J-3 Final Report 1

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Justice For All or Some:

The Issei and Nisei Attitudes Toward Resettlement Post-World War II Internment Camps

Grace S. Ahn

AAS 2130

Professor Lau

2 December, 2014

The conflict between first and second generation Japanese Americans throughout 20th century US history has been studied and addressed in biographies, social commentaries, and more. However, the age dynamics and tensions found within the confines of the World War II internment camps are a less-studied microcosm for the generational shift in sentiment, attitude, and identity in the United States. The Japanese-American Relocation Center Records provides a wide breadth of records on life in the Poston Center regarding the psychological and social effects of Japanese American relocation during WWII.  Exploration of the Poston Opinion Research Center (PORC) reports revealed a major theme of generational differences in attitude toward the incarceration experience. The age dynamics and differing attitudes between the Issei and Nisei—contrasting in childhood, education, cultural and social upbringing—toward reintegration back into U.S. society are seen throughout the Japanese Incarceration archives. The J-3 survey report specifically illustrates the hopes, concerns, and fears for life after the incarceration camps in the Japanese American residents’ response to the resettlement issue. These surveys give us a limited, but nearly objective illustration through hard numbers of the distinct generational contrast in attitudes toward resettlement in the aftermath of the war. The J-3 survey report and other sources have shown that sentiments regarding post-internment resettlement differed between the separate Japanese identities of Nisei and Issei due to the incarceration’s impact on job security, authority roles, and anti-Japanese sentiment.

According to J-3 report, The ‘48 and above’ group showed greater resistance toward resettlement (15% no and 79% yes) than the 47 and below group.”[1] One reason the generational attitudes toward resettlement differed was because the prospect of a truly fresh start after WWII was different for the Issei and Nisei in terms of financial prospects and job security. Compared to the Nisei who were better equipped to assimilate back into society, the Issei were overall concerned with securing a job. In the J-3 report, the top two obstacles of the Issei regarding resettlement were “economic difficulties” and “difficulties in securing a job.”[2] These included subtopics of financial insecurity, old age and ill health, uncertainty of good job assurance, and being an Issei.[3]  The financial worries of being Issei stemmed from their loss of everything they had worked for in their lives in America. One 48-year old farmer said in the survey, “due to evacuation I have lost all my property and farming equipment… Could not be employed and make enough money to support a big family.”[4] With old age is the reluctant mental attitude of having to start all over again. The Nisei felt that to start a new life back in society would be painful and burdensome and their chances would be very slim. Prior to evacuation, Issei’s were “well established economically and were enjoying the last few years of their aging life. Even if many of them were not in the most ideal economic status, they were happy and contented in the economic security they had gradually developed over the period of 3 to 4 decades.”[5] Due to their losses from incarceration, Issei had reluctant attitudes toward starting all over again financially. In contrast, younger Nisei were eager to re-enter society and begin their new lives as American citizens. By January 1945, when WRA began the “terminal departures” to close the camps, nearly 36,000 Japanese Americans had taken advantage of this program—the vast majority being Nisei aged less than 35 years of age.[6] The lives of younger Nisei were just beginning and full of possibility because they were also generally more favored by employers and even the government due to their weaker ties to Japan. Lee states that “as only ‘loyal’ Nisei would do, the 1943 questionnaire [to form an all-Nisei combat team] offered the opportunity of crossing the line” to specifically Nisei if they agreed to declare loyalty to the U.S.[7] Therefore, this distinction between loyals and disloyals favored Nisei and was apparent throughout policy beginning even before the end of the internment program. Although anti-Japanese sentiment remained in the United States after WWII, the Nisei had improved prospects for a financially secure future than that of the Issei.

In addition to losing economic security, Issei lost their authority and pride of well-being. Another top reason stated in the survey report for resistance against resettlement was “family problems.”[8]  According to Dorr, the men—particularly the Issei—seemed to be most affected by the relocation center experience because “they had been stripped of their authority and basic responsibility for the care and welfare of their families [after losing] everything they had worked for during their lives.”[9] This loss of authority within the family was a major obstacle affecting the Issei in the relocation centers. This shift in role within the family also translated to shifted societal roles as well. Being taken from the homes they had become accustomed to leading their communities caused Issei to lose a sense of identity. The perpetual removal from these homes post-war strongly impacted their hopes for a fully content life when resettling back into society. Lee pointed out that the “WRA avoided geographic ‘concentration’ by relocating the released far from the ethnic economies and neighborhoods characteristic of the pre-war Nihonmachi (Japan Towns) on the Pacific.”[10] This spreading of people disintegrated the hopes of resuming the leadership roles and influence they once had in their communities. Nakamura writes that many people offered “little consideration of the fate of the Issei after they were deliberately excluded from leadership positions in the Japanese community after the war.”[11] The volatile exchange in leadership roles between the Nisei and Issei within the internment camps, therefore, affected how both generations regarded their newfound identities that would carry out similarly outside of the camps and into society.

