Behind the Curtain – Annoyed Husband and Wife

Group: Rowena Chen and Christopher Hayes

Watercolor Painting: “Behind the Curtain – Annoyed Husband and Wife”

Primary Document:

Behind the Curtain - Annoyed Husband and Wife

Description: A watercolor painting depicting a husband and wife in a sparsely furnished room containing an end table with a lamp atop it and a wooden chair. The husband is settled into the chair reading a newspaper while his wife changes in the background, separated from the room by a thin curtain. Despite the attempt at privacy and modesty, her silhouette is very clearly visible.


Housing Problem Report-page-001 Housing Problem Report-page-002 Housing Problem Report-page-003 Housing Problem Report-page-004 Housing Problem Report-page-005 Housing Problem Report-page-006

Primary Document:

Japanese-American Relocation Center Records #3850 9-22

Description: A report on housing conditions written up by Rev. Jitsuo Morikawa at the request of John G. Evans, Assistant Project Director of the Housing and Registration Office. It describes the issues that arise in Poston due to overcrowded living spaces. The crowding exacerbated problems with heat (due to the camp’s location in the desert), leading to discomfort and irritable internees. A lack of privacy makes it harder for internees to relax and creates tension between people in close quarters to each other. Lack of space in the house as well as proximity to other families renders home life impossible; no one stays in the house. The report also suggests improvements and solutions to each issue mentioned, such as redistributions of apartments and families, construction of more apartments, increased communication between the housing department and the community, etc.


SHORTAGE   \ˈshȯr-tij\  noun: a state in which there is not enough of something that is needed

From the time they began construction in 1942, War Relocation Authority internment camps and camp life were ruled by shortage. Shortage of labor and material, combined with the sheer size of the construction project and unrealistic schedules meant internees arrived to find the camps incomplete. Shortage meant that the buildings were shoddily constructed and not designed to withstand the desert climates that all camps had to contend with. Walls had no insulation against the extreme temperatures and cracks allowed dust to blow indoors. There was a shortage of space; the living quarters were small and shared. In Poston, dividing the spaces meant each family was allowed 12 square feet to accommodate furniture and all of their belongings. Having multiple families to an apartment means a shortage of privacy—even the domestic space is a public space. It also means a shortage of family structure, as the lack of space meant internees spent most of their time outside the home with peers for their social lives, and allowing women to earn wages upset traditional Japanese family dynamics wherein the husband is the predominant breadwinner. A shortage in resources hindered recreation and education, as internees could not acquire sufficient resources to host classes or enjoy leisure.

Shortage also meant the redefining of the role of Japanese American women in camp life. Shortage of labor meant more occupations available to them out of necessity to keep the camp functioning. Much like the women that inspired Rosie the Riveter, women were called on to fulfill roles often designated to men due to labor shortage. Shortage meant women were given the opportunity to break free of the domestic sphere and equalize the financial power dynamic between husband and wife. For female camp internees, shortage meant opportunity as well as limitation.



Redefining the Women’s Domestic Sphere: An Analysis of Japanese American Internment Camp Life during WWII 

The War Relocation Authority was established on March 18, 1942 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9102, and was responsible for the relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. The internees were to first report to civil control stations in order to check for attendance before being temporarily relocated to assembly centers while the WRA selected sites and constructed the more permanent internment camps.[1] Because the WRA sought large tracts of land that were relatively isolated and distanced from strategic areas, the camps tended to be located in deserts of western and southwestern America.[2] Due to various shortages in labor and materials, construction was not finished in time for the internees’ arrival, and had to be finished with the aid of Japanese American volunteers. The resulting camps were not suited to comfortable living for the internees: the residential spaces were too small and lacked partitions to provide privacy, the structures were not constructed with the environment or climate in mind, amenities were sparse. However, in reshaping the lifestyles of incarcerated Japanese Americans and redefining the domestic sphere, camp life also reshaped Japanese family structure and the role that women played within it.

In War Relocation Authority camps established during World War II, the physical structures of the camps had a great effect on the lives of Japanese-Americans.  WRA camp housing plans designated one family per 400 square feet room (about the size of a modern studio apartment), but this did not necessarily mean that people were allocated a fair amount of square feet per person in practice.[3]  The Poston housing report mentioned an apartment occupied by three families (a total of seven adults) with less than 12 square feet of floor space available for each family.  Adjusting for about 2 to 3 beds per family as well as luggage meant that usable space was even smaller. Efficiently using what little space they had was imperative, as shown by the couple in Sogioka’s painting, who likely placed their luggage underneath their table to maximize floor space.  Regarding the displayed table in the painting, it is very likely that it was handmade during their stay to help personalize their living conditions (supported by at least one person’s account where this was the case), as well as the rocking chair the husband is shown sitting in.[4]  Such efforts coincided with the internees’ attempts in gaining personal privacy.

