuses.[8] The fact that no numerical evidence was given to the internees generates more skepticism regarding the reliability of these Caucasians. These events may simply be administrative issues that occurred in the incarceration camp, but it seems fair to assume that they were also the results of negligence and oversight by Caucasian committee members. In other words, these issues indicate the Caucasians’ careless attitude towards Japanese Americans.

Food Survey of the Community Council demonstrates that Caucasian committee members did little to contribute to the lives of incarcerated Japanese Americans. The committee members merely shifted the blame to the internees for their food related issues. These members went as far as to blame the internees for not trying to adjust to the American style of living, although the Caucasians were the reason why Japanese Americans had always been considered foreigners. Moreover, Caucasians handled works related to the internees in a rather careless and suspicious manner. These factors indirectly lead to the conclusion that racism still prevailed in the United States towards Japanese Americans. Although the immigration history of Japanese goes back decades from World War II, the way Japanese Americans were treated in the incarceration camps proves that they were still discriminated as foreigners in the United States.



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

[2] Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial (Hill and Wang, 2004), 16.

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

[4] “Food Survey of the Community Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 3.

[5] Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy (Princeton University Press, 2004), 77.

[6] “Food Survey of the Community Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 3-4.

[7] “Food Survey of the Community Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 4.

[8] “Food Survey of the Community Council,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, 5.

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