Spitting on the FBI

Diana, Elaine, and Crystal

Watercolor Painting: Spitting on the FBI

Spitting on the FBI

Sogioka, Gene. Spitting on the FBI. 1943. Collection 3830 Japanese-American Relocation Centers Records, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Watercolor Painting Description:

In the lower left foreground two young Nisei boys are spitting behind the FBI agent as he walks away in midground.  Due to his placement in the midground of the painting, the FBI agent appears to be towering above both the boys and even the barrack buildings, a physical depiction of the hierarchical institutions within the internment camp.  He is clutching a manila folder, which most likely contains information about all the Japanese internees at the Poston camp.  The FBI agent has arbitrary power over the fates of the internees.  The uniform row of the power lines vanish into the distance, just as the FBI agent is walking away from the two boys, detached from the quotidian experiences of the internees.

We see the faces of the two Nisei boys, similar expressions of disdain and contempt. They are both wearing what appear to be white shirts, now grey from the grueling environment of the camp.  The condition of this clothing is in contrast to the well tailored grey suit of the FBI agent. There is a clear tension between the presence of the FBI agent and the two boys. The paint mixture irregularities with streaks of dark colors throughout the painting create a grim feeling.

This painting is one part of a sequence of paintings about the beating that leads to the Poston Strike.  The beating loomed in the minds of the internees, the coming to head of camp tensions.  It is important to note that the boys wait until the FBI agent is at a distance to demonstrate their scorn behind his back.  They are still acutely aware of the power that the FBI agent has over them and fear disturbing that balance.  They have already seen what the FBI can do to the Japanese so a simple display of contempt could lead to terrible consequences.

Primary Document:

Primary Doc Pic 1

Primary Doc Pic 2

Primary Doc Pic 3

Working Outline for Chapter of Handbook, EHS March 1, 8/26/1943, #3830, Folder 6-16, p. 107- 123, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Primary Document Description:

Within the internment camps, there was a hierarchical system in place that, in theory, allowed internees to voice their issues. Administrators were at the top, followed by political representatives, and then the internees.  A disconnect existed between the internees and administrators due to the inability of the administrators to command the political representatives to communicate with the people they were supposedly representing.

According to the document, a self-government program was created but there were limitations to the program. The internees had little to no power to self govern because in reality, the power was still in the hands of the administrators in their development of self governance amongst the internees. They did not believe that the internees were capable of complete self-governance.  Furthermore, when the administrators met in a community council to discuss self-governance, they either dominated the meetings or were more submissive.  The mere fact that there were even discussions concerning self-governance suggested that the internees would remain in the camps for an extended period of time.  Otherwise, a governing system would not have been necessary.  

A manifestation of this long-term incarceration was the Strike.  It was a display of the dual nature of perspective present during this period of time. The administrators saw it as Issei extremist disobedience, but to the internees, it was a demonstration of the overarching disapproval for the administrators.  The purpose of the strike was for the council to present their request for the release of the prisoners involved with the Beating but because their requests were denied, they went on strike.  However, as the length of the strike was prolonged, its purpose expanded as well. It became a larger social movement. By the second night, the Emergency Council had discussed self-government in Poston, and the Nisei listened along the sidelines. The administration “was described as having deliberately put government in the hands of young men whom they could tell what to do or ignore” because these young Nisei were more Americanized, open to proving themselves to the administrators and susceptible to administrative control.  The internees wanted more than just the release of prisoners and the administrators seemed willing to settle.

Encyclopedia Term: Civil Disobedience

The term “civil disobedience” was first coined in author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s essay Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience). Thoreau criticized the United States government, believing it to be inefficient and unjust, particularly concerning issues of slavery and the Mexican-American War.  He argued that individuals needed to follow their conscience rather than the law. Throughout history, civil disobedience has been a means to dissociate from and fight government injustice.  In the case of Japanese incarceration, particularly the Poston camp, the Japanese used civil disobedience as a vehicle “[…] to demonstrate general community disapproval of an administrative act.”1  Early on in the camp’s operation, tensions between the Japanese community and the administrators formed.  These tensions led to attacks on individuals thought to be informants.  

Over the course of a week during the strike, Issei and Nisei leaders met with camp administrators regarding their concerns “[…] to establish peaceful and unified self-government.”2  The strike leaders focused on achieving community responsibility for law and order by forming a Public Relation Committee, giving internees the power to nominate and elect themselves for administrative positions, and establishing a City Planning Board to create necessary economic, legislative, and administrative organization.  Both the administrators and internees believed that economic inefficiency and unregulated gang activities against informants were the greatest concerns in the Poston camp. These issues were rooted in the conflict between the Issei and the Nisei. Prior to the strikes, administration had only allowed Nisei to serve on the Temporary Community Councils, and as a response, the Issei established the Issei Advisory Board, which held little to no power.  To combat social disorganization, strike leaders proposed creating an Honor Court, composed of respected leaders of the population who were familiar with their representatives and would not take advantage of the community.  However, the administration did not agree to put more power into the hands of the internees.

