Interview with N.M. on the Block 27 Study (5/31/1942)

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Young Nisei Women’s Attitudes Toward Victimization of Internment

By Orlando He

With the issue of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, Issei and Nisei had their property seized and were taken from their homes to the internment camps, all under the justification of “military necessity”.[1] The interview with Miss N.M. gives us a glimpse into the experiences and sentiments of young Japanese women interned at the Poston Relocation Center, the largest of the ten concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II. While her full name is not known (perhaps undisclosed for confidentiality reasons), we do know that Miss N.M. is a female Nisei and a senior in high school. Through the interview, we get a better understanding of her sentiments towards the camps, as well as her everyday social goings in the camps. In general, life in the internment camps was difficult and depressing for those interned. Food was limited and distasteful, sleeping conditions in the barracks were uncomfortable, and guards patrolling the camps with machine guns behind barbed wires reminded them of the ironic reality that they were prisoners in their own country. Faced with such bleak surroundings, internees found different ways to cope with and challenge their unfortunate predicament. Drawing from the interview with Miss N.M., it is evident that one of the ways young Nisei women coped with the victimization of internment was by trying their best to live the lives they did outside the barbed wire.  This attitude toward life in the camps is made clear through Miss N.M. and other young female Niseis’ interactions with other internees within the structure of the camps. Young Nisei women’s attitudes toward and interactions with other Japanese internees was significantly affected by the structure of the internment camps and these attitudes were informed by a need for normalcy in the face of the harsh reality of internment and the characterization of women as victims.

 

Women’s attitudes toward male internees in the camps reflect an effort by women to lead normal lives within the camps. Drawing from the interview with Miss N.M., I will focus particularly on young Nisei women. Young women and men internees passed the time in the camps through various activities – some separate and some mixed gender. On their own, Nisei women like Miss. N.M. spent a good amount of their time at home, sewing, reading, or gossiping.[2] Outside the house, Nisei women formed girls clubs as a way for girls to come together and socialize. Clubs such as the Bombadettes, as Miss N.M. points out in her interview, gave girls a chance to learn how to swim, dance, and sew together.[3] Most girls, however, preferred staying at home and only going out on special occasions.[4] This could be explained by girls’ parents not wanting their daughters to be around some boys, who had a bad reputation in the camps for holding noisy dance practice sessions in the laundry and walking around in gangs.[5] In Miss N.M.’s words, the boys want to “look tough” while the “girls want everyone to know they are nice girls and they help out the family with its sewing, washing, and cleaning”.[6] Clearly, young Nisei women were concerned about their image in the camps and reflected that in their chosen activities. It is important to remember that although they were far from home and under military supervision, young female internees still went about their everyday lives worrying about normal teenage things such as how others saw them. This reinforces the idea that women internees coped with internment by trying to live a normal life and trying to worry about normal things within the camps.

 

Young Nisei’s attitudes toward their families also suggest an attempt at normalcy within the concentration camps. On the one hand, family relations suffered as a result of the horrible communal facilities and overcrowded barracks inside internment camps.[7] The cramped barracks became a place to just come home to and sleep, rather than a place for family togetherness. The large communal mess halls encouraged family members to eat separately: mothers with children, fathers with other men, and young men and women with their peers.[8] The structural design of the camps also diminished family unity by breaking up family members into different blocks. To challenge the structural issues of the camps, mothers commonly focused upon the improvement of family life and the welfare of their children, as they would have had they been outside the camps.[9] For example, young married women attempted to create a home environment in their barrack quarters by making shelves, ordering curtains and bedspreads, and constantly cleaning and dusting these homes.[10] Another example could be married women and their children going on play dates where the women would gossip while their children played together.[11] The interview with Miss N.M. is limited in revealing her attitudes towards parents but based on her personal preference to stay home and help her family rather than go out with boys as some “fast ones” did, we can conclude that some young female internees preferred helping out at home while others preferred pursuing romance or being outside the home.[12] In any case, both these attitudes suggest an effort by Nisei women to challenge the victimization of internment and regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.

 

The final internee relationship I would like to explore is the one between Nisei women and Issei women. It is interesting to see how Nisei and Issei women chose to spend their time in the internment camps and what the activities they participated in meant to them. For Issei women, who were accustomed to long days working inside and outside the house, camp life offered them leisure time they did not have before in which they chose to pursue interests such as flower arrangement, sewing, painting, and calligraphy.[13] Nisei women spent a lot of their time at home with their parents also sewing and cleaning. However, the reasons Nisei and Issei women participated activities like sewing and painting were not always aligned. Whereas Issei women saw their new hobbies as a way to learn new skills and contribute materially to the family, Nisei women saw fashion as an escape and a way to express themselves. Nisei and Issei women also diverged in their values about marriages and children as a result of the structure of the internment camps. With increased interaction between Nisei men and women in the internment camps, young women increasingly came to expect to choose their own husbands and marry “out of love”.[14] This trend had its roots in prewar times, but was fostered by internment in a number of ways. One of the most interesting ways in which internment fostered new ideas of romance was in camp newspaper columns such as Shoji’s in “The Mercedian” and Poston Chronicle’s “Fashionnotes”. These columns offered Nisei readers recommendations on how to impress boys by improving their appearances and choosing the latest fashions.[15] These columns mirrored the mainstream girl’s periodicals and offered female Nisei a small taste of the world outside the barbed wire fence, and through this, a sense that their life behind the barbed wire was still connected to the outside. Clothing and fashion provided a special boost in morale and feeling of normalcy for female internees as the men left to prove their loyalty in the United States 442nd Combat Team and 100th Battalion.

The interview with Miss N.M at the Poston Relocation Center gives us an interesting window into the lives of young Japanese Nisei women during the period of Japanese internment. The relationships and interactions Nisei women had with other internees were greatly affected by the structure and conditions of the internment camps. To regain a sense of normalcy in their lives, young Japanese Nisei women participated in activities such as dancing, swimming, and sewing on their own time without worrying about their unjust predicament. Inside the camps, young Nisei women and men worried about normal teenage things such as how others saw them and how to spend their days avoiding boredom. The conditions of the internment camps also contributed spurned parents to focus on improving home and family life, as any parent would do in their normal lives. Generational ties between Issei and Nisei women were also impacted by life in the camps. Issei and Nisei women participated in certain activities together, but held different values and sentiments about those activities. Issei women saw their hobbies as a way to add materially to the family, while Nisei women began to focus on their outward appearances and finding love. However, both Issei and Nisei women saw these hobbies as a way to defy their assumed identities as victims and prisoners of internment. In the end, the internment experience was undoubtedly a dark and bleak time in Japanese-American history, but was the common characterization of the internees as victims was defied by Nisei womens’



[1] Chrissy Lau, “World War II” (speech, Ithaca, NY, October 21)

[2] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[3] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[4] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[5] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[6] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[7] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 1984, 8.

[8] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 1984, 8.

[9] Mike Mackey, Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West (Western History Publications, 2001, 210

[10] Mike Mackey, Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West (Western History Publications, 2001, 210

[11] Mike Mackey, Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West (Western History Publications, 2001, 210

[12] “Interview with N.M.,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

[13] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 1984, 9.

[14] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 1984, 10.

[15] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 1984, 10.

 

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