Despite the fact that the internment camps restricted the rights and capabilities of the Japanese Americans living in America, they did, ironically, create a certain sense of freedom for the women in the camps. Through their creation of clubs, the Japanese American women were able to serve in significant decision-making roles such as nursing and first-aid, food planning, and clubs. The use of clubs by Japanese women allowed the women to become more involved in decision-making within the camps, creating a sense of empowerment and independence.
In August of 1943, a woman’s club led by Ms. Gerkens and the quad chairmen of Camp Manzanar met to solve several problems that took place within the internment camps. Through their resolutions during the meeting, it is obvious that the women were taking initiative to create a better living environment for themselves and their families. One major issue within the internment camps was health education. Conditions of the camps were often extremely harsh, with close living quarters and poor weather conditions, keeping the camp healthy was certainly a primary concern.1 One woman, for example, was worried that her child who suffered from chronic appendicitis would not be able to receive the help that he needed. Because conditions in the camps were so dire, these concerns are certainly justified, and after being stripped of their rights and liberties when they were interned, the women were even more protective about their children’s safety. This woman’s concerns reflected many of the fears of other women within the camp. The alleviate these worries, the quad leaders found that it might be best to have a fair and open house of the hospital to better educate women on the medical facilities and capabilities in the camps. By teaching the women about the ins and outs of the medical facilities that would be made available to them, perhaps the women in the camps would find relief and not be so terrified for their children. This would also allow the women to better understand the health systems for themselves and their families, a huge step towards increasing the responsibilities and productivity of the women. Another suggestion that was made during the meeting was to implement first aid and nursing classes for the quads. These classes would be led by several of the Issei, because many early Japanese American immigrants were midwives. In fact, when Issei first came to America, they were able to broker new nursing cultures with old Japanese birthing customs.2 It was through them that many old customs were preserved while in America. When they entered the internment camps, the Issei were able to use their knowledge on birthing, treating illnesses, etc. to help teach the other women about nursing within the home. This suggestion did indeed come to fruition when one quad, Quad 4, implemented this after the meetings. By creating first aid classes and having a basis of nursing, the women would be able to treat their family members for minor illnesses and injuries and detect these illnesses before they became bigger issues. By teaching women about health education, the camp leaders are successfully grooming women to become more independent and resourceful. The women are not simply waiting for the men to solve their problems; they are in fact creating solutions to their own issues.
Another issue that was addressed in the meeting with the quad leaders was that of food within the camps. The Japanese were fed three times a day and portions were often small and starchy, lacking many necessary nutrients. Milk was often not provided to people over the age of five years old and meat was only served every twelve days. This provided a problem for the elderly, the sick, and the children3. The women in the camps decided to take matters into their own hands to solve this issue. Instead of relying on the power of officials in the camp or on the men in the camp to solve these problems, the women met with each other in the clubs and brainstormed their own solutions. The women decided that fitting the ironing rooms with refrigerators and a stove would benefit the camps because they would provide more opportunities for food. This was thought to be difficult to coordinate with the quad kitchen staff, but with the continued efforts of the women in the camps, it was in fact implemented in several of the quads. Many of the women found that providing children with a snack after school would be beneficial to the students. By providing balanced meals for the students and healthy snacks, the women are creating stronger, healthier children throughout the camps. This would benefit everyone. Obviously healthier student would mean less illness going around because of good, nutritious diets. This once again shows that through their dedication to their own children, the women are actually making meaningful changes in the camps. The actions taken during and after these club meetings were huge gains for the women in the camps because not only were they able to think of answers to their qualms, but they were also able to implement these solutions.
The concerns that many of the women voiced during this meeting were about the well-being of their families. This is because of the belief that women are supposed to be the caretakers of their homes. As stated by Ms. Gerkens, “Now as always, it is the woman’s responsibility to keep the home and safeguard the family.” This idea that women are supposed to still keep house is very interesting to examine. It reflects the ideals of society as a whole. These ideals are certainly not just American standards; they in fact represent the principles that regulated most of the global society, including Japan. In fact, before World War II, it was a common belief that women were meant to take care of their husbands and children and were not meant to do much else4. Women were meant to be caring and motherly. The role of a woman during this time period was as a secondary figure in relation to her male counterpart. However, the conditions of the internment camps changed the outlook of many individuals on the roles of women. Although the women were indeed relegated to the domestic sphere of cooking, nursing, nutrition, and various clubs, they were able to use these clubs to empower themselves and create a sense of independence. Because women were the primary caretaker on the home front, they were put in charge of the health and well-being of their families. This, in turn, provided women with increased responsibilities and independence. While the women in the camps did infuse aspects of these feminine and delicate ideals, through the creation of sewing clubs, flower-arranging clubs, and painting classes, they were also able to use these clubs to become increasingly independent. This is because through their network of women formed in the clubs, the women were able to discuss and solve issues they found to exist in the camps. These women created clubs and thus were able to help and support one another. This new network of women’s clubs thus created a sense of independence.
Clearly, the women in the camps were very active when it came to taking care of their families and providing a better lifestyle in the horrific setting of the internment camps. By forming groups that could discuss issues like food and health education, the women are helping each other and creating a community amongst themselves that can be used to aid all women in the camp. This community also allowed the women to take matters into their own hands and increase their responsibility and power in the internment camps.
- Hinsdale, Susan. Daily Life in Internment Camps. Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2003.
- Smith, Susan Japanese American Midwives: Culture, Community and Health Politics 1880-1950. 2005.
- Royale, Weenie. Food and the Japanese Internment. NPR.org, 2007.
- Hirose, Stacey Yukari, Japanese American Women and the Women’s Army Corps, 1935-1950. Master’s thesis. Los Angeles: UCLA, 1993.