Strike leaders and administration agreed on the fundamental problems the camp faced, but they did not agree on a solution. Both groups wanted to control job organization. However, the administration felt that the proposed Honor Court would ultimately be ‘dangerous’, believing that the internees were not prepared to be in control.  On the other hand, internees believed that community control would allow for more economic efficiency and stronger social relations.  After a week, the strike leaders and the administrators reached a settlement. The Kibei men were released on the condition that there would be no more beatings and the internees would cooperate with the administration.  Although the strike ended, new struggles arose, revealing deeply rooted disagreements within the community.  However, internees were able to force the administration to give in to their demands.  The overall situation of incarceration was obvious injustice, but the internees recognized the battles they could win and were able to successfully utilize civil disobedience.  Following the ideas of Thoreau, the internees adhered to their conscience and utilized civil disobedience, even in an undemocratic environment. This act of civil disobedience allowed their concerns to be heard, which was a small step in the right direction even if it did not lead to complete justice.

Historical Analysis: Power Dynamics and its Impact on Poston

The Japanese who were in the camp were overworked and underpaid. There was a serious mistrust of camp administration because the War Relocation Authority decided that in the interest of self-governance, they would only allow the Nisei to serve as leaders, excluding the Issei community.  In addition, they only allowed members of the Japanese American Citizens League who had shown absolute and complete loyalty to the United States government to serve in upper management.  Not only did the Issei lose all of their belongings but they also could not serve in any leadership positions. The administration essentially stripped the Issei of all dignity and honor. Thus, they decided to build their own advisory; however, it held little power in comparison to the Nisei Temporary Community Council (TCC), which worked with camp administration. The tension brewing between the Nisei and Issei only grew when the Issei identified Nisei who had been working with administrators as informants. They were spies on the inside for the administrators. These camp tensions eventually escalated and led to the Beating on November 14th, 1942. This beating led to the arrest of 50 Japanese-Americans and the detainment of two Kibei (George Fuji and Isamu Uchida), who were held for further questioning, pending FBI investigation.3  Within the camp, there was a concern that they would not receive a fair trial and thus, the camp galvanized to do something in support of the two Kibei.  In fact, the Issei delegation immediately went to the camp director to try to release the Kibei, afraid that they would not be treated equally.

When the Camp Director refused to release the prisoners, in response, on November 18th, the Issei led a strike to show collective disapproval of this administrative act.  An atmosphere of fear surrounding rumors of imminent FBI action catalyzed the Strike.  The strikers held bonfires and played military music to rally around the common cause.  The strikers only did the minimum amount of work necessary to survive, forgoing most daily work.  However, the Camp Director did not respond to the strikers.  The original request of the strikers was the immediate release of the prisoners but dissatisfaction and unrest simmered beneath the surface as the administrators failed to meet their demands.  Although this strike started out in response to a specific incident, it was the culmination of more long-term tensions that existed between the internees and the administrators.  The internees referred to the strike as “the incident,” while the camp administrators called it “the disturbance,” demonstrating the difference in perspective.  Similarly, the internees viewed it as a fight for justice while the administrators viewed it as civil disobedience.

The strike occurred in an inherently undemocratic environment.  In the incarceration camps, the government stripped the Japanese of their individual civil liberties for the purported protection of the greater social good.  The internees had no other recourse but civil disobedience to fight for what in a normal context would have been a god given right.  Democracy rests on the protection of human rights of all citizens and the active participation of citizens in civic and political life.  Philosophers, John Locke and Charles Hobbes, argued that social pact theory can only exist when society is created by a voluntary agreement of individuals to join said society and then be governed by its government.  In return, they gain mutual protection and welfare. However, the incarceration was a blatant denial of basic civil liberties. The refutation of mutual protection represents a breach of rights under a democracy.  Administrators were rightfully concerned that the internment would threaten the loyalty of the Nisei to the United States: “Good schools are essential if the children and youth of these Relocation Centers are to continue their growth toward American ideals during the war.”4 The administrators wanted to maintain morale and foster respect for the US, its ideals and the democratic system through education.  In the classrooms the administrators could teach the children behaviors, beliefs and thought processes that could translate to outside the classroom.  For example, a group of 9th graders at Poston camp were asked to write a paper in response to the question: “How far do you consider this country democratic and in how far undemocratic?”5 One student wrote:

If this country was created equally they shouldn’t put one race in Relocation Centers they should put the other race too if they are to put only one race and we have the right to do anything in the U.S. because we are citizens of the Democratic Country. If this country were created equally they should give us time to leave Terminal Island and let us know where our destination is.6

The student recognized the hypocrisy of the US preaching democracy when millions of Japanese were incarcerated in camps.  They lived an existence of uncertainty with no agency over their fates.  There was an irreconcilable difference between the education of democracy and the very existence of the camps.  The camp tensions represented a breakdown of and exposing of the hypocritical nature of the democracy being pushed for in the education system.

