Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center

Group: Peter Biedenweg and Joanne Wang

Watercolor Painting: “Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center”

Primary Document: Employment

Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center

Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center, Gene Sogioka, Charcoal

Gene Sogioka’s painting, Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center, portrays a common day inside the Poston internment camp’s canteen. Opened on May 11, 1942 by the Community Enterprises, a collective founded by the War Relocation Authority to provide for Japanese American internees, the canteen offered a convenient way to purchase goods that were not provided for by the government. Canteen supplies included both non-essential goods and essential items, such as food, toiletries, and clothing or fabric. However, there are no goods depicted at all in this painting, which may represent that supplies were inadequately provided. Given the painting’s caption and emphasis, though, it is more likely that Sogioka simply did not draw out individual items. Behind the counter, three women can be seen working, establishing a sense of female empowerment. This painting foregoes male dominance, instead representing women in traditionally male roles, as they work the cash register and run the store. In total, ten women and girls, as opposed to one man and what appears to be a second man’s boots, have been painted. This depiction emphasizes women’s independence and influence in the local Poston economy through both their work as suppliers and their roles as consumers. Gene Sogioka gives us insight into women’s roles inside the camp, and depicts a new identity for Japanese American women.




Employment-page-005 Employment-page-001 Employment-page-002 Employment-page-003 Employment-page-004


“Records of Employment Office: Employment Report”

Our primary document is a factual document detailing the jobs around the Poston internment camp as of March 31st, 1943. The report gives statistics and tells us that at the time, Poston’s Camp III had 1,983 total workers. What makes this document unique and important to our study is how workers have been not only divided by job type, but also by gender. Throughout the camp, women made up close to a quarter of the workforce. The numbers indicate that women worked mainly in the departments of Subsistence (301), as well as Community Service and Activities (189). Upon further analysis it becomes evident that of the 301 women working in Subsistence, 289 worked in the mess halls. Additionally most of the women in the Community Service and Activities division worked as school teachers. This document illustrates that most women filled traditionally feminine roles around the camp. Turning to the most relevant part of this document we can see that within the Community Enterprises, there were a total of 50 workers. Women were outnumbered nearly two to one, with 17 women, and 31 men. Women even made up a minority in the Canteen, with 13 women working, as opposed to 16 men. Here the number of women workers was smaller than men, either because less women applied for jobs or because there were fewer opportunities.



Although the Poston internment camp provided food and shelter for all residents, many items, such as clothing and toiletries, had to be purchased from external sources. Most families bought such items from the Sears Roebuck and Company or the Montgomery Ward catalogs, but another option was to purchase supplies directly from Poston’s canteen.

The canteen was an onsite store, opened and run by Consumer Cooperatives, an initiative by the War Relocation Authority to “to buy, store, distribute, sell, or handle, process, and produce for its members and patrons, foodstuffs, clothing, merchandise of all kinds, fuel, petroleum, products, building materials, and any and all other commodities”.[1] It was a very popular spot within the camp; as Gene Sogioka stated, “Even small children have come to know the place as place of goodies”.[2]

Although the canteen had the advantage of being convenient and accessible to its customers, it still struggled to compete with mail order services.[3] It was said that “for large purchases, inmates made heavy use of mail-order catalogues…[and] also engaged in a variety of black market sales”.[4] This may have been in part due to the “25% mark-up [of the canteen]…about 20% gross without the maintenance”.[5] Adding to these problems, one internee complained that “despite the shortages of decent food in the mess halls, and the lack of resources around camp, the canteen, ‘dealt mostly in products such as soft drinks and chewing gum, rather than necessities’”.[6]

[1] “Articles of Incorporation” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[2] Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps. 146.

[3] “Minutes – June 18, 1942” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[4] Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. 160.

[5] “Minutes – June 18, 1942” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[6] Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. 159-160.


Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 159, 160.


Poston’s Prejudice – Understanding Women’s Work and Gender Roles inside Poston Internment Camp

In 1942, the United States government detained 110,000 Japanese, sending men, women, and families to one of ten internment camps. In Poston, the largest camp, 17,000 Japanese Americans were tossed onto the bleak Arizona desert, where each family was assigned a single room measuring sixteen by twenty feet. For Japanese American women, initial adjustment was difficult, but after a short time, they found themselves with new opportunities. These women began to work around the camp in large numbers, gaining a greater voice as workers, and also as wives and mothers. Regardless, even while these women positively transformed their gender roles, they still faced gender discrimination. Thus looking through the lenses of Gene Sogioka’s watercolor painting, Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center, and primary document, Employment Report, it is clear that Japanese American women in Poston’s internment camp, through work in the canteen, volunteering for the Women’s Club, and changing interactions in family life, gained greater autonomy and economic independence, expanding their roles in society, yet failed to overcome gender biases.

