Requisition for Workers Colorado River War Relocation Center Poston, Arizona

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Japanese American Women’s Job Assignments during Incarceration

by Gabriela Borges

            Due to World War II and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment camps were constructed in order to remove Japanese Americans from American society. In 1942, President Roosevelt sent an order, Executive Order 9066, which forced any person with a Japanese ancestry to be deported into one of the many Japanese American internment camps along the U.S’s Pacific Coast. While in the camp, several women had access to white collared jobs, an opportunity unknown of during the prewar era. Most women within the camps did some form of labor, whether that be through a prestigious job, such as a research worker, or a blue-collared job such as a cook. This was due to the need to not only maintain the camps self-sufficiency, but also to help with wartime efforts. This is seen through the three primary documents from the Japanese American Relocation Centers Records. One document is a brief termination notice by Poston’s Relocation camp. Within the document is the name of Sachiko Taka whose job position of Assistant Research Worker was being terminated[1]. The second document titled Requisition for Workers in Colorado River War Relocation Center is hiring a cook for $16 an hour[2]. Comparatively, the third the document a Termination Notice with no indication of its location, is assigned to Terry Matsuda for her job as part-time typist[3].  The three documents described allows one to view the lives of Japanese American women within Japanese internment camps, specifically their job opportunities, higher wages and elevated social positions within the Japanese American society.

To begin, both the termination and the relocation for workers notices exemplified the increased opportunities that were available for Issei and Nisei women during the Japanese American incarceration. As seen through Sachiko Tanaka’s termination notice, she held the job title of assistant research worker before terminating her position on June 20, 1943[4]. As Valerie Matsumoto describes, it was clear that the prewar lives of Japanese Americans would not be restored once entering the internment camps. The camps were dependent on inmates to fill job positions therefore women had vast job opportunities, unknown of in the prewar era[5]. In order for the camps to be made into model cities as instructed by European American administrators, all able-bodied persons must hold a job. This in turn made possible women to become teachers, doctors, and other professionals, which allowed them to earn a significantly higher income than before the war. This can also be exemplified through the requisition for workers document hiring a cook[6]. Though a cook is not seen as a high position job, this document exemplifies the vast opportunities for Japanese American women to obtain a job within the internment camps. As seen, the job does not require any previous work experience, which allowed women to more easily attain such jobs. Women before the war rarely worked, so by not mandating work experience women had more of a chance of being hired.

Not only were more and more women holding job positions, but their wages were equal to that of men and children. Within the three documents all women earn the same rate of pay $16 though their job titles are significantly different: assistant research worker, cook, and part-time typist[7]. Meaning that this new equity of pay and the ample amount of available jobs allowed for women to be able to experiment with their work[8]. For example, both the termination documents shown are an example of this ease to which women could easily leave their job and enter another. For example Terry Matsuda’s reasoning for ending her job as a part time typist is because she is taking on another job, as seen by the explanation within her termination notice[9]. Nonetheless due to the wages they received the dynamics within the Japanese American family changed drastically. Women were counted on to contribute to the family’s income, therefore creating a new generation of independent and self-reliant Japanese American women.

Furthermore this newfound independence from Issei and Nisei women signified women’s elevated social standing within the Japanese American internment camps. Women shouldered all manners of work, whether that be physical labor or administrative labor. This can be seen through the document’s description of women doing physical work such as cooking while others did administrative work such as typing[10]. Some even did work within the academic field, such as conducting research.[11] By way of women having a variety of positions within the labor camps, men no longer were the sole breadwinners of the family. Since women were contributing a significant amount of money to the family income, their social positions were elevated within the Japanese American internment camps. Thus allowing one to conclude that life within the internment camps was less patriarchal and thus resembled more gender equity than the prewar era.

Overall both the termination notices and the requisition for Workers document give us insight into the working lives of the Japanese American women in the American internment camps. They exemplify the variety of jobs the women at the time were able to achieve, an unimaginable occurrence during the prewar era. Though the job titles in the three documents varied, they all received the same wage which makes one question if all Japanese American women received the same wage rate during incarceration. Nonetheless, the fact that Japanese American women were able to receive higher standing jobs, reflected their elevated social standing within the Japanese American society. Furthermore, in internment camps every Japanese American family member was working, and if they had the ability, were able to attain a prestigious job titles regardless of gender or age. This took away from men’s titles as the breadwinners of the family and thus allowed for Japanese American women to have more agency and become more empowered through an oppressive regime such as the Japanese American internment camps.

 


[1] “Assistant Research Worker,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

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

[3] “Part time typist,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[4] “Assistant Research Worker,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[5] Matsumoto, Valerie J., City Girls: The Nisei Social World In Los Angeles, 1920-1950.

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

[7] “Assistant Research Worker,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. “Cook,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.“Part time typist,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[8] Matsumoto, Valerie , Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1984), pp. 6-14

[9] “Part time typist,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[10] “Cook,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

“Part time typist,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University.

[11] “Assistant Research Worker,” Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

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