From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

Nikkei Women Tested: Daughter, Sister, Wife, and Mother behind Barbed Wire

Minidoka incarceration camp, Idaho, 1944, denshopd-p2-00040
"I was very angry and felt so responsible for my child."
   -- Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

Women's lives revolve around relationships, no matter what the time period. In 1942, Japanese American women's family roles were suddenly complicated by the forced eviction from their homes, and for some, the disappearance of fathers or husbands in the FBI arrests following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Densho is dedicating resources to record interviews with Nikkei women, whose stories are often less documented in oral history collections. Female narrators share their memories of fulfilling universal social and emotional duties: to be a good wife, mother, daughter, sister, is hard enough in wartime, they can attest. Imagine the additional strain of caring for family members in a primitive camp, with no personal freedom and an uncertain future.

Because the Nisei generation was primarily in their teens or young adulthood, a common thread in the interviews is a rush to marry partners rather than be separated in different incarceration camps. Kay Matsuoka had a successful dressmaking shop in Los Angeles, but was persuaded to marry a shy young man through the intervention of a matchmaker. She joined the ranks of young brides who suffered the lack of privacy in the crude conditions at Gila, Arizona: "One barrack was me and Jack, and his father and mother, and his sister and husband, and two of our…nephews. All of us in that one. If we were lucky to bring an extra bedspread, we put it up. But it wasn't soundproof or anything. We were just married one month, and you can imagine, that was our honeymoon."

One day, her husband, Jack, started hemorrhaging. Kay recalls, "At that time, my mother-in-law came to me and says, 'Don't take it bad now.' I was only married three month, so she was afraid that I'm gonna just leave him. And especially Japanese, when they detect if it's TB, that was one of the dreaded disease. It ruins the whole family lineage. So she kept saying, 'Oh, he was probably too hot and got sun stroke on the roof.' But I knew in my heart that he had TB." Kay defied the Japanese prejudice against tuberculosis:

I knew how the Japanese reacted to TB. And so when this happened to my husband, and then he being the first one to get TB in that camp, with no preparation… I said, "If there was a God," I said, "Why did he make my husband get sick?" That's how I felt. I almost rebelled, thinking, "Why?" So I had this knowledge that Japanese think it a shame, and they hide it... And there was one Issei doctor -- that was our family doctor from Los Angeles working at Gila River -- and when he heard about my husband getting TB, he called me in and said, "I wanna examine you." I said, "What for?" He said, "I wanna make sure that you're not pregnant. If you're not pregnant, I strongly urge you to separate from him." See, it's the Isseis' thinking. "Because, even if he recovers, he's gonna be an invalid and you're gonna have to take care of him. And you've only just been married three month," so he said, "I highly recommend that." Well he examined me, and I wasn't pregnant, and then he urged me. But I said, "You know, doctor, what if this role was reversed, and I had the TB? And what if he left me?" I said, "No, I'm gonna stick by him. I'm gonna make sure that he gets well. I'm gonna do all I can. I'm not gonna get divorced." And then he said, "Well, it's your choice." But that's when I really got close to him… I just vowed that I'm gonna really stick by him. And so everybody says when we get introduced, it's always together, "Kay and Jack." We go together.

Young wives became young mothers by the thousands in the detention camps. Densho interviewees describe the difficulties of caring for babies in quarters with no running water, and without basic necessities for infant care. Shigeko Sese Uno was allowed to stay in a Seattle hospital after giving birth in May 1942, while her husband and family were sent to Puyallup "assembly center." She recalls feeling luckier than her hospital roommate:

But, there's a girl in the bed next to me who was crying all day long…Our babies were born the same time. I asked her, "What's the matter?" She says, "Well, my husband is in the South Pacific somewhere." So I thought, I should be very grateful. She doesn't know where her husband is, but at least I know where my family is, even though they were behind barbed wire.... At least I knew where they were….So two weeks later, then I was able to go to this Fujin Home, the Japanese women's home, the Baptist group. I was able to stay overnight. And my husband called me, because we were told to take only what we could carry. Well, how can you carry cribs or -- all the simple things we couldn't take. So my husband says, order the kettle and pot -- he knew we needed a kettle and something to sterilize the baby's bottles and little things like that. Of course, I couldn't carry the crib there. But he asked me to pick it up, so a friend of mine did.

Many Densho interviewees recall the challenge of tending to ill children. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga expresses anger at being powerless to properly care for her daughter:

First my pregnancy. Since I was young, it was a pretty easy nine-months' gestation. It would have been easier if we had not had to have our meals, three meals outside of our own apartment. Our own apartment finally -- served as bedroom, living room, and of course, the main things we lacked were kitchen and bathroom facilities. So three meals a day we had to get in line for food, and being pregnant and suffering what most pregnant women go through -- morning sickness and nauseous period -- waiting in line for our meals during that period was very, very difficult under the conditions that existed there: the dust storms, the heat, the cold.

