Farming Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-Americans Remember WWII Incarceration


Many of the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as field workers, often for $12 a month. Here, incarcerees work in a carrot field.
Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project via The National Archives

At 98, Riichi Fuwa doesn’t remember his Social Security number, but he remembers this: “19949. That was my number the government gave me,” he said. “19949. You were more number than name.”

That was the number that Fuwa was assigned when he was 24 years old, soon after he was forced off his family’s farm in Bellingham, Wash., and incarcerated at the Tule Lake camp, just south of the Oregon border in California’s Modoc County.

Seventy-five years ago today, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which led all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to be forced from their homes and businesses during World War II.

Fuwa was one of almost 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most American citizens and farmers, who were incarcerated in what were euphemistically called “relocation” or “internment” camps. I met Fuwa last summer, when I joined a four-day pilgrimage to Tule Lake undertaken by survivors of the camps and their children and grandchildren.

“I wanted to see the place for the last time,” Fuwa told me.

Before the war, nearly two-thirds of West Coast Japanese-Americans worked in agriculture. People like 93-year-old Jim Tanimoto, from the Sacramento Valley town of Gridley. His father grew rice, then cultivated peaches.

Tanimoto and Fuwa’s immigrant parents faced laws barring them from owning or holding long-term leases on land. Despite that, by 1940 they and their American-born children grew almost 40 percent of the vegetables in California.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor. Resentment and hysteria grew about anyone of Japanese origin, even those born in the United States. Tanimoto remembered, “Then Executive Order 9066 was signed. Things changed.”

On Feb. 19, 1942, when President Roosevelt signed the executive order authorizing the removal of anyone from military areas, Japanese-Americans could read between the lines. They knew the order mainly targeted them. Soon, the commanding general for the West Coast determined that all people of Japanese origin – whether immigrant or U.S.-born citizen – in coastal areas had to move inland onto so-called “relocation camps.” Many had to abandon their orchards and fields, with crops ready to harvest.

“When I stepped out of the train, the terrain was not a big shock,” Tanimoto said. “I knew what the terrain looked like.”

That’s because, when he was younger, Tanimoto had hunted for deer up in the Tule Lake Basin, when all he could see was dusty land and scrub brush. When, in 1942, Tanimoto and the 15,000 other forcibly evacuated Japanese-Americans arrived at Tule Lake, they saw a landscape dominated by barracks covered in black tar paper.

“Rows and rows and rows of these buildings,” said Tanimoto. “We were inside the barbed-wire fence, the armed guard towers. We couldn’t walk out of the enclosure. I might get shot.” He remembered thinking, “Hey, I’m an American citizen! Now I’m the one being hunted.”

Jim Tanimoto and many other once-successful farm owners were about to become field workers for the U.S. government.

The guard towers and rows of barracks have long since been torn down or moved. Our guide on the pilgrimage points out the few remaining buildings, and the huge swaths of farmland once worked by Tule Lake prisoners. Over 1,000 Japanese-Americans worked in the fields, most earning just $12 a month, a quarter of what farmworkers made at the time.

Each of the 10 incarceration camps nationwide had working farms. Many of the Japanese-Americans held there, like the women above, worked as field hands.
Densho: The Japanese American Legacy via The National Archives
Agriculture wasn’t incidental at any of the incarceration camps. Many of the new War Relocation Authority administrators came right from the Department of Agriculture. Camp locations, though usually in deserts and other inhospitable places, were often chosen for their existing government irrigation projects or agricultural potential. The government’s intention was to improve the land for after the war.

Each of the 10 incarceration camps nationwide had working farms, but Tule Lake was different. The land was on a former lake bed, so despite a dusty, snowy and windy climate and a short growing season, it produced enough food for its own mess halls and those at other camps. That production was so essential that when the Tule Lake camp opened, eligible men who refused to work were threatened with $20 a month fines.

Farmworkers at Tule Lake harvested almost 30 crops, including potatoes, rutabagas and daikon radishes. They also grew grain and hay for animal feed, and kept hogs and chickens.

Before the war, Lucille Hitomi’s father ran a commercial flower business in Mountain View, Calif. At Tule Lake, he worked the fields, under white supervisors.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘I don’t know if they were good farmers,’ ” she said, but those bosses relied on the expertise of the Japanese-American laborers to develop a productive farm. To keep some semblance of normalcy, families like Hitomi’s tried to create special meals. It helped that her brother worked at the camp slaughterhouse.


A young field worker loads potatoes grown on the farm of the Tule Lake incarceration camp
National Archives

“I don’t know if this was legal,” Hitomi remembered, “but sometimes he would bring bits of meat home. My mother brought to camp a hot plate and a frying pan, and she’d cook the meat in the barrack,” instead of joining hundreds of others in the mess hall. “I guess it was more like home,” Hitomi said.

The stated purpose of these farms was to feed the incarcerated, but camp administrators took produce, grain and hay grown by these imprisoned Japanese American workers, and sold it on the open market – over 2 million tons of it from Tule Lake alone.

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The documents would expose everything: the racism inherent in the president’s executive order, the cynical politics behind it, the lies told in court to defend it.

Peter Irons was sure of this. The lawyer had stumbled across the papers in a government storeroom: secret admissions from U.S. officials that a supposed matter of national security was not what it appeared.

The executive order led to abrupt expulsions, mass detentions and the persecution of thousands on the basis of their ethnicity, but it was false to the core.

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A bus leaving Manzanar for relocation. (Ansel Adams)


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In the spring of 1942, the federal government hired a small group of photographers to document the relocation and incarceration of about 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were United States citizens living on the West Coast. Some of the photographs were used for propaganda purposes during the war to give the impression that the men, women and children were doing well in the camps. In recent decades some images, mostly by Dorothea Lange, have been published. But most of the 7,000 images in the National Archives and the Library of Congress were seldom seen until recently.

Now about 170 images – many never before published – appear in “Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” (City Files Press) by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. It tells the stories of many of the Japanese-Americans in the pictures who endured the spartan relocation centers. The book also gives a detailed account of the photographers’ experiences.

The images made by photographers working for the government’s War Relocation Authority were tightly controlled. Photographs of barbed wire, machine gun-wielding guards or dissent within the camps were forbidden, and at least 26 images were marked “impounded.” Instead, photographs of resiliency and civic engagement in the camps were encouraged. Ms. Lange left after three months. Clem Albers, a newspaper photographer from San Francisco, departed after just one month in spring 1942. But their work was carried on by others, including Francis Stewart, Tom Parker and Charles Mace.

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One thought on “Farming Behind Barbed Wire: Japanese-Americans Remember WWII Incarceration

  1. you should let your folks know about the japanese american poet coming to the sherbino in early march…

    On Feb 19, 2017 7:31 AM, “The Rōbert [Cholo] Report (pron: Rō’bear Re’por)” wrote:

    > Jerry Roberts posted: ” Many of the Japanese Americans incarcerated at > Tule Lake had been farmers before the war. At camp, they were employed as > field workers, often for $12 a month. Here, incarcerees work in a carrot > field. Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project via The ” >

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