J-3 Final Report 2

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The Issei Grief, the Nisei Relief                   Moseh Cho

Between 1885 and 1924, many Japanese men immigrated to the US and made up the first generation of Japanese pioneers called the Issei. In 1907, the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed for women to immigrate to the US, who then paired with all the bachelors to create families, with their children making up the second generation called the Nisei. Issei and Nisei alike were forced into the incarceration camps via President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of February 19, 1942, a likely response to the war hysteria caused by Pearl Harbor & WWII. By the end of May 1942, over 120,000 Japanese, US citizen or not, were sent to camps with only the clothing and supplies they could carry. The Issei generation spoke primarily Japanese and had a large stake in the agriculture industry, while the Nisei were young, English speaking and hadn’t experienced the great difficulties of their parents. From the documents “J-3 Final Report 2”, we will focus on the English speaking Nisei and Japanese speaking Issei. I argue that the Issei had a more pessimistic idea of life outside the incarceration camps in America after the war ended compared to the younger Nisei because they were greatly attached to their old lives in the Pacific coast, had lower wage and employment expectations, and a lower expectation on finding a good job after the war.

The Issei’s decades of hardship experienced in the West Coast as well as old age made them less willing to seek a new life outside of Poston Camp as compared to the Nisei. In Survey J-3 question 5 when asked “After the war, which one of the following do you think would be best for the Japanese in the United States to do?” 65% of Issei indicated that would like to live where they did before the war and only 16% said to live in all parts of the U.S., unsurprisingly only 1% wanted to live in the relocation center. This is in stark contrast to the younger Nisei where 62% wanted to live in all parts of the U.S and 32% indicated they wanted to live before the war. This shows that the Issei had more attachment than the Nisei to their initial location. In 1940, more than half of Issei men (51.4%) were involved in the agriculture, forestry, or fishing industry, and 23.6% were in the wholesale or retail trade, both professions are regional and have high startup costs, meaning it would be difficult to just start another farm or business, a concern many Nisei wouldn’t have to face.[1] One Issei speculates that “Isseis do not know the English language very good, are old, and have already set up a foundation to do business at the place before evacuation. So, it is best to return to the place where we lived before the war. For Niseis, it would be best to live in all parts of the United States.”[2] The Nisei also had the flexibility to go anywhere because of their English language usage, but the Issei were limited to their community. The first group of internment camp members who were allowed to leave, as written by President Roosevelt, were “qualified American-born Japanese students.” These types of opportunities likely gave more optimism to the Nisei, opportunities, which were unavailable to the Issei.[3]These opportunities allowed the Nisei to attend colleges all around the U.S. as “ambassadors of good will.”[4]  Issei felt that the evacuation was only a temporary measure and that they would be allowed to return as soon as the crises passed. With this feeling many of the people rented or loaned their homes and business places or farms. They felt that it would be a breach of faith by the United States Government if they were not allowed to return after the crisis had passed.[5] 14% of Issei believed that the Japanese should live outside the U.S. primarily Japan, versus the Nisei 4% who believed in this. [6]Perhaps the resettlement had put a final straw on the backs of the unwelcome wagon. The Issei would rather leave the U.S. than stay in the camp, but if they chose to stay in the U.S. they would rather be back to where they started. We clearly observe an ideological divide of what the Japanese should do between the two groups.

The Issei showed more pessimism towards wage expectations than the Nisei. The Issei in general had less of an opinion on what job they wanted to work as well as less expectation on any sort of minimum wage. More than 3 out of 10 Issei didn’t have any job that they desired, and 34% didn’t have any expectation on their minimum wage. When we look for the numbers controlled for expectations of wage/work and whether they planned on leaving, those who planned on leaving had a lower salary expectation than those who didn’t. This is probably because they were factoring in lower pay since historically Japanese received lower pay. The Japanese were banned from trade unions and did not enjoy the benefits of a higher union wage, many did cheap contract labor, still others managed to open their own farms or small businesses. [7]Perhaps those who thought to stay had a higher reservation price, meaning they wouldn’t leave unless they got paid more; however, we see from the large percentage of those who didn’t have any expectations on leaving also didn’t plan on getting a job reveals the pessimism of their situation. It would be very hard to start over again unless they went back to where they started, even still, they would have to deal with the racism of predominantly white communities, build new networks, and save enough to buy or contract land or reopen a business, assets they no longer own. Nisei on the other hand could speak English and would have an easier time finding a job in the U.S. Not only that but the National Student Relocation Council would sponsor anyone willing and able to get a college education, an opportunity that would create a new college educated generation that would have a considerably easier time finding professional employment.[8] Perhaps the Issei feared the economic conditions after the relocation, or their ability to get a job or re-open another business whereas the Nisei could start fresh as educated, English speaking youths.

The Issei were more pessimistic of their situation as they had experienced more hardship and had less to hope for than the Nisei. The possible responses were “better, the same, worse, or no opinion”: 67% of Issei believe their chances were worse whereas 59% of Nisei said their chances were worse. 26% of Issei felt their chances would be the same or better whilst 35% of Nisei thought likewise. There are a few factors which may likely contribute to this discrepancy: Issei have spent much of their life trying to get established and staying afloat in a society where the predominantly white class did not like their race or even more their success. Starting over with less assets and even less energy makes maintaining hope difficult. The Isseis’ loss is best juxtaposed with the Niseis’ who grew up in America and never knew what life was like back in Japan. Many of the Nisei even voluntarily went into Incarceration to prove their loyalty to the U.S., and many of the Nisei had taken positions of power and had a relatively more enjoyable experience in the camps than the Nisei.  The Issei had their grief of loss while the Nisei had their community groups and college scholarships. Many of the pains from immigration have been spared on the younger generation, hence making the Issei more pessimistic and the Nisei less cognizant of just what prices had to be paid to enjoy the lower middle class lives they had before the relocation.

We can agree from the documents that many who were incarcerated did not enjoy their time and were treated poorly. Justified or not, we see for the first time an entire race living together and due to great record keeping and opinion polling are able to peek into the camp sentiments at the time. We can see the differences between Issei and Nisei thoughts as a whole and can say with statistical significance that there is a different perspective between the two generations. These differences reveal that the pessimism experienced by the Issei was fairly met by the realism of their situation. Many were old and had set up their entire lives back in the West Coast before being suddenly moved for a crime they did not commit. How could they know what jobs were left out there? How much could they even get paid? Hence many were simply being realistic, at an old age, how could one plan for the future with nothing in line? Certainly the English speaking Nisei had a much better opportunity to thrive once freed from the camps so the reality of getting a job and a salary are well within their scopes of imagination. The survey just revealed the plain and obvious truth, the Issei were not welcome.

[1] Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial, 16.

[2] Cite the document: “Title” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[3] Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial, 73.

[4] http://encyclopedia.densho.org/National_Japanese_American_Student_Relocation_Council/

[5] J-3 Final Report Part 2,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[6] J-3 Final Report Part 2,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[7] Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus, 5.

[8] http://encyclopedia.densho.org/National_Japanese_American_Student_Relocation_Council/


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