Five Field Workers with Mountains

Group: Heidi, Zitong, Sharon, Kevin

Watercolor Painting: Five Field Workers with MountainsFive Field Workers #1

This painting depicts Japanese internees working on the fields near the mountains in the Poston, Arizona camp. This painting displays several themes of Japanese internment including self sufficiency of the Japanese people, their working conditions, and their agricultural skills. They were a major source contributing to the agricultural development in the area. The background of this picture also reveals the bareness and working environment of the camp. There are mountains and desert-like areas in the background, which is consistent with the constant dust storms that occurred in Poston. The lack of a rich agricultural land shows the capabilities of the Japanese farmers because they were still able to provide the majority of the food for the camp interns even with a lack of resources to aid them. Their collective strength not only helps to support the local Japanese American community but also reflects their unity and determination to succeed.

Primary Document: Policies Governing Agricultural Production

This primary document explains the objectives and goals the Poston Camp administrators have for the Japanese farmers in the camp. It specifies the portions of agricultural production and the types of agriculture that must be grown. In controlling the utilization and production of agriculture, the administrators are able to take advantage of the limited land and use it to maximize production. The Japanese farmers are using their farming abilities to support wartime efforts. Not only do they have to grow enough food supply for their own camp, additional food is also needed to give to other camps and as military aid. The systematic and organized way of allocating agricultural resources directly controls the lifestyle and working conditions of the Japanese farmers. While agricultural production in camps seem to be helping Japanese evacuees rebuild their life, they are also exploiting the labor of the Japanese workers and taking advantage of their plight.

Encyclopedia Entry: WRA Agricultural Program

Background: Japanese have traditionally been very active in agriculture in the US since arriving, even being able to own land for a short period of time. Executive Order 9066 lead to the relocation of 120,000 civilians of Japanese descent into internment camps. The WRA (War Relocation Authority) was a government entity created to facilitate the forced relocation of the Japanese Americans and supervise their activities in the camp. In all of the camps, the agricultural program became a key component.

Purpose: The primary purpose of the program was to grow food for the residents. Typically, the surplus crops were either sent to other camps or packaged up and sold on the open market. In fact, certain camps like the Poston and Manzanar were able to “double crop” due to longer growing seasons. Interestingly enough, both later served as the grounds for conflict; the Manzanar Riot and the Poston Strikes. Other goals of the program included raising livestock feed crops, seed crops, and crops to help the war effort. Additionally, another particularly important objective was to develop the lands for post-war. The camps were located in desert areas without established agricultural land and the labor served to make future productivity possible.

WRA and the Japanese Evacuees: Aside from the aforementioned purposes, the WRA also intended for the program to provide meaningful employment opportunities for the evacuees and prepare them for life after the centers. While the situation for the Japanese evacuees were far from ideal, the Japanese American civilians were still often able to help out a lot. In fact, the Caucasian administrators developed the individual agriculture programs with the assistance of the evacuees. In the Heart Mountain’s program especially, the agricultural program was formed with the help of the evacuees, who sent representatives. The superintendent was occasionally an evacuee as well. Additionally, there were several evacuees who were experts in agriculture-related fields who used soil surveys to help identify prime agricultural areas and other specialist duties. However, the work for the common laborer was very difficult due to several factors including the heat and inadequate equipment.

Agriculture in Poston

The 1942 relocation of the Japanese was an unheard of act that presented a historically unique situation for a generation of an entire demographic that led to several one-of-a-kind programs and experiences. In his watercolor painting, “Five Field Workers with Mountains”, Gene Sogioka captures a scene of Japanese evacuees working in the fields in the Poston camp. While the painting is rather scenic, it really accentuates the agricultural labor that the Japanese evacuees had to complete whilst there. Administrative Instruction No. 14, a primary document, also serves to provide further information on the objectives of the WRA agriculture programs in relocation sites and provides simple instructions. By examining both, we get a better idea of the WRA’s role and the authority at these relocation camps, the Japanese changes to fit camp life and foster a community, and a better look into the lives of those who lived there.

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) was an agency created in 1942 with the purpose of monitoring and controlling the activities within Japanese Internment camps in the United States. The camps were organized to be “as self-sustaining as possible” in order to cut the cost of maintaining the camps during the war (Tyson and Fleischman 21). Therefore, the WRA’s primary agricultural goal was to provide food for the evacuees and their secondary goal was to raise livestock and grow additional food to help the war effort (Lillquist 79). In addition, they hoped to prepare the Japanese for life inside the camps by offering employment opportunities in agriculture and other sectors. The WRA separated the production of different crops and livestock into “operating units,” and each of these units were managed by a Japanese evacuee (Lillquist 79). Because the Poston camp was located in a desert, there were many factors that limited agricultural productivity, and as a result the WRA established a number of policies to organize agriculture within the camp. For example, on “Administration Instruction No. 14”, the WRA clearly mentioned that the land around the Gila and Colorado River are “practically year-round production areas” and therefore should be used efficiently to provide food for all evacuees (Policies Governing Agricultural Production & Utilization). The document also mentioned that since the primary goal of the agriculture within the camp is to provide food for the evacuees, other objectives such as providing food for the war or producing cotton and seeds will only be pursued after the primary needs have been met. In addition to crop production, the Poston camp also raised livestock, although their livestock production was “restricted to poultry and hogs” and dairies were not produced on camp unless approved by the Washington Office (Policies Governing Agricultural Production & Utilization). According to the Japanese American Veterans Associations webpage (, within two years since the establishment of the camp, Poston was able to produce 85% of their vegetable consumption by themselves.

