Living in a Relocation Center

Living in a Relocation Center. Talk given at Oberlin 2 March 1943, Correspondence Series, 2/7 Ernest H. Wilkins, Box 58, Nisei folder, Oberlin College Archives.

By Kenji Okuda
One of Three Short Talks Given in Finney Chapel on March 2, 1943, by Students of Oberlin College

On a gentle slope overlooking the Arkansas River Valley 200 miles southeast of Denver, Colorado, is a city of 7,000 residents, a city on a site which ten months ago was sagebrush, cactus, and sand. Today ten such cities, varying in size from 7,000 to 20,000 and scattered from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi, house 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, 70,000 of whom are American citizens. Supervising these cities or relocation centers is the War Relocation Authority, created by Executive Order in March, 1942, in order to provide for the planned and orderly relocation of persons evacuated from military areas on the Pacific Coast.

This newest Colorado city, Amache, approximately a mile square and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, is divided into thirty blocks of 200 to 250 residents apiece. Each block has twelve barracks 20 x 100 feet in size, built of a highly inflammable construction material, for living quarters. These barracks generally house six families, one to a room. The quarters are cramped but liveable; a huge Army-style stove, Army cots and light mattresses, a bucket and a broom are furnished by the War Relocation Authority. Individual initiative has added the home-like qualities.

Meals are prepared and served at a central mess hall in each block. The food, though substantial, is monotonous, purchased on an allotment of forty-five cents per day per person. Ration regulations are strictly followed. Coffee is limited to one cup a day served at breakfast, and sugar to one teaspoon per cup which the waitresses sparingly dole out. The meals here at Oberlin have been a welcome change from the diet of the last eight months, a diet in which meals of rice, potatoes, and macaroni were not uncommon. To feed 7,000 persons, grandmothers and babies, those who demand Oriental food and those who cannot enjoy it, is truly a job for a diplomat.

Each such center is a city in itself under the administration of the camp director and his assistants (all Caucasians) supervising the fire department, the hospital, the community stores, the public school system, and all of the other necessary functions of government. The Nisei, American citizens of Japanese ancestry, are employed in the various departments, in as wide a filed of occupations as one would find in any town of similar size, at a pay scale of $12, $16, and $19 per month. The school system, for example, consists of an elementary, junior high, and high schools meeting the requirements of the states in which the camps are located. Qualified Niseis and Caucasians carry the teaching load, the former at $19 per month, the latter at civil service pay. The classes are conducted in the barracks which were originally intended for living quarters.

As the days in these centers stretch into months, one wonders how the people are reacting, just what effects this experience has had upon these Americans. The Nisei are uncertain or themselves and their future. They wonder whether they are Americans in fact or in name only. They do not know what the outside world really thinks of them. As a result of this uncertainty and the experiences of the past nine months, the Nisei are finding it very uncomfortable to relax, to be slowly overcome by an enervating sense of indifference within the secluded confines of the their cities.

The Nisei have been disturbed and upset by the manner in which they are treated as a poltical football, told to leave the West Coast as a test of their loyalty only to find the gates being closed behind them, to read the headlines accusing the government of pampering and favoring them in the “internment camps”. It is unfortunate that newspapers never headline the actions of those who seek to discover a sane approach to this difficult problem.

Faced with this apparent stone wall of bitterness and hostility on the outside, one discovers that camp life is not at all difficult to become adjusted to. Given three meals a day, the chance to work or not as one desires, with plenty of opportunity to meet friends since all live within such a limited area, with dances, socials, and athletic events scheduled throughout the week, life can become extremely pleasant if one does not probe deeply. Each day becomes an end in itself to be lived pleasantly; but such conditions do not lead to an invigorative life, to a sensitive personality which is concerned with more than oneself or one’s physical well-being. It is this effect on the individual personality which, to me, is the most unfortunate aspect of camp life. Ironical it is that many of the intelligent young men and women feel that life in the camps is too easy for them; that they find it more and more difficult to retain the higher values of life.

What can be done to combat this situation? There appears to be but one answer. As the camps are cleared of their population, as the residents are accepted into and permitted to re-establish themselves in the American life stream, then only will this trend be stopped. Despite the ease of camp life, the Nisei are anxious to be out in America again. Hundreds have volunteered for service in the armed forces. These young men and women want to prove themselves. Will you give them the opportunity?