Behind the Fence: Life in the Internment Camp

Shikata Ga Nai ... It Cannot be Helped

A bus with "Sun Valley" printed on side sits with piles of luggage in front & people trying to sort it.
Workers sort the baggage of Japanese Americans after arrival at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. (Image j9CD-87A courtesy the Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley)  Enlarge image
During the summer of 1942, most evacuees from the Portland Assembly Center were transferred to newly constructed relocation centers at Minidoka, Idaho, Tule Lake, California or Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Upon arrival their evacuation from the exclusion area was complete. They were now internees. About two-thirds were Nisei American citizens, most under 21 years of age. The rest were Issei Japanese aliens prohibited by law from becoming citizens. These internees tended to be much older, averaging well over 50 years of age.

Improving the Surroundings

Soon after arriving, the residents set about improving their surroundings. The government furnished only standard Army cots, blankets and a small heating stove for each apartment. Inside the apartment, internees improvised by making shelves and furniture from whatever scraps could be found. Curtains, pictures and posters were hung to add to the livability. One internee remembered how her brother salvaged wood from the camp's scrap lumber pile to build a dresser attached to the wall studs: "Now each member of the family had one drawer for clothes." Then her brother built two standing wood frames for their mother to cover with cloth to serve as room dividers. These improved life because "we had a semblance of privacy now for dressing and sleeping."Footnote 1

Outside the barracks they planted, to the extent that the climate permitted, trees, hedges and flower beds to soften the stark environment. One resident described his experience at Manzanar, California: "Oh, it's really so hot, you see, and the wind blows. There is no shade at all. It's miserable, really. But one year after, it's quite a change. A year after they built the camp and put water there, the green grows up. And mentally everyone is better."Footnote 2 As part of the beautification, Manzanar boasted a "lovely landscaped Japanese garden" near one of its mess halls.Footnote 3

Camp Organization

Men stand in the back of a truck filled with scrap lumber pushing it off the end of the truck bed.
Workers distribute scrap lumber at the Tule Lake Relocation Center. Much of the wood was used by internees to make furniture. (Image j11DD-54A courtesy Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley)
The Japanese Americans worked to set up a generally stable small-town existence with fire and police departments, newspapers and baseball teams.Footnote 4Of course, all of this was within the limits of the WRA framework. Internees were encouraged to assume responsibility for many phases of community management, but it was always clear who was in charge. Caucasian WRA employees headed by a project director set the basic policies of each camp. From there, camps differed in their organization. Internees in some centers drew up charters and formed governments similar to ordinary cities of the same size. Other camps used more informal methods such as conferences held by a small group of key residents with the project director when important decisions were needed.

Apathy in community affairs could be a problem, particularly with the younger Nisei internees. One leader at the Tule Lake Relocation Center took his fellow internees to task at a "citizens' rally." Shaking his finger at the disappointingly small crowd attending the rally, Walter Tsukamote railed: "Look at this! We are not here to talk about our daily bread, but to discuss the vital questions affecting the very life of the nisei world. And only this many of you are interested!" He continued: "I sometimes wonder if the nisei themselves really do care to have their rights protected."Footnote 5

Camp Population

As an overview, three internees at Tule Lake wrote a letter to Governor Sprague in October 1942 outlining the general demographic and occupational numbers associated with the camp's residents:

Employment in the Centers

Thousands of internees were employed in and around a camp to keep it largely self-sufficient. Typical employees worked 44 hours a week and were paid from $12 to $19 per month. Each internee also received a small monthly allowance to purchase clothing. In October 1942 the Tule Lake Relocation Center employed about 800 workers on the 2,500 acre WRA farm project. At the time, it supplied produce for the Tule Lake camp as well as five other relocation centers totaling about 70,000 people. The 500 construction workers at Tule Lake were completing the barracks and trying to "make them more tenable for the coming winter which is more severe than the climate to which the greater majority of us have been accustomed." They were also working on an addition to the hospital as well as construction of a 20,000 hen poultry farm and a 5,000 head hog farm. Future plans included building schools since "at present the 3,971 students are crowded into makeshift buildings without adequate desk and chair facilities."

Cartoon drawing of men sitting at long table and woman in waitress outfit bringing a pitcher of liquid.
The caption of this camp newspaper drawing reads: "Smiling and obliging waitresses serve 250 diners in each mess hall." (Image: Daily Tulean Dispatch, Oct. 1, 1942, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.) Drawings of cooks and diners from the same source.
Other workers toiled in various services. The 400 maintenance men worked at duties such as: garbage disposal for the city of 15,000; janitors for the approximately 400 public buildings including mess halls, laundries, and washrooms; and a fuel detail that supplied the 7,500 boilers and stoves with coal. Meanwhile, 800 warehouse and transportation workers staffed the more than 50 warehouses that accommodated the center and the project farm, which shipped an average of seven train cars of produce daily. The 350 cooks and helpers provided three meals a day to the camp, meaning that each cook, on average, prepared meals for 45 people. The Community Welfare and Internal Security Division employed 410 firemen, fire wardens, police wardens, and other civic leaders, while more that 100 workers served as doctors, interns, orderlies, dentists, pharmacists and ambulance drivers to the Tule Lake camp. Footnote 7

Food and Dining

In addition to the produce and other food raised by the camp, the government provided meals, usually at a cost of about 45 cents per person per day. Contrary to rumors, the internees were subject to the same food rationing restrictions as other Americans. The sheer size of the task of feeding 15,000 residents was daunting. By one accounting, a typical amount of food stuffs provided to residents each day included 8,160 pounds of beef, 9,600 pounds of rice, 120 cases of eggs, 3,000 loaves of bread, 2,400 gallons of milk, and 500 pounds of sugar. Footnote 8 The meals were usually served cafeteria style in mess halls designed to seat about 250 to 300 people. A random menu might contain the following:

The choice of food on the menu was a source of constant complaint by the internees. The American born Nisei were accustomed to a more standard American diet while most Issei preferred native Japanese dishes. The menus were an attempt to compromise between the two positions. And, internees were permitted to buy additional food at the cooperative stores in the camps, although they could not purchase anything that required ration points.

