December 2017

Barbed Wire Christmas: Holidays and Incarcerated Japanese Americans

Holidays served as a distraction to the monotony and degradation experienced in the camps. They provided a reminder for what was lost, and an opportunity for authorities to highlight the potential of toeing the line.

by Andrew Dunn

Like many Americans, the Tamura family enjoyed holidays. They looked forward to sitting around a large wooden table together and eating the food their family had happily made for generations. These included ham and other familiar table items, but also the complicated and time-consuming Mochi that represented a cultural staple for families of Japanese descent. This connection to Japan, though, would force the Tamura family to face terrible injustice. Facing a painful dilemma between maintaining certain elements of their heritage and assimilating by adopting the cultural practices of a mistrustful nation, the Tamura family’s experience is representative of thousands of other American families of Japanese descent. Theirs is a story we must understand if we hope to grasp the full experience of holiday in the U.S. and prevent contemporary injustices by recalling the struggles of previous generations.[1]

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 catalyzed not only America’s entry into WWII, but also led to one of the nation’s largest government-implemented civil rights infractions. Targeted by fear and blatant racism, those with Japanese heritage became outlets upon which many white Americans projected their frustrations. Early Japanese naval victories led military commanders to hide their incompetency by blaming others, and racists to use the attack on Pearl Harbor as a platform to sow distrust and hostility. These military commanders convinced President Roosevelt that a threat of Japanese sabotage existed on the west coast. On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 established a military exclusion zone in the mainland’s westernmost states, giving military commanders jurisdiction to remove any they deemed a threat to national security.

Although not explicitly stated, the order targeted those living along the west coast with Japanese heritage (Nikkei), allowing the forced removal and relocation of over 110,000 Japanese Americans. Two-thirds of these held U.S. citizenship, and many had few, if any, ties to Japan. Numbered tags replaced names as the military rounded up those who looked like the enemy. Torn from homes, friends, jobs, and businesses and locked up behind barbed wire on one of ten incarceration camps without due process, Nikkei faced nearly insurmountable hurdles. Despite a lack of any condemning evidence, innocent families spent the war years attempting to adapt and accept the loss of their previous lives.

Image 1
Children from the Mochida family await relocation after numbers replaced names as main identifying factors. “Photograph of Members of the Mochida Family Awaiting Evacuation,” c. 1942, Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority, 1942-1945, Dorothea Lange Collection. Courtesy National Archives Catalog.

Located on undeveloped federal land tracts, a central goal of these centers included using the large labor force of relocated Nikkei to establish farming communities. This eventually transformed harsh landscapes into profitable properties. The cost was high. As Nikkei strove to break through racial stereotypes and prove their patriotism by supporting the Allied war effort, they neglected their own food supplies and lost certain cultural practices of their own.

Although unable to maintain much of their heritage, holidays emerged as a time for Nikkei to exert control in their lives while also showing their willingness to adopt mainstream American cultural practices. Holidays also served as a time to reflect on lost culture. This article highlights some of the difficulties faced by Nikkei in relation to their heritage, as well as some of the personal stories behind the balance of tradition and assimilation.

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The Minidoka Relocation Center, located in Idaho’s harsh sagebrush desert, became the new home for over 10,000 incarcerated Nikkei. Those at Minidoka deserve this focus because they led all the centers in emergency harvest aid and held the highest enlistment rate for military service. Stories of these families, recorded by a recently-conducted oral history project with Fujiko Tamura-Gardener and the camp-run newspaper The Minidoka Irrigator, show how food and other elements served as tools for keeping the holiday spirit alive as families navigated life imprisoned behind barbed wire. This is their story.

Upon arrival to the camps, the simple task of eating together became a luxury few could partake in.

Family dining practices were among the cultural elements that suffered most during the incarceration. Mealtimes in the camps proved a stark contrast to what most Nikkei practiced pre-internment. Before their incarceration, family matriarchs usually prepared meals in Nikkei families. Many had a very personal relationship with their food, eating seasonal items they grew themselves.[2] Families took their meals together at a central table, and this served as a critical time for familial conversation and bonding.