One of the last reasons seen in the J-3 survey report for contrasting generational attitudes was the fear of anti-Japanese sentiment and the consequences to come with entering back into a society just after defeating the Axis powers. The top third reason listed for resentment toward resettlement was “fear of outside discrimination.”[12] As mentioned earlier, Nisei were generally favored even by the government to leave the camps early, enter the armed forces, and even begin attending universities with other non-Japanese Americans. Having been born and raised in American culture, there was a general improvement in ability to assimilate and be accepted into US society within the younger Nisei compared to the immigrant Issei. Therefore, Nisei were more eager to resettle back into US society and culture because of their all-American education and ability to easily enroll in American schools to begin their new lives as American citizens more seamlessly than the older Issei generation. This is seen in the primary document when the opinion survey reports “in the education breakdown, there is a graduated increase in desire to resettle with an increase in education… college group displays greater desire to leave and a lesser degree of resistance toward resettlement”[13] Their lives were just beginning, so younger Japanese American 2nd generation were more willing to re-enter society and begin their new lives as American citizens. The Nisei therefore had much to look forward to once re-entering society, providing optimistic reasoning for their lower resistance expressed in the report toward resettlement due to their ability to integrate better. In contrast, the older Issei did not feel able to integrate better. In examination of the Japanese Americans in southeast Arkansas, “the Issei generally showed greater interest in these classes [of American culture] than the Nisei, and the two most popular courses were English and American History.”[14] Issei were therefore more concerned with their lack of knowledge about US society because they had been clustered into their respective Japanese communities and pushed away from fully assimilating when they first arrived back in the early 1900s. When the camps ended, “many of the old prejudices against Japanese-Americans remained… Returnees were ‘terrorized’ and driven out of the West Coast communities they formerly called home by hate groups.[15] Although all Japanese Americans alike were most likely subject to the consequences of lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, the fear felt by the older generation of Issei was more pronounced because of their inability to integrate their entire well-being into US society and culture as the Nisei could.

All Japanese Americans were undeniably impacted by the racial discrimination imposed by the relocation program and the tearing away from their homes and communities. Although Nisei were more eager than the Issei to prove their loyalty and jumpstart their lives as American citizens post-WWII relocation—as seen in their lesser degree of resentment in the J-3 survey—there was still only a small quantitative difference in attitudes that the report focused on. The survey generalized between the attitudes and failed to poll internees about specific issues outside the reasons the designers of the poll chose to include. Only categorized reasons were used in order to make polling easier and according to what the surveyors themselves believed were obstacles to resettlement. More polls from Nisei may show that fear of resettlement could have been as great as Issei but for different reasons than those listed in the J-3 opinion survey. The survey was evaluated on August 7, 1945 when society was still under the crushing anti-Japanese tensions of post-war sentiments. True understanding of what the Japanese Americans endured and felt toward life after the internment experience can only be collected from the hearts of Japanese Americans rather than filtered polls and evaluations by the WRA within the heat of the times. Surveys like the J-3 survey attempted to be matter-of-fast but those designing and polling the questions will always have a bias in representing true opinion and sentiment.



[1] Lt. Alexander Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1 (Cornell Japanese American Archives, 1945), 7.

[2] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 10.

[3] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 10.

[4] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 11.

[5] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 11.

[6] Lee, The Japanese Internment, 1-18.

[7] Lee, The Japanese Internment, 1-18.

[8] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 10.

[9] Guy E. Dorr, Issei, Nisei, and Arkansas: A Geographic Study of the Wartime Relocation of Japanese-Americans in Southeast Arkansas (University of Arkansas, 1977), 152-159.

[10] Lee, The Japanese Internment, 1-18.

[11] Nakamura, Democratizing the Enemy, 244-246.

[12] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 10.

[13] Leighton, J-3 Final Report 1, 7.

[14] Dorr, Issei, Nisei, and Arkansas, 152-159.

[15] Matthew Teorey, Untangling Barbed Wire Attitudes: Internment Literature For Young Adults (Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 2008), 227-245.

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