Personal Adjustments Found Most Difficult (Secondary Student Survey)

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Comparison of Younger and Older Nisei Student Attitudes in the Poston Camps

Christian Kim

In the aftermath of December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American government established multiple internment camps for the Japanese residents of the US under Order #9066.[1]  Forced into exile, the uprooted Japanese slowly began to create new lives for themselves within the camps.  Some of the Issei women began to pursue the mastery of their chosen hobbies, such as flower arrangement, sewing, painting, calligraphy, whittling, etc.[2] Some schools were even set up for those who wanted to learn.  In the Poston internment camps, students took multiple surveys about certain topics.  The three wishes survey taken at the Poston camps has shown differences and similarities between older and younger students, particularly the wishes about re-relocation, peace, and social aspects.

For the older Poston Nisei students, some of their attitudes regarding the camps differed from the younger generation, in the fact that they desired to re-relocate.[3]  This might stem from the older students optimizing their situation; if they were imprisoned in the camps and escape seems hopeless, then they might as well be in a camp that provided more benefits than their current one.  Another wish that the older generation entertained was education.[4] This could also be interpreted as the desire to obtain jobs.  Based on this observation, it seems as though the older students were more interested in proving their loyalty than entertaining unlikely notions that they would leave the camps.  Racial uplift within the social system already in place was the most logical course of action if they wanted to improve their image to the Americans who imprisoned them.  Nobuko Emoto, a Nisei high school girl, who went to go attend Gettysburg College immediately after leaving the internment camp, exemplifies this desire.[5] The high school at Tule Lake saw many Nisei who were in the process of Americanization; they chatted about baseball, spoke English to one another, and even styled their look in accordance to the current Hollywood style at the time.[6] An analogy for re-relocating to better camps would be transferring to more prestigious colleges. For the younger students, they didn’t have the experience and knowledge the older students possessed so re-relocation for them would only seem like a change of scenery.  In addition, seventh and eighth graders don’t worry as much about jobs and education than the older students do, and therefore, in comparison to slightly more comfortable camps, home seemed like the better option.  At a different camp, a teacher commented, “The children showed a conflict between loyalty and filial piety.”[7] Younger children tend to respect filial piety more than their older, rebellious counterparts, so instead of attempting to assimilate themselves in the social system created by those who their parents disdain, they wish for liberation. Realism is the enemy of hope, and the older students began to be more realistic; they won’t ever escape this camp anytime soon, so they should change the system from the inside out since they will not be receiving any outside help.

In the three wishes survey, the younger Nisei students in the Poston I Secondary School voted most for peace because they wanted to leave the camps to return home.[8]  Those who had resided in the Poston camps had an especially hard time adjusting, as these particular camps were among the hottest of all camps, which made sense, since Poston was located in the state of Arizona.  Summers in these camps reached a sweltering 115 degrees, coupled along with humidity from the Colorado River and the frigid desert nights, made for unpleasant living adjustments for the residents of the camp.[9]  Out of the 900 students who had participated in the Personal Adjustments Found Most Difficult survey, 558 said the living conditions were the hardest to adjust to.  Of the 558, 409 reported that the hardest aspect of the camp to adjust to was either the weather or the housing.[10]  Poston housing was especially atrocious because administration had not one, not two, but four families share one barracks together, severely limiting privacy rights.[11] Younger children in general tend to be more self-interested and these unfavorable conditions gave rise to desires that lead to immediate satisfaction.  More likely than not, these students were probably not the happiest of people, so looking towards the future was a source of happiness for the young generation. This trend in voting for peace can possibly be explained by their naivety that propelled them to think that peace can be achieved and the camps terminated.  When the camps were set up, certain recreation programs were set into place.  This helped boost morale and optimism amongst the younger kids, as opposed to the older kids, who did not respond as well to these programs.  Another reason as to why the older children voted less for peace is the experiences, the education, and the social lives they lost.  Most likely, this created a pessimistic feeling, as opposed to the younger kids who lost only their possessions.  For the younger students, their innocence has not been yet tainted, and they were not as jaded as the older Nisei were.

Despite the differences in attitude, there were some similarities between the two generations.  In the three wishes questionnaire, all the grades had very similar numbers in the social category.[12]  No matter what demographic people belong to, especially younger people, they feel the need to be accepted by those around them. And in such a time of racism and prejudice, the Japanese most likely felt a stronger need to be accepted by those around them in the camps, since they had no other people to turn to.  At the heart of this entire ordeal, is the problem of racism and of the Japanese being social outcasts.  The number of students in each grade who wanted to reunite with friends from back home were especially uniform.  Perhaps this is a subconscious longing for everything to go back to the way it was before the camps. Or maybe this is just the Nisei wanting to prove loyalty and fitting in with the Americans, and living and being associated with only Japanese people is abhorrent to the socially aware students.  Another similarity in the social category between the older and the younger students of the Poston camp is their yearning to be reunited with their families, specifically those who went off to war.[13]  This shows that regardless of cultural differences and age difference, family was still important to all of the students.  By extension, the reason as to why the Americans created the internment camps can be attributed to fear of the dangers the ‘yellow peril’ introduced in regard to their families.

These surveys, particularly the survey about the three wishes, showed the attitudes of the students in the Poston camps on the topics of re-relocation, peace, and some social aspects. The older students mostly were more realistic and opportunistic, while the younger students tended to be more optimistic and naive.  The relocation of Japanese Americans to the internment camps showed both similarities and differences in student attitudes in the camps.

[1] Chrissy Lau, “WWII and the Politics of Incarceration”, (speech, Ithaca, NY, October 21, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Poston Educators, “Three Wishes Survey”, Japanese American Relocation Centers Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Allan W. Austin, From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II, (University of Illinois Press, 2004), 129.

[6] Thomas James, Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans 1942-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1987), 146.

[7] Ibid, 86.

[8] Poston Educators, “Three Wishes Survey”, Japanese American Relocation Centers Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1.

[9] Brian Niiya, Japanese American History: An A to Z Reference, 1868 to the Present, New York: Facts on File, 1993.

[10] Poston Educators, “Personal Adjustments Survey”, Japanese American Relocation Centers Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1.

[11] Niiya, Japanese American History.

[12] Poston Educators, “Three Wishes Survey”, Japanese American Relocation Centers Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 1.

[13] Ibid, 2.


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