Then when I think of the lack of real good milk, which was considered very important for pregnant women to have, that, I think, affected my fetus a great deal. When my child was born in the camp hospital, she was born with an allergy to the powdered milk that they permitted babies to have during that time. And it was not diagnosed that she had an allergy to this powdered milk and that she should have Carnation milk in a can. I requested that for my child, but they said, "No, all that has to go to the army." To the men in the armed forces, and we would not be permitted to unless we could afford to send for it from outside. And, of course, we couldn't do that, we were earning minimum salaries which ran from twelve dollars a month, sixteen dollars a month and nineteen dollars a month...We could not afford to buy canned milk. So my daughter suffered tremendously. She was hospitalized in the camp, went in and out, in and out, with stomach disorders because of her inability to get this milk, which was, of course, the lifeline for infants at the time. Most children double their birth weight, at six months. My child had not doubled her weight in a year, she was so sick…I was very angry and felt so responsible for my child. There's nothing, nothing at all that I could do about it. And I think the lack of this important nutrition at this time of her life has affected her whole entire life. She didn't have the basic ingredients to be a healthy person.

Aiko and other mothers remember ordering baby supplies through catalogues, and laundering diapers in the common latrines, after being accustomed to using washing machines:

Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards…probably made a whole lot of money on the Japanese camp residents. We read those two catalogs like Bibles. I remember memorizing what page the chocolate candies were on in the Sears Roebuck catalog. What page the diapers were on, all those necessary things were in the Montgomery Ward catalogue. We bought diapers -- during those days there were no Pampers or Huggies. We bought diapers through the catalog. Baby clothes, layettes… I remember going through these books and thinking well, this costs three dollars, we only get sixteen dollars. How much of that -- what do we have left for the rest of the month?

The latrines, the men's latrine, the women's latrine and the laundry room, those three structures were built between rows of barracks. We mothers especially, young mothers, knew we wanted to wash our diapers in real hot water, so we'd have to get up very early in the morning before the hot water supply would run out. We'd get up very early, do our laundry and, of course, there was no washing machine then. We had a washboard, and some very rough soap, that looked like lye, big soap. Washing, rinsing and drying on the clothesline. No sooner than we had hung our diapers, we would hear somebody yelling, "Here comes a dust storm." We'd rush and take these diapers, thirty-six diapers usually for me, every day. And try to get them off the line before the dust storm came, oftentimes successfully, sometimes not. When we were not successful, there we were again back in the laundry room washing all of this again. And it wasn't just diapers, of course, it was all the other clothes, the sheets, everything was done by hand.

Ironically, living in confinement could help a mother keep track of rambunctious youngsters. Betty Fumiye Ito recalls how other women at Tule Lake, California, helped keep an eye on her daughter Ayleen:

Betty: When we were at Tule Lake, she was pretty young... I was very strict about raising my family, and if I would discipline her, she'll say, "I'm going to go far away." I said, "Oh, okay, goodbye," knowing that she couldn't go anywhere. We're in camp, you know. And she'd go around away from our barrack to another barrack, and somebody will come and say, "Oh, Mrs. Ito, did you know Ayleen is in Block so-and-so?" and I said, "Yes, I know. She said she was running away."

Densho: Were there very many other young mothers with young children?

Betty: Yes, there were lots. And then she was too young to go to nursery school, but she would sneak over there and go into the classroom, and then they'd come and tell me, "You know, Mrs. Ito, your, Ayleen is over here." It was pretty hard for me to keep her away from that school because the children were there.

Densho: Well, it sounds like Ayleen's a very independent, strong individual.

Betty: She always was.

Girls too young to be wives and mothers have left their own impressions of life in camp. A collection of letters in the Densho Digital Archive documents a high school girl's thoughts and experiences in consecutive years of letters and postcards written to her brother Joe, who left the Manzanar incarceration camp in California to attend college in Chicago. Signed "Just Masako" or "your sis," the letters describe weather, food, and goings on in the camp, from gambling at the Mayedas' to farewell parties for people leaving for the outside. She complains about final exams, asks her brother to send KoolAid, and advises him not to mention girls in his letters because "Mama" reads them and gets upset. In one letter dated February 21, 1943, Masako writes, "Mama says 'hello' & take good care of yourself. Every time she thinks of you big tears are filled in her eyes." Joe's little sister reveals how much she misses him by her conclusion:

P.S. Write soon.

P.S. Hoping to get a letter from you pretty soon.

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