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The mess hall became the demonized cause of Japanese American family breakdown, starting with the sociological studies of the incarcerees and their own complaints in camp papers. Anthropologist Jane Dusselier’s study of the foodways in the camps reveals the extent to which food became a battleground for Japanese American political agency and survival, most famously in the riots at Manzanar. However, she briefly notes, the mess halls were a more contested and resented site because of their threat to the family.3 As I argue, an examination of the lasting discussion of the mess halls shows that they were battlegrounds of Americanization and public relations. There was an extraordinarily cohesive discourse about the dangers of nonfamilial eating, a sentimental narrative that started immediately and was given renewed force in the activism and govern- mental redress movement of the 1970s and 1980s. With their bad food and worse facilities, mess halls served as potent reminders that family life and tradition had been torn apart. As the Congressional Committee on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) concluded in the 1980s, “The community feeding weakened family ties. At first families tried to stay together; some even obtained food from the mess hall and brought it back to their quarters in order to eat together. In time, however, children began to eat with their friends.”4

Recollections and descriptions of the mess halls are, thanks to oral histories, now legion. Some of the cohesion of mess hall discussions is unquestionably due to the uniformly poor conditions and food from camp to camp. What has been less studied and credited because of the tacit acceptance of the mess hall as a univer- sal evil, however, is how the dialogue regarding the mess hall in turn enabled and threatened the use of family life, especially nuclear family life, to project a public image of assimilation and Americanization. Against the image of yellow peril—in wartime, that of Japanese military hordes—the image of the family was wielded by sympathizers, administrators, and incarcerees in a number of contradictory directions to direct both outward opinion and Japanese American behavior. The mess hall served rhetorically as a euphemistic origin story for the disintegration of the family, shifting the focus away from the government’s actions. At the same time, its chaos and the juvenile delinquency it supposedly bred fed racist fears.

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The Incarcerated Family: Conditions and Administration

The mess hall was instantly caught between competing public images. Though the nuclear family and family table proved to be the images of choice to display



Politics and Mess Halls


Americanness, communal living and eating was the image that proved that these dubiously regarded Americans were not being “pampered” at a high cost to the taxpayer, a rumor that plagued the WRA, particularly in 1943. In publications ranging from pamphlet to film, the WRA notes that meals gener- ally cost much less than the allowed forty-five cents per head and were served economically “cafeteria-style,” meaning that just as in schools, factories, and other large institutions, individuals lined up to obtain food from servers and carried their trays to long communal tables.5 The “cafeteria-style” meals, por- trayed to outsiders as a financial compromise that still allowed families to eat together, were seen as the heart of the camp problem for incarcerees and the WRA administrators and sociologists, as well as sympathizers.

The WRA strove for a uniform mess hall organization within the incarcera- tion camps. Most mess halls were built to serve three hundred people and fea- tured standard tables and benches as well as plain institutional tableware. Each hall had a dedicated cooking and dishwashing staff of incarcerees, most of whom were paid the standard $16 (skilled) or $12 (unskilled) rate per month. Incarcerees lined up at mealtimes, even in inclement weather, and, according to most accounts, ate quickly and departed as soon as possible. The crowds— particularly before the incarcerees developed habits and schedules—were the chief obstacle to family dining, as the mess halls at various times were serving far more people than they had been designed to do. In her famous memoir Nisei Daughter, published in 1953, Monica Sone describes her first meal at the camp in typically quasi-comic style:

Our family had to split up, for the hall was too crowded for us to sit together. I wandered up and down the aisles, back and forth along the crowded tables and benches, looking for a few inches to squeeze into. . . . My dinner compan- ion, hooked just inside my right elbow, was a bald headed, gruff-looking Issei man who seemed to resent nestling at mealtime. Under my left elbow was a tiny, mud-spattered girl.6

Mess halls in the assembly camps were generally larger, more chaotic, and dirtier.

