The Reality of Japanese-American Internment Camp Conditions

Meghan Foreman

Approaches to History

Dr. Marcus

November 10, 2004



             On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt, by Executive Order 9066, gave the Army the authority to establish exclusive military zones in the United States and forcibly remove West Coast Japanese residents to reside in these ‘relocation centers.’  The fate of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans would forever be changed with this measure.  Executive Order 9066 also provided for the creation of the War Relocation Authority, a government agency designed to regulate the internment camps.  To track the progress of the camps, the War Relocation Authority issued quarterly reports during the first nine months of the establishing and populating of the camps to report on conditions.  In addition, pamphlets issued by the Department of Defense and War Relocation Authority intended for the public, described the purpose of the camps and the situation within.  In the public sector, individual citizens took the task upon themselves to visit the camps, providing firsthand accounts of the state of living conditions and the internee morale.  From within the centers, individuals facing the daily struggle of camp life kept detailed journals documenting their circumstances.  When these histories and commentaries on camp life are considered, reports issued by the War Relocation Authority documenting the living conditions within internment camps varies greatly from the personal accounts of both camp internees and visitors.

            The literature concerning discrepancies between reports issued by the War Relocation Authority, and documented personal stories by visitors and internees, is quite limited.  The available scholarship places more emphasis on the externals of the situation, such as the consequences of the internment to the government and the nation on a whole.  The only literature I could find serves to lend some insight on a tangential scale.  Takeya Mizuno, in an article exploring the War Relocation Authority’s policy on internee newspaper production, reaches the conclusion that the federal government used the camp newspapers to assure the public that democracy was supported and protected within the camps.[1]  The camp newspaper policy claimed to enforce the doctrine of free speech supported in the Bill of Rights, but only to the extent that “evacuees’ freedom of press was guaranteed on the condition that it would not conflict with the WRA policy.”[2]  Memos issued from the office of the War Relocation Authority dictated that broad supervisory authority within the camps was necessary in order to prevent camp newspapers from issuing anything that could be deemed problematic or undesirable.  By controlling the content, these regulations served to promote propaganda of the War Relocation Authority.  Similarly, Roger Daniels discusses the personal experiences of many interned Japanese-Americans, however, not in conjunction with the reports issued by the War Relocation Authority.[3]  Daniels concludes that conditions within the camps often resembled the suspension of constitutional law and civil liberties.  The efforts of the War Relocation Authority to pursue the greatest avenues to protect internee rights fell subject to the greater desire to enforce a favorable view of their actions. 

            The foremost expressed goal of the War Relocation Authority upon the internment of loyal and disloyal Japanese-Americans was first to provide “for well-rounded and productive evacuee communities.”[4]  It was commonly understood that idleness “would be damaging to evacuee morale, costly to the taxpayer, and inexcusable” considering the nation’s status of war.[5]  To this end, the initial report of the War Relocation Authority listed objectives as providing housing, good, medical care, work opportunities, education, internal security, community government, religion, and leisure-time activities.  Initial reports made claims to the War Relocation Authority working actively towards the resumption of normal education processes, the provision of the “fullest possible measure of autonomy in the conduct of community affairs,” and production of foods to be needed by resident internees.[6]   

            While stipulations were expressed for the resumption of normal life activities within the camps, the War Relocation Authority did express concern that “for the great majority of evacuated people, the environment of the centers – despite all efforts to make them livable – remains subnormal and probably always will.”[7]  However, the living conditions were always described as what could be expected during the time of war, and were never admitted to be as bad as both visitors and internees would depict in their letters and journals.  Every War Relocation Authority report on the conditions of the camps listed certain fallbacks of camp life and progress, but always countered that description with a positive remark.  For example, in a Second Quarterly Report dated July 1 to September 30, 1942, school conditions were described as lacking “construction materials for school buildings…qualified teachers…and…school furniture and equipment.”[8]  However, to counter that comment, the report stated that school for the evacuee children were “either open or virtually on the point of opening…as the quarter ended.”[9]  From the same report, in a section discussing medical care, the department admits that “while shortages of some drugs and supplies were encountered, all those essential to the health of the evacuee patients were available.”[10]  Consequently, the state of the camps appeared to be normal and the image provided was one of general acceptance by the internees of their situation, proud to be doing their part to make America safer.  In a particularly poignant piece of literature in the form of a pamphlet, circulated by the War Relocation Authority, describes the process of relocating Japanese-Americans and conditions within the camp.  Pictures of Japanese-Americans as they go about their daily activities accompany the writing.  The first is a woman sewing an American flag, then a family portrait from inside the camp gates, some family members relaxing in neat and tidy living quarters, eating in a dining hall, working in a field, attending a class session fully supplied, and participating in a religious service by praying.[11]  People pictured are smiling, wearing nice clothing, seemingly happy in their condition.  All evidence provided by visitors to the camps and internees themselves points to the contrary as truth.

            Ralph Smeltzer, a member of the Brethren Church, worked within the camps and produced his own reports documenting the condition of the internees.  His reports present a group of people confined to almost unbearable situations.  Within the April 21, 1942 report, Smeltzer describes how “bathing facilities were quite inadequate, running water was late in being made available and two weeks elapsed before hot water was available.”[12]  In the second report, dated May 5, 1942, a lack of plumbing supplies creates a “serious lack of sanitary facilities” leading to widespread dysentery.[13]  In a third report, dated June 8, 1942, Smeltzer describes a story wherein “some Caucasians set up tables outside the barb-wire fences and handed their Japanese friends additional food over and through the fence.”[14]  None of these conditions are to be found in any War Relocation Authority reports.