Upon arrival to the camps, the simple task of eating together became a luxury few could partake in. Many families broke apart during the day to complete various tasks, and thus attended lunch with their working companions when the meal bell rang. Even when families attended the mess halls together, the very nature of a cafeteria-style mess hall made gatherings noisy and chaotic. Children often ate with their friends away from parental supervision. Tamura-Gardener recalled that his father felt such shame and depression over their wrongful incarceration that he and his wife took food back to their living quarters and refrained from communal mealtimes.[3] Each of these dining practices contributed to a significant destabilization in Nikkei family structure.

Image 2 (4)
Kids ate together rather than with their families, leading to a destabilization of family structure. Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 4, No. 42, December 23, 1944.

As their first Thanksgiving behind barbed wire approached in 1942, many Nikkei worried how they would celebrate the holiday. Because such a large percentage of available manpower spent the harvest season caring for the nation’s food supply on outside farms, their own had been neglected. The incarcerated’s status as an undesired minority compounded their confusion, and they questioned their opportunity to partake in a favored holiday.[4] Although of Japanese descent, the majority remained U.S. citizens who observed many of the same holidays as white citizens.

With such little power to exert during this holiday, many looked forward to exerting more influence and proving their loyalty during Christmas.

News that 7,000 pounds of turkey had been ordered so the camp could celebrate Thanksgiving kicked off camp-wide efforts to make the event as festive as possible. Activities included dances, or “Turkey Hops,” and cheerful—yet often misguided—messages from camp personnel about the potential for fair treatment and freedom for those willing to fully assimilate and adopt American customs.[5] Thanksgiving celebrations remained in operation for the following two years of incarceration, yet they declined in importance and fervor after the first year. They continued the Turkey Hops, but the decree by President Roosevelt that incarcerees remain working for part of the day on food production reduced the romanticized feeling associated with the holiday. Furthermore, their mealtimes became strictly regimented as to when each block could report to their respective dining halls. After the first Thanksgiving, turkey became unavailable to incarcerated Japanese Americans, who instead relied on eating chickens they raised themselves.[6] With such little power to exert during this holiday, many looked forward to exerting more influence and proving their loyalty during Christmas.

The Christmas holiday was much more consistently practiced during the incarceration. Each block took part in a camp-wide fundraising event to purchase candy, decorations, and Christmas trees; “Santa Remembers Minidoka” motifs became popular accessories.[7] Camp stewards ordered mochi, an important holiday food that many had enjoyed pre-internment. Part of its importance, though, resided in its preparation by multiple family members. Tamura-Gardener related the synchronous art of making mochi by timing the process of hands darting between hands to flip the dough as others pounded it.

After their first year incarcerated, Nikkei developed the camp farms and grew traditional Japanese foods such as daikon and nappa. Producing their own food gave them more control over what they cooked during the holidays, and allowed them to regain some modicum of control. Eager evacuees decorated dining halls to showcase their skill and ingenuity by making extravagant displays using only scrap materials. The themes they chose for these decorations often lamented the absence of family members serving in the U.S. military and bygone days of freedom, even as white-appointed personnel assured evacuees that they would have freedom again in the future. Donations poured into Minidoka from churches and those employed at the camp, leading the Irrigator to celebrate that “Christmas this year will not be a disappointment for Hunt’s youngsters.”[8] Businesses from nearby towns who catered to Nikkei customers flooded the Irrigator with ads and well-wishes, such as the one below.

Image 3 (3)
Holiday well-wishers from local businesses show an improvement in race relations between incarcerees at Minidoka and surrounding communities. Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 3, No. 44, December 25, 1943.