Within the camps, Japanese Americans tried to maintain a semblance of normal social structure through community organizations such as baseball teams, newspapers, and churches. But the physical structure of the camp nec- essarily meant that parents had less control over their children, who in some cases were sent out into the local community for school and returned home to a communal camp with multiple outside influences rather than a protective



Heidi Kathleen Kim


family home. As a source of community, food became a rare privilege, prob- lematized by rationing; initially, there were no provisions made for discretion- ary food for large parties, and these had to be specially approved. The WRA stressed the political cohesion of the “blocks,” units of barracks that had a common mess hall and bathroom facilities, but few of the incarcerees recollect any block identity.7

The deterioration of family structure caused by communal eating was partly due to the poor management of the camps and the needs of different family members. The walk back and forth, sometimes considerable for small children or the elderly, forced families to eat separately if someone stayed behind, or dis- couraged their walking back and forth with meals and empty plates. The disor- ganized assembly camps had even worse problems of long lines, overcrowding,

Figure 6.1. Santa Anita Assembly Center cafeteria. An original government photograph by Clem Albers showing a full mess hall in an assembly camp. WRA mess halls had similar designs. Original caption: “Lunch time, cafeteria style, at the Santa Anita Assembly Center where many thousands of evacuees of Japanese ancestry are temporarily housed pending transfer to War Relocation Authority Centers where they will spend the dura- tion.” Dated April 6, 1942. It is important to note that these government photos were often posed, sanitized, or censored. Many were never widely circulated. From the collection of the University of California at Berkeley, Bancroft Library, accessed through Calisphere website at http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft958008z9/?order=1.



Politics and Mess Halls


and food mismanagement, and occasionally children ran around the camps to several different mess halls.8 Eventually, sociologists found, “Groups based upon age and sex differences replaced the family as the traditional meal-time group, and became a set pattern in several centers.”9 They also became the organizational modes of social life.10

The emphasis on proper nuclear family living, even inside the camps, occa- sionally led to somewhat overstated ideals. In the Pacific Citizen, the official newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League, columnist “Ann Nisei” offered suggestions for setting up a barrack apartment with sofa/bunks and dressers for a family of two parents and two children in a “quite large” room, 16’ × 24’. The design allowed for the typical activities of “living, eating, sleep- ing, dressing, work and study” as well as “easy clean-up for Mother.” This atti- tude of making the best of the incarceration imposes American home design standards onto an imagined average family of four, either a “young Nisei cou- ple and their youngsters, or  .  .  . an Issei couple and their teen-age children.” Extended families or the all-male barracks of several camps are ignored in favor of the nuclear structure.11 The “typical” activities include “eating,” a sug- gestion that this, too, can be easily carried on in camp and imply an imagi- nary family table in this perfectly designed apartment, which notably does not include one, for most of the small space is occupied by beds and storage.

Throughout the war, there were constant pleas and talk of starting family- style dining—still in the mess halls but with guaranteed space together—some of which came to pass to an extent in certain camps. The finance and logistics of this were difficult, however, particularly with food rationing in effect. Fred J. Haller, the steward of the Heart Mountain camp, wrote in a report to Dillon Myer, head of the WRA,

From my experience cafeteria style service is the most economical for large operations. The defense plants, the army and other large operators all use cafete- ria style service. Also with the present rationing of meat and other items family style service would be most impractical as it would be impossible to insure a fair distribution. There is a certain amount of waste in both operations but it has been proven that this waste is considerably less in cafeteria style service.12

What even Haller, a tolerant and compassionate steward, glossed over was the spurious nature of a comparison of all-adult worker (some single-sex or day-only) facilities with facilities that for every meal had to serve people of all ages and health conditions.13 The incarcerees’ social and emotional needs thus ranked a distant second to economics. Stockton, one of the initial temporary



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camps dubbed “assembly centers,” allowed limited experiments with “fam- ily-style service,” but only for “children 6 years younger and their mothers.” This concession was made more to address the difficulty of a mother carrying multiple trays, and in any case, these were the only family units that were likely to manage to eat together in the mess halls.14