This attempt to educate children about democracy was duplicitous in nature because the system in place at all the camps was inherently undemocratic.  Furthermore, this lack of agency is reflected when camp administrators attempted to instill a surface-level system of self-governance that was supposed to be the only form of democracy within the camp.  Since the political landscape of the time required America to be the face of liberty, an appearance of self-governance was crucial to the continued American legacy.  Aforementioned, they chose the Nisei to be part of the TCC.  If, on the other hand, there were only a few Issei on the Legislative hierarchy7, can that represent the true definition of self-governance?8 Administrators attempted to create a mini-democracy within the context of a larger American democracy.  However, this begs the question of whether or not the Issei actually had power. Even today, in democracy, we doubt whether or not our elected officials have any real power. In these camps, the Nisei and Issei were not even elected; they were appointed or self-assumed positions of power.  This was an ostensible display of democracy because upon further examination, neither the Nisei nor Issei had true power.

According to Richard S. Nishimoto, an Issei and Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study researcher, there was an Issei advisory board and they had power because of their participation in the newly created Central Executive Committee and virtual control over the Labor Relations Board (which had the ability to fire any Japanese American who held an appointed position).  However, in our investigation of the tensions between the Nisei and the Issei, scholar Thomas Y. Fujita-Rony wrote that the power adhered to the Nisei while Nishimoto wrote that the power adhered to the Issei.9 When we considered this question, we looked at the power and the perspective of those whose words we are reading today.  In certain ways, the Issei’s power stems from their ability to be radical.  The Nisei, on the other hand, were born and raised in a society that encouraged obedience, perfection and presenting themselves in the best light possible to the US government.  They were supposed to be representative of the greater Japanese population in the US and were thus held to a higher standard than the Issei. This meant that they did not have the freedom that democracy often provides one with. With democracy comes the ability to speak one’s mind and take action in the face of injustices, similar to those which the internees experienced.  However, since the Nisei were raised on and judged by how well they adhered to American standards for the sake of Japanese acceptance into American society, they lacked the opportunities the Issei were given when it came to radically fighting for a legitimate voice in incarceration camps.  If the Nisei fought too hard, that might have put their status in America at risk, especially when America maintained a hostile relationship with Japan at the time.

From the very beginning, the camp administrators placed superficial power in the hands of the Nisei, who they viewed as more cooperative and docile. The administration “was described as having deliberately put government in the hands of young men whom they could tell what to do or ignore.”10 They played up the pre-existing tensions around generational differences to easily and effectively drive a wedge between the Nisei and the Issei.  Although formally the Nisei were in elected positions of leadership, they rarely exercised this power.  Giving the Nisei the facade of power was at little to no cost to the administrators.  The strike represented yet another surface level shifting of power.  Leading the strike, the Issei gained slightly more voice in camp affairs. However, they, too, did not have the authority to influence wider change. The conditions of the camp inherently set up an environment where democracy could not flourish.  Incidents of disobedience, notably the strike, did not in the end disrupt the hierarchical system in which the administrators were at the top.  The two Nisei boys in the Sogioka painting, unequivocally conscious of this chain of power, embody the tensions that persisted below the surface even after the strike. Only the administrators had true power. They, in fact, controlled the fates of both the Nisei and the Issei.

1Working Outline for Chapter of Handbook, EHS March 1, 8/26/1943, #3830, Folder 6-16, p. 118, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
2 Ibid, 119.
3Lau, Chrissy Yee. “World War II” Lecture at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, October 22, 2015.
4Takemoto, Anne Sueko. A Lesson in Democracy Education in the Poston Japanese American Internment Camp. 1986, 64.
6Ibid, Appendix A.
8Nishimoto, Richard S., and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi. Inside an American Concentration Camp: Japanese American Resistance at Poston, Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995, xxxix.
9Thomas Fujita-Rony. “Poston (Colorado River),” Densho Encyclopedia http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Poston%20(Colorado%20River)/ (accessed Nov 30 2015).
10Working Outline for Chapter of Handbook, EHS March 1, 8/26/1943, #3830, Folder 6-16, p. 119, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.


The posttrike power division of Unit 1 at Poston

Power Structure


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