Looking closely at Gene Sogioka’s painting Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center as an example of the greater Poston work environment, it is clear women played a large role in the maintenance of the shop, but underlying facts still show that related to the canteen, women failed to hold leadership positions. Prior to camp life, women’s roles in the labor force were often limited to helping family businesses or contributing to farm work. When Poston’s canteen opened on May 11, 1942 under the jurisdiction of Community Enterprises, an organization established to provide for the well being of all, women were offered employment.[1] From our primary document, Employment Record, we see that 17 males and 14 females staffed the canteen, and through these numbers it is evident that the store practiced fair hiring practices.[2] Inside the store, women workers were treated equal to men, and Sogioka’s painting portrays women filling roles as cashiers and general service workers.[3] Furthermore, the canteen operated under the agreement that, “any net profit derived from production w[ould] be equally distributed to all workers”.[4] Nonetheless, the canteen’s women employees were not equally represented in more senior positions. For example, the all male Board of Trustees of the Community Enterprises, created a women’s subcommittee with the goals of “stimulating greater loyalty to the store…[and] interesting other women throughout the community”.[5] Here the Board of Trustees granted women more authority, dealing with women’s issues, but also exemplified through their own membership that women were not leaders.

To combat these types of issues, beginning in June 1942, a group of women created the Poston Women’s Club, an organization meant “to serve the people [and] provide entertainment, social contacts and study opportunities”.[6] Using this organization, women began taking initiative throughout the community. The club’s first action was the formation of English reading and conversation classes for other women around the camp. Seeing a need for greater education, these women created their own solution. They also concerned themselves with the health and well being of all Poston internees. Working with the psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Alexander Leighton, club members involved themselves in camp logistics, assuring Poston mothers’ newborn children would receive proper nutrition from fresh canned milk. Furthermore, given the number of nurses and midwives in the camp, the organization created a Public Health Nursing program. Here the Women’s Club took full advantage of their resources, and ultimately developed a local health service not provided by the government.[7] These women volunteers showed, despite their gender, that they could serve as leaders, providing each other and the whole camp with needed support and services.

Japanese American women, wanting better pay, saw new opportunities to immerse themselves in Poston’s workforce, but this too was ultimately limited by gender discrimination. Because of the war, Poston had a smaller number of young males, granting women more job opportunities. As Gene Sogioka stated, “One of the young people says, ‘the hell with it; I can’t stay in this camp,’ and they just take off. They volunteer for the army”.[8] Adding to this, we hear from a Women’s Club meeting that “February, March, and April [of 1943] were months of [a]…great man-power shortage with consequent draining of women into many channels of employment”.[9] In situations like this, where new job opportunities were available, some social barriers dissipated. In Poston, salaries were not based on one’s gender, but, instead, three pay scales: $19 per month for doctors, teachers, and other professionals, $16 for a majority of workers, and $12 for apprentices.[10] Given this fact, Japanese American women often started received similar wages to men.

While women took on more work, and began making as much as male counterparts, still many females found jobs in traditional roles. From our primary source we see that for elementary and highschool teachers, there were 30 women, while there were only 24 men.[11] Here women took on a greater role in the camp, but this was in part caused by the view of teaching as a feminine role. Another possible, though more objectionable, reason for the increase in women in the labor force can be shown through Dr. Leighton’s comment, “Nisei girls were more compliant to family authority than the boys, and, correspondingly, developed the reputation for being exceptionally conscientious and reliable employees”.[12] With husbands no longer making all of a family’s money, women began to gain equal footing. Yet often it was difficult for women to receive fair treatment. With regards to unemployment compensation, for instance, a difference emerged in the payments for displaced men and women. Unemployed adult men could receive $4.75 per month, while unemployed adult women made only $4.25[13]. By filling roles as teachers, waitresses, and seamstresses, women were able to gain work experience, but only in the capacity of traditionally feminine jobs. Thus while these women may have taken home equal wages, they certainly did not have an equal voice.

The changes in Japanese-Americans’ lives upon being relocated also caused many changes in their family structure and, in turn, changes in women’s gender roles. “The Japanese family in pre-evacuation days has been called a close-knit, intensely introverted unit. The mother was in charge of the domestic work within the home, buying and preparing the food, keeping the house, and usually acting as steward of the family’s subsistence money… Her life was supposed to be centered within her home and she was rarely seen away from it”.[14] With America’s entrance into World War II, men were often incarcerated earlier than and separately from women. Even before their arrivals at internment camps, then, women had to adjust to their new situations and took on new, more authoritative positions within their families.