            In his sixth report, dated November 6, 1942, a full seven and a half months after the camps had opened, Smeltzer describes what continues to provide the internees with low morale and high discontent.  He details how “The rooms are too small.  Two or more families live in many rooms.  An average room is 20 feet by 24 feet” allowing each person in the room a personal space of “4 feet by 20 feet;” the living facilities have “poorly fitting windows and gaping barn-like doors;” “the poorest lumbar is used throughout,” and the “rooms are nearly always cold.”[15]  In essence, living conditions are abhorrent.

            The young internee children in these camps often have a remarkably resonant voice amongst all of the despair.  On two occasions, two separate little girls made heartbreaking comments about their life inside.  In one instance, a little girl, after only two days in a relocation center turned to her mother and said, “Mummy, I’m tired of Japan.  I want to go back home to the United States.”[16]  In another case, a little girl noticed a dog trying to climb through the barb-wire fence into a relocation center.  “Don’t come in here, little dog,” she cried. “You won’t be able to go back to America.”[17]  Even the little children of the camps understood that they were living in conditions unlike any they had experienced in America to date.

            Internees kept diaries while within the camps; however, not until recently have many come forward to make their experiences known publicly.  In the diary of Kasen Noda, she writes on the third of June, 1942, that at one of the community meetings, “Mr. Head, the project director, was introduced.  He spoke briefly, saying that he wished the Japanese would develop a system of self-government at the camp.  But if they could not govern themselves, then the army would forcefully take over the administration.”[18]  Not quite indicative of the autonomous camp government the War Relocation Authority had mentioned as a goal.  In the diary of Takeo Kaneshiro, various entries were made concerning the conditions of beds and baths.  On May 18, 1944, Kaneshiro records, “It is very cold in the morning.  I could not make myself warm with four blankets.  There was no stove in the room.”[19]  In another entry, Takeo comments that the internees “have no coal.  There has been no hot water, so no bath since yesterday.”[20]  These are the conditions that were rampant among the camps.

            With the issuance of Executive Order 9066, hundreds of thousands of peoples lives were about to change drastically.  However, it is certain that no person could have predicted quite how destitute the conditions in the camp would become, and how over the years of internment, conditions would either languish or deteriorate.  What the War Relocation Authority reports fail to reveal about the conditions is encountered in all diaries and letters of visitors to the camps and camp internees.  Accordingly, a true depiction of the life of internment camps is told and the story of the internee will not be silenced.

Works Cited


Primary Sources:

Foote, Caleb. “Outcasts! The Story of America’s Treatment of Her Japanese-American Minority.” ULV Archives.

Kaneshiro, Takeo.  Internees: War Relocation Center Memoirs and Diaries.  New York: Vantage Press, 1976.

Rosenbaum, Crane.  “Americans in Concentration Camps.” The Compass 1, no. 3 (1943): 40-43.

Smeltzer, Ralph E. A Report to the Brethren Service Committee Upon Japanese American Relations. April 21, 1942; ULV Archives.

Smeltzer, Ralph E. Report No. 2 to the Brethren Service Committee Upon Japanese American Relations. May 5, 1942; ULV Archives.

Smeltzer, Ralph E. Report No. 3 to the Brethren Service Committee Upon Japanese American Relations. June 8, 1942; ULV Archives.

Smeltzer, Ralph E. Report No. 6 to the Brethren Service Committee Upon Japanese American Relations. November 6, 1942; ULV Archives.

War Relocation Authority. First Quarterly Report: March 18 to June 30, 1942. Washington, D.C.; ULV Archives.

War Relocation Authority. Second Quarterly Report: July 1 to September 30, 1942. Washington, D.C.; ULV Archives.

War Relocation Authority. Quarterly Report: October 1 to December 31, 1942. Washington, D.C.; ULV Archives.

War Relocation Authority. Relocation of Japanese-Americans. May 1943: Washington, D.C.; ULV Archives.


Secondary Sources:

Daniels, Roger.  “Incarcerating Japanese Americans.”  Magazine of History 16, no. 3 (2002): 19-23.

Mizuno, Takeya. “The Creation of the ‘Free’ Press in Japanese-American Camps: The War      Relocation Authority’s Planning and Making of the Camp Newspaper Policy.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78, no. 3 (2001): 503-518.






[1] Mizuno, 503.

[2] Mizuno, 504.

[3] Daniels, 19.

[4] War Relocation Authority, Quarterly Report October 1 to December 31, 1942, 7.

[5] War Relocation Authority, Quarterly Report March 18 to June 30, 1942, 14.

[6] War Relocation Authority, Quarterly Report March 18 to June 30, 1942, 31.

[7] War Relocation Authority, Relocation of Japanese-Americans, 6.

[8] War Relocation Authority, 28.

[9] War Relocation Authority, 29.

[10] War Relocation Authority, 32.

[11] War Relocation Authority, Relocation of Japanese-Americans, 2, 4-8.

[13] Smeltzer, 1-2.

[16] Rosenbaum, 42.

[17] Foote, 10.

[18] Kaneshiro, 10.

[19] Kaneshiro, 63. 

[20] Kaneshiro, 76.