Privacy was difficult to come by in internment camps due to the shared nature of the internees’ living spaces. According to Rev. Morikawa, the internee “comes home from his day’s work out in public life and finds his home just as public as any other place.”[5] Apartments would be occupied by multiple families, and even though they may be placed in separate rooms, individual family members would not have rooms or any sort of private space to themselves. In an effort to combat this, families would use blankets to section off tiny rooms and women would stitch curtains for privacy.[6] We can see this in Sogioka’s painting, where the wife is changing behind a curtain strung across the room to partition off a private area. However, her attempt at modesty appears futile, as her husband can clearly see her silhouette through the thin curtain. These privacy curtains may have been better than nothing, but they were no substitute for actual walls. These conditions made relaxing and relieving tension difficult, and Rev. Morikawa suggested in his report that if internees were subjected to a lack of privacy for prolonged durations it would result in “serious consequences.”[7]

As camps were constructed in haste during labor and resource shortages, they were often ill-equipped to deal with the conditions that arose from the desert environment surrounding the camps. Dust storms, for example, were not taken into account during construction. Internees arrived at the camp in Topaz to find their rooms covered in a film of dust, and the poorly-constructed walls allowed wind and dust to blow through, making it a constant issue.[8] This was further exacerbated by the levelling of land during construction, which uprooted the vegetation that helped hold the dust and land down.[9] Walls were not insulated despite desert climates, which meant hot days and cold nights, and the blankets provided were insufficient for cold winters.[10]

In fact, there was a general lack of adequate amenities and resources in the camps that hindered life, recreation, and work. Typing classes at the camp in Gila had only two typewriters that had to be rationed to students. Nursery school toys had to be hand-made.[11] School teachers didn’t have books and were forced to teach the children by rote. Daily food costs were capped at 50 cents per inmate, partially as a result of budgetary limitations, partially to fight rumors and upset over the inmates being “coddled.”[12] More universally, the internees received no furniture apart from their beds. Any furniture they needed had to be built themselves out of scrap lumber, and it is likely that the chair and table depicted in Sogioka’s painting are also handmade. Internees could wait for the administration to provide the lumber, which was often a fruitless effort as they either would not receive lumber or they would not receive enough.[13] This supply was commonly supplemented by sneaking around and stealing lumber, a practice so prevalent that one Topaz internee recalls that “[e]verybody was doing it.”[14] Another recalls having to take two-by-fours from the framework of their room in order to construct shelves.

But because of these living conditions, Japanese American women were able to move beyond their traditional gender roles, even if just a little.  Prior to World War II, most of them worked under their husbands’ authority, meaning that they did not have independent income to supply their household’s economic resources; most of them were also barred from the outside world by the same “authority”.[15]  With the change in living conditions the internment camps brought, less living space meant less domestic duties, with cleaning being an obvious affected duty. The small living conditions also meant no laundry responsibilities for Japanese American women, as there was a shared “wash building” for each block in the camps.  With a community-shared washing building, there were likely many opportunities for social moments with one’s neighbors. With no kitchens, the responsibility of preparing meals was lifted from the women, unless they chose to serve in the dining halls.[16]  Although gender bias developed in having men serve as the “professional cooks,” women could still contribute by serving food or washing dishes, and unlike in their domestic roles, women could earn money by handling such duties.  These earnings could clash with conservative patriarchal views in which the husband believed he was meant to be the breadwinner of the household, upsetting traditional family structures.  This was especially the case if the husband was unable to contribute as much towards their family’s funds during their internment period.  Both women and children working for the same wages as the men ($14 per month of non-skilled labor and $19 for doctors and dentists), altering family relations such that the traditional Japanese plan of family organization was all but unrecognizable.[17]  In families without sons or fathers, women also often took on labor typically performed by males, such as the woodworking necessary to construct furniture for their apartments.[18]

In terms of employment, the internment period meant a great deal to Japanese American women.  Although camp officials favored younger English-speaking internees for certain jobs, camps required a wide arrange of assistance in order to function, so they likely could not afford to bar employment based on race or gender.[19]  This did not necessarily preclude gender bias, however, as shown by the aforementioned “professional cook” position in which men were favored. Women also tended to work in service or care positions, such as teaching or nursing, which were considered more “feminine.”[20] However, wages were roughly universal in the camp, meaning the women earned about as much as men did regardless.[21] In cases of labor shortages, women also assumed labor that was seen as unconventional at the time, such as assisting with fence building or operating vehicles.[22] All facts considered, compared to their prewar situations, Japanese American women found themselves with more opportunities to contribute to family income. Indeed, with the loss of most of their personal property in migrating to the internment camps, Japanese Americans were hard-pressed in trying to recoup their losses.

