Japanese American Women during World War II

Japanese American Women during World War II

            In the article entitled “Japanese American Women during World War II,” author Valerie Matsumoto describes how Japanese American women were affected by the war, in general, and the internment program implemented by the Roosevelt government, in particular. Provided for by executive order 9066 which was issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942, Japanese Americans were uprooted from their communities in the West Coast and brought inland to ten camps established in different remote locations in the states of Arizona, Colorado, California, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas. The internment was undertaken by the government because Americans feared that the Japanese Americans might organize themselves and aid the Japanese war efforts by acting as spies and saboteurs (Matsumoto).

            In the article, the author outlines with disturbing detail the harsh and almost subhuman conditions in the camps, and then describes how such conditions affected the familial and individual status of Japanese Americans, particularly the women. Matsumoto starts by explaining the reasons which brought about the program which did not only subject the Japanese Americans to mental, physical, and economic adversities but also resulted to significant changes in their lives. Midway through the article, the author also explains that while the war-induced labor shortage later provided better employment opportunities for the Japanese American women who were allowed to leave the camp temporarily, their resulting improved economic status failed to alleviate the emotional pains caused by internment (Matsumoto).

At the outset, the author argues that the internment, which caused so much anguish, was practically unjustifiable because majority of the subject 120,000 Japanese Americans were already American citizens at the time. Clearly, therefore, if for the reason of their citizenship alone, the Japanese Americans should have been protected by the United States Constitution. Instead, because of their racial origin, they were uprooted and hauled inland, forcing them to feel traumatized by the shame brought about by the glaring implication that they were traitors or were planning to work against the American government (Matsumoto).

The author bewails the fact that the Japanese Americans were treated more severely than the present-day criminals by describing their situation at the camps in a rather graphic manner. First, the camps in Rohwer and Denson in the state of Arkansas were situated in swampy lowlands while the remaining eight camps were established in semi-desert and desert areas of the six other states which frequently experienced extreme changes in temperatures, aside from the usual dust storms common in such areas. Given the locations of the camps, one could immediately imagine that the Japanese Americans were exposed to the elements most of the time (Matsumoto).

To show the readers just how difficult life in the camps had been, the author provides a graphic description of the crude living conditions within the camp. Each camp consisted of several blocks with an average of fourteen “barrack-like” structures measuring about 20 feet by 100 feet. These structures were then partitioned by low walls into 4-6 single rooms aimed to accommodate at least eight people. Families with fewer members frequently found themselves housed with other single individuals who were usually not related to them by blood. The physical set-up, then, leaves nothing to one’s imagination: each barrack was a noise factory which afforded its occupants with very little privacy. Although the barracks comprising a block shared common mess halls, laundry facilities, latrines, and shower rooms, they were more than crudely constructed. For instance, the shower rooms did not have any partition so that the women would be taking their showers side by side just like in prison facilities. Then the toilets, although partitioned, did not have any doors. To compound the situation, camp mismanagement and profiteering aggravated the already critical levels of food and other essential items available for the Japanese Americans. Although jobs were available, wages were very low. Monthly salaries were: $19 for professionals like doctors and teachers; $16 for regular workers; and $12 for apprentices (Matsumoto).

            The author, however, explains that the women experienced a radical transformation in the face of the dismal conditions which existed in the camps. They refused to be intimidated. They struggled to improve their conditions and in the process, developed self-confidence, self-reliance, and became more independent as they realized their full potential as workers and as contributing members of their families. What many of them did, according to the author, was to experiment with the different available jobs until they could find one that best served their situations.  In order to keep their morale intact, some of them started coming out with camp newsletters which taught women how to be attractive to the opposite sex and how to choose the clothes that would emphasize their physical attributes (Matsumoto).

Matsumoto explains that the transformation of the women deeply affected the family status of the Japanese Americans. First, the single women started veering away from their parents’ practice of arranging their daughters’ marriages and instead expressed their desire to marry for love. Then when the resettlement program was implemented later in 1942 which granted temporary leave for educational and employment reasons, most of those who left the camps to take their chances in the outside world were women. They left in the face of their parents’ strong objections. Those who exited the camps ahead comprised the network which provided the necessary support and encouragement to those who decided to do so later (Matsumoto).

The labor shortage brought about by the war worked in favor of the Japanese American women and effectively helped in reducing the discrimination which they experienced before the war. In this connection, the author cites government statistics to prove her point. For instance, in 1943, most of the jobs available for the Japanese American women were in the domestic service (45% of the request from Kansas City and 61% of the request from Milwaukee). By 1950, the request for domestic service workers drastically dropped to only 10% while clerical positions made available to Japanese American women rose to forty-seven percent. Throughout her narrative, the author maintained a high level of credibility by using direct quotes lifted from revealing letters written by the Japanese American women themselves. For example, the information about the salary rates and the women’s job experiments came from a letter which was written by a woman occupant of the Poston, Arizona camp. On the other hand, the author’s source for the information concerning the camp newsletters was Lily Shoji herself, who was then writing columns in such newsletters as The Daily Tulean and the Poston Chronicle (Matsumoto).

Work Cited

Matsumoto, Valerie. “Japanese American Women during World War II.” Frontiers 8

(1984):6, 8-13. Order # 71254599 attachment.

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