Family structure continued to adapt upon incarceration. Even when families were reunited during internment, they led very different lifestyles from what they were used to. Children commonly grouped together, only coming home to their parents at the end of the day, and internees spent the majority of their time outside of their personal rooms, given the heat and cramped conditions. This separation of families meant that women had decreased responsibilities as mothers; given the confinements of the camp they were also less concerned about their children’s safety, allowing them to be on their own. The relationship between husbands and wives also changed. In the camps, “[e]ach [community] member who worked was working as an individual for the government and the community as a whole, so women became less economically dependent on their husbands.[15] Additionally, “There were few things going on in the community which could bring the whole family out together, and since there had always been division in activities by age and sex, there was no spontaneous movement from the residents to develop such”.[16]

There were also changes in women’s duties. Japanese American women remained in charge of household chores, but many of these chores moved from the private sphere, within the house, to the public sphere, outside of the house. Washing clothes, a daily chore for women, was done in the camp’s boiler room, and sewing took place in specifically designated sewing rooms. Cooking was no longer considered housework at all, as all internees were fed at mess halls, and food was cooked in bulk. As described in A Tragedy of Democracy, “Issei women in particular, relieved of most housework as well as farm labor, were able to devote themselves for the first time in years to hobbies such as knitting and crocheting or to take classes in Japanese calligraphy and dance. One younger woman…called the experience a ‘camping vacation’ for the women”.[17] While purchasing goods and cleaning the house were still women’s roles, families’ limited budgets, and smaller living spaces, drastically reduced the private workload.

As women’s roles as mothers and housewives decreased, they had more free time to spare. Some of this time was spent socializing with other women; devoting their pre-camp lives to the family’s farm or business had left women isolated and with little time to socialize. The rest of the time, though, was spent helping out around the camp. Most camp workers were initially men. “In the first months…very few of the women had any regular job. This was especially true for any of the women over the age of about thirty. Many of those who worked had jobs that kept them within the block, close to their apartments, such as work in the mess hall”.[18] Soon, though, more and more women joined the labor force. When jobs changed from volunteer positions to paid work, men, women, and children, as mentioned earlier, all made the same wages for the same work. This further equalized gender, as men were no longer the sole breadwinners of the family, nor were they economically superior to women.

From our research on Poston, it is clear Japanese American Women took on greater roles inside the camp. Women, especially “Nisei professionals such as teachers and social workers, who had been unable to find jobs in their field on the prewar West Coast due to entrenched racial prejudice, were able to gain valuable experience in camp that would aid them in securing postwar employment”.[19] While this was the case, many women still found that equality with male workers did not exist. In the canteen, and the larger camp, gender biases forced women to take roles that were traditionally viewed as feminine jobs. Only in the volunteer work of the Women’s Club did women begin to fight the stigma around gender roles. Consequently, while women found more work and began supporting themselves and their families more economically, the roles and jobs which women held were still typical of pre-war positions. There certainly were benefits afforded to women who gained employment, but how these benefits were affected by gender, and how camp employment transitioned into job opportunities during the post war period, will require further research and understanding.

[1] “Minutes- June 18, 1942” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[2] “Records of Employment Office – Employment Report” Box 10 F 1, Cornell University Archives, 4.

[3] Sogioka, Gene. “Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center”. Watercolor, Cornell University Archives.

[4] “Minutes – June 10, 1942” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[5] “Minutes — June 04, 1942” Box 8 F 10, Cornell University Archives.

[6] “Minutes Women’s Club, June 27, 1942” Box 8 F 19, Cornell University Archives.

[7] “Minutes Women’s Club, August 14, 1942” Box 8 F 19, Cornell University Archives.

[8] Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman, “Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps”. Cornell UP, Print. 147.

[9] “Minutes Women’s Club, July 2, 1943”, Box 8 F 20, Cornell University Archives. 2.

[10] Valerie Matsumoto, “City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, 155.

[11] “Records of Employment Office – Employment Report” Box 10 F 1, Cornell University Archives 4.

[12] Valerie Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, 156.

[13] “Minutes – September 01, 1942” Box 10 F 1, Cornell University Archives.

[14] “The Family in Poston August 25 1943” Box 8 F 11, Cornell University Archives, 10.

[15] “The Family in Poston August 25 1943” Box 8 F 11, Cornell University Archives, 13.

[16] “The Family in Poston August 25 1943” Box 8 F 11, Cornell University Archives, 20.

[17] Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. 161-162.

[18] The Family in Poston August 25 1943 Box 8 F 11, Cornell University Archives, 17.

[19] Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, 160.


Fujita-Rony, Thomas Y. “Remaking the “Home Front” in World War II: Japanese American

Gesensway, Deborah, and Mindy Roseman. Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1987. Print.

Matsumoto, Valerie J. City Girls: The Nisei Social World In Los Angeles, 1920-1950. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.

“Records of Employment Office – Employment Report” Box 10 F 1, Cornell University Archives.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 160.

Sogioka, Gene. “Waiting at the Canteen Relocation Center” Watercolor. Cornell University Archives.

Women’s Work and the Colorado River Relocation Center.” Southern California Quarterly, 88 (2006): 159-160


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