But with common gender and generation-based divisions in the dining halls, among other divisions in internment camp life, traditional family life was disrupted.  Some husbands didn’t necessarily take it that well, as it undermined their “patriarchal” role within the family.  In some cases, fear mongering focused on women going beyond their traditional roles for disrupting family life, instead of blaming the U.S. government for more troubling instances of family separation into different internment camps.  In conjunction with some cases of husbands drinking and/or spending wastefully, there were quite a few cases of “domestic relationship problems” reported at the camps’ legal offices, although this statistic was overlooked with the even fewer cases of divorces that occurred (the divorce statistic being used by camp officials to gauge the status of marital relationships within the camps).[23]

With complaints like these, camp officials tried to support the institution of patriarchal marriage in multiple ways.  One way was by enacting the “Community School Forum” policy issued by Washington which guided Japanese American students’ education, while also guiding them into learning unique skills for their gender, specifically domestic-oriented skills for female students.[24]  Outside of school, various programs could also be pushed on young Japanese Americans to promote social and sexual stability by marriage, such as “Sex and Hygiene” talks, lectures on “Boy-Girl Relations,” and “Forum on Our Families” (the last program specifically aimed at newlyweds and unmarried young people).[25]  As such, this meant that alternatives to the institution of patriarchal marriage had to be shut down, such as prostitution and same-sex relationships.[26]  Ultimately, these efforts from Japanese American leaders and WRA authorities yielded good results from their perspective: “an epidemic of marriages… swept the centers”.[27]  However possibly to the dismay of the older Issei in the camps, most of these marriages were based on the spouses’ shared interests and desires for each other, which meant that the practice of arranged marriages had fallen out of favor, even if partially.[28]

The incomplete, basic nature of the buildings on site when Japanese Americans first arrived at the internment camps played a big role in the women breaking free of their domestic roles they had before the war.  With the lack of private domestic duties for women to fulfill, as well as limited living space and distinct “breadwinning” jobs for men to take, domestic disputes could easily arise, as the given title of Sogioka’s painting suggests.  While women enjoyed their liberties, camp officials (and conservative Japanese Americans) viewed such a disruption of family organization as dangerous, and attempted to give a more active effort in steering the younger Japanese American generation towards a stable patriarchal marital status.  In doing so, “deviations” from marriage were condemned, but women ended up also enjoying more freedom of choice in choosing their spouses.



[1] Thomas Fujita-Rony,  “Remaking the “Home Front” in World War II: Japanese American Women’s Work and the

Colorado River Relocation Center,” Southern California Quarterly 88, no. 2 (2006): 165.

[2] Greg Robinson, “War Relocation Authority,” Densho Encyclopedia (accessed Nov 30 2015).

[3] John Howard, Concentration Camps on the Home Front : Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 98.

[4] Fujita-Rony, 170.

[5] Jitsuo Morikawa, “The Housing Problem,” Japanese-American Relocation Center Records #3850 9-22, 2.

[6] Valerie Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2014), 153.

[7] Morikawa, 2.

[8] Sandra C. Taylor, Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz (Berkeley: University of California

Press, 1993), 91.

[9] Jeffery F. Burton, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002) 23.

[10] Taylor, 92, 94.

[11] Burton, 22-23.

[12] Robinson.

[13] Matsumoto, 155.

[14] Taylor, 95.

[15] Howard, 102.

[16] Fujita-Rony, 171.

[17] Fujita-Rony, 173.

[18] Matsumoto, 153.

[19] Fujita-Rony, 183.

[20] Ibid, 184-185.

[21] Howard, 100-101.

[22] Fujita-Rony, 189.

[23] Howard, 102-103.

[24] Howard, 104-105.

[25] Howard, 105.

[26] Howard, 108-109, 115.

[27] Howard, 106.

[28] Ibid.



Burton, Jeffery F. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Fujita-Rony, Thomas. “Remaking the “Home Front” in World War II: Japanese American Women’s Work and the Colorado River Relocation Center.” Southern California Quarterly 88, no. 2 (2006): 161-204.

Howard, John. Concentration Camps on the Home Front : Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

Matsumoto, Valerie. City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 153.

Morikawa, Jitsuo. “The Housing Problem.” Japanese-American Relocation Center Records #3850 9-22.

Robinson, Greg. “War Relocation Authority.” Densho Encyclopedia (accessed Nov 30 2015).

Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

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