So many narratives have been told about the lives of mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children living in the relocation centers.
But one that is rarely heard is the voice of teenagers, torn from the best journey between childhood and adulthood and sent to mature in the sands of the desert.
I strive to learn about the daily lives of teenagers in the Japanese internment camps, and the ways in which they preserved their ambitions and character during those painful years.
Many described the days being hot and indistinguishable, with school being the only thing to pass the time.
Well, you know, all I remember is that in the summertime we just knocked around, tried to find a shady spot and go to the river as often as we could. –Eiko Shibayama
Tasks such as household chores and homework were attempts to drown out the monotony of camp life.
School was by far the most time-consuming event of interned teenagers' lives, but was attendance enforceable by instructors and principals? What happened when students were placed in an environment where education was suddenly not disciplined?
The classes were held just like regular schools, however the instructors were volunteers who genuinely cared about learning.
The schools held events such as fashion shows, movie showings, and dances to foster a community within their walls. Nearly all of the school events were coordinated by students.
Before there was any formal school set up, there were quite a number of the Japanese students who were seniors. So they kinda took over and they corralled us young people and tried to make us study because we didn't finish our school year. -Matsue Watanabe
Students themselves had to take initiative over their own education, as there were no disciplinary figures to even enforce the creation of a school.
The traditional structure of the Japanese-American family was upturned during the duration of the camps, so teenagers found themselves unrestrained by their once-authoritative parents.
No internee in the camp, no matter the age, could enforce disciplinary action upon students who performed badly or failed to show up for class--the only real authority rested in the hands of the guards, who cared little about the education of internees. The responsibility of classes now laid solely in the hands of the student.
While exploring the Utah State Library digital history collections, searching for items regarding the Topaz Relocation Center, I discovered a fully archived copy of the camp’s school yearbook. Titled “Ramblings”, it was an beautiful and comprehensive book that followed the journey of its students throughout the politically tumultuous year.
“We would look on Education as a life philosophy, whose purpose is boldly to oppose things which are destructive of the American ideal. Through Education we would seek to attain the ultimate end, which is to eliminate from ourselves the patterns of life which led us into this war. We, as molders of a better tomorrow, should strive indelibly to impress upon all young people a desire for truth and the inevitable enlightenment which accompanies it. To this ideal, we dedicate our annual.” --Ramblings, Dedication Page
Students were in charge of construction projects in the camps, such as building churches, medical centers, and nurseries. Even the hard labor was performed by middle and high school students in the heat of the day.
Games such as basketball and baseball gave students a chance to exercise, and there were also sports teams for activities such as soccer.
passing the time
Morimoto described attending school events like fashion shows, and movie showings, all put together by the ingenuity and innovation of students.
She spent most of her night doing household chores and homework to keep herself busy--she took camp school as seriously as a normal institution.
Simple pleasures were taken away in the camps, such as eating candy after dinner and having popsicles during a hot day.
Whereas before parents could strictly regulate when their children could leave and spend time with their friends, now they had no control due to the power imbalance.
Younger people found their parents powerless in the camps, and thus often spent the whole day away from home.
The internment camps allowed teenagers who were previously confined to academics and extracurriculars to exercise freedom and develop close bonds with their camp friends.
Intercourse between minors was much more common in the camps, as groups of friends were often left under no supervision and romantics served as a way to pass the time.
Many often described their friend groups having long conversations under the stars at night, as they had all come from different backgrounds and had much to learn about each other.
Visuals, stories, and poems from interned Japanese teenagers across the nation were featured in the book.
The poetry was a reminder of the vast isolation and displacement the teenagers felt as a result of the move, especially those torn from close friend groups and well-defined lives.
At camps like Manzanar, where there were upwards of 10,000 people, there were sizeable communities and bodies of students, but there was likely a large geographical and social divide between adolescents at any camp.