Attempts to control the initial traffic at mess halls, which ranged from assigned shifts to ticketing to ushers, only exacerbated the problem. Kenneth Tashiro, then a teenager, vividly remembered his first meal in Gila River: “I walked down the aisle between the rows of tables and a pretty young woman directed me toward a table at which there was one space left. I hesitated, then I heard my dad say, ‘Can we sit together as a family?’” The woman assented, and they were redirected to another table.15 It seems astonishing that it was not the common practice even to attempt to send families to sit together, but such seems to have been the case. Another similarly disgruntled incarceree wrote to the Gila newspaper, “May I ask that somebody have something done about the traffic directing system now used in the various dining halls. It seems to me that this method only tends to separate families who desire to have their meals together.”16

The WRA administrators, while relying on the nuclear family as a unit of management, admitted its sacred status at their own discretion. Family camps and family transfers took months or, in some cases, years. One woman from Hawai‘i was denied the right to have her unincarcerated eleven-year-old son transferred to her care in the camp because her parental rights were abro- gated by the internment. Historian Stephen Mak has shown that invocation of the unity of “family” became a tool used in the construction of incarceree/ internee rights for Japanese Americans, and even more for the Latin Ameri- cans of Japanese descent who were interned in the United States.17 Conversely, incarcerees cited anger over separated families in the camps as a primary rea- son that many refused to take the loyalty oaths. WRA staff members had to distinguish among “the No of protest against discrimination, the No of pro- test against a father interned apart from his family  .  .  . the No of felt loyalty to Japan,” to name only a few.18 Once a number of incarcerees had been suc- cessfully “resettled” away from the coast, the WRA even restricted visits to family members still in the camps, worried about excessive administration and traveling. But when the camps were closing and some older incarcerees were afraid to leave, having lost their homes and livelihoods, the WRA forced them out, citing as one reason: “These people would have been maintained in an institutional environment which, practically all welfare students agree, is much less desirable than a system of maintenance in private homes or normal



Politics and Mess Halls


family surroundings.”19 Suddenly, it had become essential to maintain a proper familial way of life rather than an institutional one.

Yellow Peril versus All-American Families

It is difficult to summarize all the ways that the incarceration fragmented the Japanese American nuclear family structure. Some families were sent to dif- ferent camps and had a lengthy wait before reuniting, as when the husband/ father of the family was imprisoned first or an ill or pregnant family member was kept in a hospital temporarily while the rest of the family was incarcerated. Many nisei volunteered or were drafted for military service when the ban on Japanese Americans was lifted; 30,000 Japanese Americans from Hawai‘i and the camps eventually served, and the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimen- tal Combat Team, which served in Europe, still remains the most highly dec- orated unit of its size in U.S. history. Volunteer work and contract farmwork, also depicted as patriotic by the WRA and the press, occasionally employed families or couples but tended to take men away from their families. The “resettlement” project sent many young college or work-aged nisei to the Mid- west and East, away from family and friends. Finally, the disagreement among family members about what to do about repatriation and the infamous loyalty oaths led to deep fissures.20

At the same time that camp administrators worried about the destruction of family structure by the mess halls, they also encouraged enlistment, farm- work, and resettlement, which often separated families as well. In a curious reversal of the conception of the nuclear family as keeping danger contained, these family-splitting endeavors were portrayed as useful and patriotic. Mili- tary service took older nisei away from wives and children and younger nisei away from dependent elderly parents. Farmwork was needed in order to make the camps self-sustaining, since early (spurious) criticism of the Japa- nese Americans being fed and kept idle at taxpayers’ expense made the WRA doubly determined to promote the agricultural division. Calls for workers and volunteers appealed to a sense of duty. “America’s call for food to feed her people and her Allies becomes louder and louder. . . . By [working], you will not only be helping the people in this community, but your fellow evacuees in other centers where vegetables are not being produced,” proclaimed the news- paper at the Gila River camp, where the farms’ abundance sometimes outran the manpower, though not the administrators’ ambitions.21 Outside farmwork was also seen as patriotic, but the separation of family was not prominently featured in calls for it. The Hirabayashi family illustrates this dispersal, son



Heidi Kathleen Kim

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