However, in order to successfully grow crops on desert lands, the evacuees at the Poston camp had to overcome a number of difficulties. The biggest obstacle for growing food in a dry area is water, and an efficient irrigation system became a necessity (Lillquist 81). Referring from the Sally Lucas Jean Papers, which details the cultivation and development of agriculture within the Poston Relocation Center, droughts and the lack of water resources posed a huge threat to local farming. Even though the Colorado River was located conveniently two and a half miles away from the campsite, much of the water was used for personal hygiene and culinary purposes and the rest were allocated to agricultural production. Thus, a lot of agricultural practices had to be dependent on natural rainwater in order to grow crops. It wasn’t until 1943 that an irrigation system was installed to increase production output (“Agriculture- Studying Poston”). This attempt, though, did reflect the government’s vision to improve infrastructure and agricultural development of the region.   However, even after the irrigation system was constructed after much effort, the quality of the water was of “high salinity and sodium” which was unfavorable for crop production (Lillquist 81). In addition, the temperature variation within the camp also made is difficult to grow crops as well as to raise livestock. The Northern areas of the camp that are on higher altitudes had lower average temperature had to use self-built greenhouses in order to “extend the growing season,” and these areas also had to use straws to make “cold weather bedding” for the hogs and insulation for the chicken houses (Lillquist 81, 82). On the other hand, in the Southern, lower elevation areas of the camp, the evacuees had to use old newspapers to protect young plants from the heat and had to feed their chicken in the morning when it was cooler (Lillquist 82). Other problems such as the windy climate and the alkaline nature of the soil within the camp also made it challenging to grow crops successfully (Lillquist 82).

In addition to the environmental constraints mentioned above, there were also resource and labor shortages within the camp. The camp was given “inadequate” and “worn-out” farming equipment at the beginning, and many of the facilities provided to raise animals, such as fences and sheds, either needed to be repaired or built from scratch (Lillquist 84). Moreover, a labor shortage was created because evacuees left the camp to obtain more money and freedom and also because of “internal problems” such as strikes against working and living conditions in the camp (Lillquist 85). For the WRA staff, all of these constraints were just problems they had to solve in their job. However for the Japanese internees, these problems directly affected their daily life in the camps and added to the difficulties they already had to deal with. Therefore, the Japanese’s role on agriculture in the camps solved many of the WRA’s problems. In order to survive and thrive on this desert region, Japanese farmers made tremendous effort to keep farmland alive and suitable for agriculture. Even though a majority of the Japanese Americans were successful farmers before being captured into incarceration camps, farming still proved to be a laborious task.

In the Poston camp, many Japanese immigrants were able to use their previous agricultural experience to their advantage and make the best of their lives in the incarceration camp that would have been otherwise unbearable. The Poston site was located in the lower Sonoran desert, a region that was spoiled with extreme heat and dryness. In addition to the humidity caused by the Colorado River, farming became even more challenging. Despite geographic difficulties, agricultural practices still dominated much of the daily lives of Japanese farmers. Before the camps were made self sufficient, most of the food had been provided by the WRA.’s data shows that the WRA’s budget only allowed about 40 cents to be spent on each meal. According to the article “Studying Poston”, the majority of the food were pickled or canned to increase their lifetime and the food was deficient in terms of nutrition so most internees lacked a balanced diet (“Agriculture- Studying Poston”). Therefore, the contribution made by the Japanese when agriculture at the camps started was substantial in changing the way of life of the people in the camp. Locally grown crops were definitely welcomed as they injected a sense of freshness into their diets. The Japanese culture has a long history of respect for hard work and agriculture (Lillquist 75). Because of this, the Japanese internees were not only able to survive in the camps, they enabled agriculture to thrive in a situation of harsh conditions that was unsuited for agriculture. Although it was not in Japanese’s intention to prepare the land for later use, their impact fulfilled a goal of the WRA. Their work on the land enabled future occupiers of the land to farm them and was developed for post-war usage.

