Yearbook Photos

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Exploring the 1940s’ Japanese American School Clubs

In the Perspective of Gender Sociology

                                                               By Emma Ho                                                                                                                                                                                                            

With the desire of being modernity, Japanese American young people internalized the Western formulation of the ‘Orient’ and subsumed the social simulation through actively participated as it experimented with the construction of a new ‘trans’ culture citizenship identity. Consequently, the construction of a modern Japanese American identity has always been dominated by and closely linked to people’s social position since the first generation of Japanese Americans, during which the seeds for hardworking image of Japanese Americans under the pressure of racism and orientalism idea from Western society were planted.

The internment camp of Japanese Americans during 1943-1944 essentially led to the destruction of a fixed family culture and social order dominated by the first generation, especially the ‘father’ or ‘brother’ at home and relegated the Japanese nationality because of the masculine idea of war. That’s why the Japanese American communities were realizing the equalization of gender participation might quite significant for evoking and nurturing a better future and social position of the whole second generation.

As embodied in the year book, the author mentioned the following twelve clubs: baton club, future farmers, shorthand club, judicial committee, wood shop club, boosters club, Latin club, Spanish club, home economics club, g.a.a., lettermen’s club and science club [1]. When watching the members of these clubs, we can find many gender issues which deserving attentions. The Japanese American women attended seven different school clubs of the total twelve clubs at Manzanar High. While checking the picture of the baton club, we could find all the girls here were wearing a typical American style high school cheering outfit. They looked happy and cheerful. It was difficult to relate them with the burden and miserable life of internment camp described in other documents from the same time period. However, at the same time, it matches Valerie Matsumoto’s argument that although still numb, Japanese Americans set about making their situation bearable, creating as much order in their lives as possible [2].

When we compared the girls from different clubs, like Home Economics Club, g.a.a and Short Hand Club, we could easily tell the difference of their personalities by the clothes and poses of these girls. Formal suit combined with classic white shirt and cotton skirt were the typical look of the home economics girls. As we all know that the Japanese traditional society believed that women must have the proper manners and the rich skills in family management, housework, tea ceremony and ikebana. Even under the background of democratic reformation in the states, high schools like Manzanar might not completely give up the traditional Japanese education designed for girls. In the Home Economics Club, the girls seemed intentionally wore a little bit overage or mature. They more looked like middle class house wife rather than high school students.

The Shorthand Club was the one everyone showed the image of professional office ladies in the picture. It seems that style not only manifests race, class, and gender subtexts but also histories and power dynamics [3]. Even faced the reality of leaving their jobs, their homes, and their friends and going live in crowded barracks, eating in noisy mess halls, and doing without supplies or books for work or schooling [4]. And the Nisei girls could only participate in the American working area when they were fully prepared and acted as the modern middle class American ladies. What we could feel with the picture was that these Nisei girls showed remarkable bravery and resilience as they tried to own a neat and active image, lead normal lives, adapting to their own schools, building their own clubs and maybe attending Saturday night dances as well.

Even faced with the stress of racial discrimination, many Nisei girls actually served as the intermediaries and translators for their immigrant parents, utilizing their communications skills on behalf of their families in the camps [5]. In the yearbook, we could also find the language-learning clubs. These girls needed the club which was pragmatic to help them better fit for their social position. The language-learning clubs like Spanish and Latin Club are the ones who served as the platform which provide the opportunity for these young ladies to improve their practical skills, which may result in positive experience in camp. Meanwhile, the skills like typing and writing which learned in the shorthand club might prove quite useful for the girls. Sometimes it could even meant ‘never out of a job.’[6]

Similar with the ‘Han’ identity in Korea, the second generation Japanese American girls still shouldered the pain from the patriarchy. While placed under the leadership of the father or elder brothers. The entertainment and social functions of the clubs seemed the necessity to better help the growth of the girls. Baton Club is the one, which can be used as a channel for the Nisei girls to participate into the social life and kind of avoiding the daily pressure from the first generation relatives and the gender discrimination. Nisei girls from isolated rural areas might be exposed to the ideas, styles, and pastimes of the more sophisticated urban youth. [7] In other words, at the club, they had the opportunity to socialize in an almost entirely Japanese American environment.

Modernization and the construction of the Japanese American culture citizenship once ironically went hand in hand with the debasement of women who symbolized the inner spirit and quintessential cultural domain of the community. It was exciting to see the active image of the Nisei girls. However, we should be clear that the gaping wound of the internment camp of the World War Second has yet to heal in the Japanese American Psyche and the whole Asian Americans social position should always be judged objectively when we look back to this time period of history.


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

[2] Matsumoto, Valerie J., City Girls: Nisei Women’s Roles in Family and Community during World War II 

[3] Shirley, Jennifer Lim., A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Beauty Culture during the Cold War

[4] Michael L. Cooper., Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp

[5] Matsumoto, Valerie J., City Girls: Nisei Women’s Roles in Family and Community during World War II 

[6] Matsumoto, Valerie J., City Girls: Nisei Women’s Roles in Family and Community during World War II 

[7] Matsumoto, Valerie J., City Girls: Nisei Women’s Roles in Family and Community during World War II 

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