Photo Essay: Japanese American Mothers During WWII

Mothers’ Day is around the corner—which means most of us are busy getting ready to show some love and affection to the women who raised us. (Y’all should really be doing this every day, but the holiday is still a good reminder to give Mom and Baachan a call.) We’re celebrating with a look back at the strength and sacrifice shown by mothers during the trials of World War II.

The events of World War II—from forced removal and incarceration on the mainland to martial law and the separation of internee families on Hawai’i—was difficult for all Japanese Americans, regardless of age, gender or family status. But mothers faced unique challenges that compounded many of those hardships.

Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began arresting the mostly Issei men flagged as security threats during the decade of government surveillance that preceded the war. Over 1,200 businessmen, Buddhist priests, Japanese language school teachers, and other community leaders were taken into custody within the first 48 hours. That number would eventually swell to more than 5,500.

Many of these men left behind wives and children. They were picked up without warrants or charges, and families sometimes waited weeks to find out where they were being detained—in many cases learning that they had already been sent to Department of Justice internment camps like Santa Fe or Missoula. In Hawai’i, mothers faced a tough decision: remain in the territory and attempt to eke out a living under the restrictions of martial law, or submit to “voluntary” incarceration on the mainland so that they could be reunited with their spouse.

Women who had the misfortune of losing their husband to the Enemy Alien Control Program, as it came to be known, suddenly found themselves alone in a hostile environment, bearing the full responsibility for supporting their children financially and emotionally. Mako Nakagawa remembered her mother’s struggles to keep the family afloat after her father’s arrest: “My mom, she paid a high price. I think most of the Issei women paid just a dear, dear price with getting no recognition for the kind of pain that they went through. And not only was she in dire straits [because the money was frozen], she had four little girls. The oldest one was just eleven and the youngest one was just a baby yet.”

Even for mothers who were “lucky” enough to keep their families intact, preparations for removal—packing up belongings, deciding what to keep and what to sell or give away, attempting to minimize interruptions in their children’s educations, not to mention the emotional labor expected of women during family crises—proved difficult.

A mother and daughter pack their belongings in preparation for mass removal. Seattle, Washington 1942. Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry.

Mrs. Shibuya and her sons take a break from weeding their 20-acre chrysanthemum farm prior to removal. Mountain View, California, April 18, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Woman on farm preparing for removal on the following day. This mother and her children are being assisted by a friend who has come with his truck to take their possessions to the Wartime Civil Control Administration station in town. The father of this family has been interned in South Dakota. Woodland, California, May 20, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Original caption: San Francisco, California. Japanese mother, wife of interned Shinto priest with youngest of her nine children who are American born. She has been in in the United States ten years and does not speak English. Within a few days residents of Japanese ancestry will be evacuated to assembly centers and later transferred to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. April 25, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Mother with two young children waiting for bus that will take them to assembly center. Centerville, California, May 9, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Original caption: San Francisco, California. The father of these children is being held as a dangerous enemy alien. Mother and children were evacuated with other persons of Japanese ancestry to War Relocation Authority centers for the duration. April 25, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

After arriving in camp, mothers encountered a whole new set of issues. Everyday chores like laundry, housekeeping, bathing and feeding their children, and other examples of typical “women’s work” became harder in the crowded, subpar camp facilities. Women who were incarcerated in the same facility as their extended family appreciated the benefit of additional helping hands, but others who were more isolated reported feeling overwhelmed by their motherly duties.

At many of the camps men took seasonal jobs as farm laborers or factory workers that required them to be gone for months at a time, leaving their wives to take on the primary childcare responsibilities. While this was certainly a valuable means of contributing to the family’s welfare, some mothers resented the burdens imposed by these absences.

Ada Otera Endo, for one, recalled, “I felt the inequity of the whole thing. A woman is left, is stuck with everything. A man is free as a bird, and they don’t share with the care of the children or worry about their future or anything like that. They just go their own way. I felt that way.”

Pregnancy and childbirth were another challenge—and one that, with an uncertain future and limited access to reliable contraception, many women did not face entirely willingly. In an atmosphere so overtly hostile that Oklahoma Senator Jed Johnson in 1945 proposed a bill to forcibly sterilize Japanese American women, it’s no wonder that many inmates were reluctant to take on the responsibilities (and risks) of motherhood.

Planned or unplanned, 504 babies were born in the assembly centers and another 5,981 in the ten WRA camps. Most women described their prenatal, delivery and postnatal care as adequate, although complaints about inexperienced or less-than-friendly doctors were not uncommon. Incidents of deaths during childbirth caused by poor conditions in camp hospitals were also known to happen.