Before World War 2, many of the Japanese immigrants were already working in the fishing/agricultural industries and their skills allowed them to successfully compete with the American farmers. Their knowledge in agriculture made them superior to American farming, which also increased the resentment of Japanese people at the time. The Alien Land Laws prohibited them from buying land, which partly inhibits their expansion in farming. As seen in the watercolor painting and primary document, one of the major setbacks of agriculture in the Poston camp was the environment, since Poston was located in the desert. There were constant dust storms and workers are seen farming near desert-like areas and mountains. The dryness of the land also meant that irrigation was necessary, and so in addition to farming, the many Japanese laborers also contributed to the building of an irrigation canal from nearby water sources. Often, storms also left behind soil with dusted top layers that made it hard for the land to be fertile. Local farmers had to dig up the bottom of the soil and recover the top layer with fresh soil. These steps had to be repeated as the region was hit with dust storm repeatedly (“Agriculture- Studying Poston”). Under these hardships, Japanese farmers played a pivotal role in making the environment livable and self-sufficient by growing crops.

While they were encouraged to work by the WRA, the WRA refused to pay them high wages  but most agricultural workers were forced to work because the mess halls required food (Lillquist 75). This repression of Japanese workers is not unfamiliar, as the United States has had a long history of paying Asian immigrant workers less than their white counterparts. However, the workers were willing to sacrifice themselves to hard labor, especially with the lack of adequate farming equipment, in order to provide fresh food for their Japanese community in the camp. This shows a sense of unity amongst the Japanese people and their willingness to help each other. The repression of the Japanese and their response by working harder has striking similarities to what many Asian immigrants encountered in the United States prior to World War 2. This common theme of overcoming adversities by relying on themselves also contribute to the idea of the model minority that has been imposed on many Asian groups by the West.

Agriculture also fostered a community within the camp since it allowed interactions between farmers and cultivated an opportunity for the internees to participate in teamwork and collaborative efforts. As seen through the watercolor painting, many farmers worked on one set of fields. The Japanese made an effort to create the illusion of an ordinary community within the barbed wires, and imitate a life as close to normal as possible. Agriculture set a common goal for the Japanese workers, something they could all work towards and contribute to together. It helped to maintain their traditional roles in society and growing food made them feel productive and useful. Being self-sufficient meant everybody took part in giving something to the community to make their life in the camps better and this created obligations and duties amongst the members. Agriculture played an important role to allow them to develop a structured society. It was not only a job for many people, it was something they could do to pass the time in the camps. Despite the lack of freedom of movement within the camp, it was still surprising to learn that many interned individuals were able to build up their own “empire” of farming as a Japanese internees reported, “When we entered camp, it was a barren desert.  When we left camp, it was a garden that had been built up without tools; it was green around the camp with vegetation, flowers and also with artificial lakes…” (“Agriculture- Studying Poston”). As reflected from the quote, Japanese internees were not only skillful in agricultural practices, but they also utilized farming as a way to improving their lives.

Within the Poston internment campsite, agricultural production was under strict supervision from the War Relocation Authority. As mentioned in the primary document, the two main objectives for agricultural practices are to supply local resources for maintaining stable diet of the evacuees and to support wartime needs by maximizing production of crops. However, outside the Poston camp, agriculture provided a means of escape and freedom for many of the Japanese laborers. Some internees chose to leave the camps by working on agricultural fields outside for a certain period of time, before they had to return to the camp again. This seasonal laboring gave them the opportunity to experience a sense of liberty and independence just like the times of before they were put into camps. In addition, it was a chance for them to earn more money since farming outside the camp provided a higher wage than within the camp.

Those of Japanese descent were faced with one of the hardest and most unexpected situations with the relocation act. However, despite the less than ideal situation in the camps, the Japanese put their past knowledge and expertise in agriculture and also their ability to come together as a community to fulfill the objectives that the agricultural programs had for them. Not only were they very successful in growing enough food to support the camps and satisfy several other objectives, they were also able to prove to the rest of the United States that they were true Americans. Despite all the United States had done to them that harmed them, they refused to give up and rather went above and beyond in their efforts, and that effort showed in the success of the agriculture programs at the relocation centers. The successes they had within the relocation centers also were apparent following their release back into the real world and what they were able to do despite the hardships presented to them.

Works Cited

“Agriculture – Studying Poston.” Studying Poston Agriculture Tag. N.p., 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Lillquist, Karl. “Farming the Desert: Agriculture in the World War II-Era Japanese-American Relocation Centers.” Agricultural History 84.1 (2010): 74-104. Print.

Policies Governing Agricultural Production & Utilization
#3830 1-6 pages 1-2. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

“Poston, Arizona.” N.p., 6 Oct. 1992. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.<>.

Sogioka, Gene. Five Field Workers with Mountains, Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, #3830. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Tyson, Thomas N., and Richard K. Fleischman. “Accounting for Interned Japanese-American Civilians During World War II: Creating Incentives and Establishing Controls for Captive Workers.” The Accounting Historians Journal 33.1 (2006): 167-202. Print.

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