As with Thanksgiving, Nikkei reflection on the loss of their former lives led to a counter-narrative promoted by white officials which increasingly pushed the concept of assimilation onto Nikkei. Although this emphasis by those in power led many Nikkei to favor assimilation as a means of demonstrating loyalty to obtain freedom, the messages remained misguided. These messages failed to realize that Nikkei had already assimilated and adopted American customs before the war. They simply desired to retain some of their cultural heritage by cooking their own meals, eating together as families, and eating foods they had grown up with. Those hostile to Nikkei saw any Japanese practices as inherently threatening and failed to acknowledge that white Americans followed similar customs every year with their own family traditions.

Overall, holidays became significantly less promoted the longer the centers stayed open. A few reasons explain this trend. Government attempts to relocate Nikkei from the camps to eastern states became a higher priority than evacuee comfort as the war progressed. Military enlistment also dominated much of the focus both nation-wide and in the camps as Nikkei were required to register for the draft and serve in the military while their families remained incarcerated. Simply put, the strain on Japanese American families became greater as the war dragged on.

Despite a lack of any condemning evidence, innocent families spent the war years attempting to adapt and accept the loss of their previous lives.

The WWII relocation of Japanese Americans was unjust. In 1988, Congress formally apologized and offered redress payments for internment. Ensuing court cases challenging the constitutionality of the incarceration revealed a complete lack of evidence for the perceived Japanese threat on the mainland U.S. Indeed, politicians and military commanders suppressed evidence during the incarceration to advance their own racist ideas and to shirk the blame for military failures. Elderly, first-generation Japanese immigrants felt the hardest impact. Mixed emotions over their home country fighting the nation they had chosen for their children, and the shame many felt for their powerless situation, caused lingering cases of depression. Many withdrew and refused to talk of their experience or pass along traditional Japanese culture to their children. Several of those who faced incarceration as children are just now trying to reconnect with their Japanese cultural roots. Tamura-Gardener’s pride in her mastery of Aikido and her family’s success with Judo highlights how important heritage is to his family.

Holidays served as a distraction to the monotony and degradation experienced in the camps. They provided a reminder for what was lost, and an opportunity for authorities to highlight the potential of toeing the line.

America continues to struggle with its addiction to both nativism and immigration. Fanned by current xenophobic rhetoric, minority and migrant communities suffer much of the same suspicion and discrimination that Nikkei experienced during the WWII era. As we continue to exorcise these demons from the American consciousness, we would do well to remember Japanese Americans’ understanding of the humanizing impact that holidays can have on our lives. We would do well to reflect on our own shortcomings and remember the lessons learned from the incarcerated Christmas.

AndrewDunn HeadshotAndrew Dunn is a second year M.A. student in Historical Resources Management at Idaho State University. In addition to WWII abuses of Japanese Americans, his research interests include mass incarceration, race relations, and food history. Dunn currently works with the National Park Service, Minidoka National Historic Site on public outreach, research, and tours. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Friends of Minidoka, a non-profit agency tasked with preserving the legacy of Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII. He can be contacted at dunnandr(at)isu(dot)edu.

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[1] Fujiko Tamura-Gardener, interviewed by Andrew Dunn at Lakewood, WA, February 25, 2017. For more, see Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill & Wang: New York, 1993).

[2] Tamura-Gardener Interview.

[3] Tamura-Gardener Interview.

[4]  “Boy Contemplates Turkeyless Thanksgiving, Gets Surprise,” Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 1, No. 17, November 11, 1943.

[5] H.L. Stafford, “Director Stafford Extends Thanksgiving Message,” Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 3, No. 39, November 20, 1943.

[6] “Thanksgiving Day To Be Observed On November 23,” Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 4, No. 37, November 18, 1944.

[7] “Special Christmas Fund Drive On December 3-5,” Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 1, No. 22, November 28, 1942.

[8] “Gay Christmas Day Seen As Donations Pour In,” Minidoka Irrigator, Vol. 1, No. 28, December 19, 1942.

1 comment on “Barbed Wire Christmas: Holidays and Incarcerated Japanese Americans

  1. Thank you for honoring the lives of all Japanese interned during WWII and humanizing them and their complicated, harsh, and humble realities living here. “Stubborn Twig” is an excellent book to read on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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