Medical Care

Cartoon drawing of person at desk, school building, globe and words "high school"
Schools were staffed by both Caucasian and internee teachers. (Image: Daily Tulean Dispatch, Oct. 1, 1942, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.)
Free medical and dental care were provided to the internees in the camps by hospitals staffed largely by Japanese Americans. Infants and nursing mothers received special medical services. Residents requesting special medical treatments or procedures that were not available at the centers were required to pay for the services. Camp officials were concerned with preventing the outbreak of epidemics and therefore, considering the crowded living conditions, instituted special sanitary precautions.


The WRA provided education through the high school level for all school-age residents. Most relocation centers built high schools and used converted barracks for grade school classrooms. Often entire blocks of barracks were used for classrooms. At first school supplies and equipment were in short supply. Later, internees and people from churches and relief agencies built or donated desks, bookshelves, books, maps and other items. Footnote 10 Courses of study were planned and teachers were selected in collaboration with state departments of education following prevailing state standards.

Line of high school students in cap & gown approach stage to receive diplomas.
High school students graduate at the Tule Lake camp in 1944. (National Archives, image no. ARC 539568)
Teachers came from both Caucasian and Japanese American ranks. One internee remembered that "of my teachers, roughly half were Caucasian and the other half were 'Buddhaheads' as the young fellows referred to Japanese Americans. I vividly remember two of my Caucasian teachers, dedicated and effective, although many students were hostile and uncooperative in the classroom, probably taking out their resentment on them. Who were these individuals who gave up the freedom and comforts of the 'outside' and chose to pursue their profession in the dreary camps? They must have been compassionate and selfless persons." Footnote 11

College students could apply for indefinite leaves to attend higher education institutions located outside of the exclusion zone. According to the camp newspaper, the Daily Tulean Dispatch, students were one of several classes of individuals that could leave the camp. Still, the wait for approval could be long "because this type of leave includes both citizens and aliens, [and] the applicants must be cleared by the FBI and through the Record Office of the WRA."

Cartoon drawing of man in guard town looking through scope at guard on ground. "Guard tower sentry gate" printed.
Guard towers and fences were part of camp security. (Image: Daily Tulean Dispatch, Oct. 1, 1942, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.)
Indefinite leave opportunities also applied to internees who needed 30 days to attend to matters that required their presence elsewhere, and for employment.Footnote 12 Student departures became a regular camp occurrence that commonly was noted in the newspaper. This was the case in October 1942 at the Minidoka, Idaho camp where "a student release certificate was received...Monday for Kiyo Fujii, who left this week for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy at St. Louis, Mo. The total member [number] of students relocated is now 45."Footnote 13

Camp Security

Police services were divided at the relocation centers. Outside the center, military police guarded the boundaries and stood by to quell serious disturbances. Inside the center, a small civilian police force, headed by a Caucasian with prior police experience and several captains, maintained order. This force was also staffed by internee sergeants and patrol police who served as the bulk of the cops on the beat. Misdemeanor offenses were usually handled by the project director or a judicial commission made up of residents. Major criminal cases were referred to outside courts.


  1. "Japanese-Americans Singled Out in WW II" by Aiko H. Uyeki, Star Forum, Nov. 23, 1980, Page 1H.
  2. Gary Y. Okihiro and Joan Myers, Whispering Silences: Japanese Americans and World War II (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1996), Page 197.
  3. Excerpts of the California Senate Journal Re: "Report of the Committee on Un-American Activities Having Special Reference to Japanese Problems in California," April 16, 1945, Page 6, Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
  4. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 35.
  5. "Walter Tsukamoto: Scores Nisei Apathy for Political Affairs," Daily Tulean Dispatch, October 6, 1942, Page 1, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  6. Letter from Ichiro Hasegawa, et al to Governor Sprague, October 18, 1942. Pages 1-2, Folder 1, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  7. Ibid., Pages 2-4.
  8. "Food Supply," Daily Tulean Dispatch, Magazine Section, October 1, 1942, Page 8, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  9. Excerpts of the California Senate Journal Re: "Report of the Committee on Un-American Activities Having Special Reference to Japanese Problems in California," April 16, 1945, Page 8, Folder 4, Box 2, Gov. Snell Records, OSA.
  10. "The War Relocation Camps of World War Two, Reading 3: A Life in the Relocation Centers," National Park Service, via, Feb. 15, 2006.
  11. "Japanese-Americans Singled Out in WW II" by Aiko H. Uyeki, Star Forum, Nov. 23, 1980, Page 1H.
  12. "All Colonists May Obtain Indefinite Leaves," Daily Tulean Dispatch, Oct. 14, 1942, Page 1, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  13. "Fujii Leaves for Pharmacy School in Mo.," The Minidoka Irrigator, Oct. 21, 1942, Page 3, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.