A mother and her children waiting in line with other new arrivals at Turlock Assembly Center. May 2, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Mothers line up to receive medical care for their babies. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Mealtime in one of the mess halls at Manzanar concentration camp. July 2, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Mother and children wait outside their assigned barracks room at Stockton Assembly Center, while father is at the baggage depot where family’s belongings are being inspected for contraband items. May 19, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Issei mother and Nisei daughter at the door to their barracks. Tanforan Assembly Center, June 16, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

A young expectant mother (center) receives a check-up from her doctor (left) in the medical clinic at Manzanar. July 3, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Mrs. Ono and new baby in their barracks at Heart Mountain. September 23, 1943. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto, courtesy of Grace Kawakami.

Gloria Oki holds her infant daughter Dianne in their barracks “apartment” at Heart Mountain. December 12, 1943. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto, courtesy of Grace Kawakami.

Gloria Oki giving Dianne a bath. Heart Mountain, February 5, 1944. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto, courtesy of Grace Kawakami.

Playing in the snow at Heart Mountain. November 22, 1944. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto, courtesy of Grace Kawakami.

Taking a walk, with Heart Mountain in the background. Photo by Yoshio Okumoto, courtesy of Grace Kawakami.

For mothers whose sons had volunteered or been drafted into military service, the constant worry for their sons’ safety was yet another reminder of their precarious situation. The irony of sending their children off to war when they themselves had been labeled dangerous and un-American was not lost.

The racial segregation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was also seen as an affront, even to women who did not object to their sons’ military service. In a few notable cases, like the Mothers of Topaz, Issei women organized to protest the induction of their sons into segregated units while their families were incarcerated, arguing that the discriminatory nature of the draft violated their Nisei children’s citizenship rights.

An Issei mother and her son, a volunteer in the U.S. Army, in the strawberry fields her children leased “so she wouldn’t have to work for somebody else” shortly before removal. The Nisei soldier is the youngest of six children she raised as a single parent after their father’s death in 1921. Florin, California, May 11, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Minoru “Min” Tsubota’s mother made this senninbari in Tule Lake. It is known as a thousand-stitch belt, and was created to protect a soldier going into battle. Each of the thousand knots was sewn by a different woman. On the belt is stitched Min’s Buddhist name, the traditional Buddhist chant of “Namu Amida Butsu,” and a dedication in English. Image courtesy of the Tsubota Family Collection.

Hana Harada accepts the Silver Star Medal posthumously awarded to her son Sgt. Charles K. Harada, who was killed in action near Castellana, Italy in July 1944. Honolulu, Hawai’i, August 25, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and the U.S. Army.

Risaku Kanaya and her husband receive the Silver Star Medal posthumously awarded to their son Pvt. Walter E. Kanaya, killed near Bruyeres, France in October 1944. Honolulu, Hawai’i, August 25, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee and the U.S. Army.

As restrictions were eased on exiting the camps and the WRA increasingly pushed a policy of assimilation and resettlement, many Japanese Americans began to relocate to the Midwest and East Coast. Often fathers would leave first to secure housing before sending for the rest of the family, which meant that the task of caring for children and elderly relatives fell to the mothers who stayed behind.

These new homes were often located in areas with small or nonexistent Nikkei populations, as the WRA tried to break up the pre-war communities and steer resettlers toward “Americanization.” In this limited social network, many mothers found themselves raising their children in a foreign place with few friends.

WRA resettlement image showing Tei Kaneko with her son Wayne (right) and nephew, Robin Isoda, at the home the two families share in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1944. Photo by the War Relocation Authority, courtesy of the Kaneko Family Collection.

WRA resettlement image showing Setsuko Isoda giving her son a bath in their new home in Milwaukee, where they have relocated from Amache. 1944. Photo by the War Relocation Authority, courtesy of the Kaneko Family Collection.

WRA resettlement image of Setsuko Isoda (left) and her sister Tei Kaneko preparing dinner for their children. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1944. Photo by the War Relocation Authority, courtesy of the Kaneko Family Collection.

In spite of the myriad challenges and difficult choices they faced during World War II, Japanese American mothers found ways to transcend the harsh conditions that threatened to tear their families apart. This Mother’s Day, we honor their legacy and express our gratitude for the women who carried the Japanese American community through the war years and beyond.

By Nina Wallace, Densho Communications Coordinator

Ada Otera Endo quoted by Susan McKay in The Courage Our Stories Tell: The Daily Lives and Maternal Child Health Care of Japanese American Women at Heart Mountain (Powell, Wyoming: Western History Publications, 2002).

[Header photo: Mother and child in camp. Rohwer, Arkansas c. 1943. Photo courtesy of the Kuroishi Family Collection.]

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