Women’s Club

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Namhoon Lee

Japanese American Women’s Triumph

             As the Japanese American community grew in the early 1900s, the imagery of yellow peril fantasy became increasingly accepted in the American society as “a dark conspiracy to Japanize this American territory.”[1] Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation popularized the concept of potential “menace of alien domination”[2] immediately after the 1920 Japanese sugar plantation workers’ strike on the island of O’ahu. According to its intelligence surveillance report, it was highly likely that “the rising tide of color would swamp the white race … [which was] the determined purpose of Japan to amalgamate the entire colored races of the world against the Nordic or white race, with Japan at the head of the coalition.”[3] As the war tension escalated during the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a note to the military that “every Japanese citizen or non-citizen [no matter they were born in the U.S.] should be secretly but definitely identified … [and] be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”[4] Several days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested more than 12,000 suspicious “enemy aliens” who had been racially profiled[5] in order to prevent “uprisings of potentially hostile Japanese.”[6] Not surprisingly, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the War Relocation Authority to incarcerate Japanese Americans in the West Coast into camps for their alleged support of the Japanese military in the Pearl Harbor incident. Even though the relocation wreaked havoc on the Japanese American community both economically and socially, it affected Japanese women of all ages in a very unique way. Because family unity and traditional gender relations deteriorated at the camps, they freed themselves as independent persons who were not bound by the constraints of the patriarchal, male-dominant Japanese American society. As a result, Japanese American women created small communities inside the barbed wire fence to make their situation more tolerable and restore their prewar lives as much as they could. These communities equipped Japanese women with a strong sense of community, provided social activities in which they could socialize with their peers and uplifted them to overcome the harsh reality.[7]

At the camp, however, Japanese American women inevitably and indubitably faced racism, which can be well demonstrated throughout the document. Even Lt. Alexander Leighton, a U.S. sociologist stationed at the Poston Camp whose mission was to observe Japanese American community for the study of psychological impact on those who have been incarcerated, was no exception. Even though he might have put painstaking efforts into giving an objective report from his standing as a sociologist, his view was nonetheless tainted with racism. In his observation of Fujin-Kai a.k.a. Women’s Club, he uses a derogatory term “kibei-ish”[8] when describing some Nisei women for using broken English. Going even further, he even regards a Japanese woman who speaks perfect English but no Japanese as a native Japanese rather than as an American citizen because of her associations with Women’s Club despite her language barrier[9]. From this, it is quite clear that in Leighton’s mind, the ability to speak English and readiness to adapt into the American culture did not determine who can be true Americans; it was skin color which mattered. Additionally, Leighton also regards the Japanese women organizations highly suspicious, which he has absolutely no proof. Although the Japanese American women clearly did not show any treasonous behavior and strictly adhered to the rules set by the white administrators, he assumed, without any reason, that there was “a real [hidden] purpose behind them.”[10] Throughout the document, he consistently states that he is quite uneasy with the block 27, which was the most suspicious block in his mind. His suspicion arises only because of active participation of the block 27 women in those organizations than any other block women. His statements are as followings: many groups are down to a “near monopoly of block 27 girls”; the block “27 has the majority turn-out”; “[block] 27 people taking (take) the upper hand through various offices.” However, Leighton’s presentation of even those who did not have any relations with these female organizations as members of the group reveals that the actual membership did not matter at all, but race was the key determinant which decided whom should be considered “potential alien hostiles.” Speaking of the Elitians, one of the Japanese American women groups, Leighton insists there are “6 members who are welcome but who never attend from this block.”[11]

Despite the racially hostile environment against the Japanese American women, females of block 27 created a variety of organizations. The prime objective of all these groups was to provide not only a rendezvous point but also a chance to exercise powers, which had only been granted to males prior to this creation of female communities. In these female-dominant surroundings, they could freely pursue leadership positions, hold regular meetings, elect officers from ballot system, and organize many activities ranging from doing needle craft to holding a dance party, and even forming sports-oriented groups. It was quite a radical shift from the traditional Japanese American practices. Although they were born in America, women’s freedom was nonetheless quite limited in comparison to men by their own patriarchal, male-dominant families because of traditional Japanese notions about gender relations. At the camps, however, women escaped from this sexist world and finally freed themselves from these old constraints because of the disintegration of traditional gender roles during the relocation. Quite interestingly, even girls of young age could participate in this women’s liberation movement. In the observation of the Mollettes, which primarily included girls from the age bracket between 6th grade and 8th grade, young Japanese American girls could practice the idea of self-determination. On their own volition, these young girls formed a girls’ club in which they could explore the realm of possibilities.[12] Without any outside help or interference, these young girls expressed their desire to have their own club, ran the community under the girls-only leadership, organize volunteer activities to serve the Japanese American community’s needs, and hold parties with their counterpart the Moles, which was a boys’ club, by which they could demonstrate their ability to lead a group successfully and demanded sexual equality.

The incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s was a racial issue, which arose from the popularized and often fetishized yellow peril imagery, not from any military necessity.  The U.S. government considered the Japanese American women organizations as a potential threat even though they clearly did not have any intention to organize any armed struggle to support the Japanese military during the World War II. However, Japanese American women enjoyed newfound freedom at the camps as they tried to recover their prewar lives and navigate through a new reality of self-determination without men. They actively pursued leadership positions, elected the officers on ballot system, and organized many entertaining activities such as dance parties and needle workshop.

[1] Gary Y. Okihiro, Introduction to Encyclopedia of Japanese American Internment (Greenwood, 2013), xii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Emiko Hastings, “No longer a silent victim of history:” repurposing the documents of Japanese American internment (Springer Science+Business Media, 2010), 28

[6] Gary Y. Okihiro, Introduction to Encyclopedia of Japanese American Internment (Greenwood, 2013), xii.

[7] Valerie Matsumoto, Japanese American Women During World War II (Frontiers Editorial Collective, 1984), 8

[8] “Girls Club,” Japanese-American Relocation Records, Box 7, Cornell University Rare Book and Manuscript Collections Archive

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Girls Club,” Japanese-American Relocation Records, Box 7, Cornell University Rare Book and Manuscript Collections Archive

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