By Ava Prince
Vocabulary note: U.S. Government agencies used neutral or vague terms to describe the Japanese American experience during World War II. Scholars and historians realized that terms such as “evacuation” and “internment” didn’t accurately describe what actually happened to thousands of individuals. You’ll find more vocabulary information in italics throughout this blog post.
We are grappling with how to reopen our schools safely, in large part because of how important school and equal access to education is for children and families. This is true even under extreme circumstances, like the current global pandemic or a “world war.” In this month’s Reading into History book club pick, Sylvia & Aki, author Winifred Conkling tells the story of two girls and their families who fought discrimination amidst World War II.
About Sylvia & Aki:
Sylvia & Aki is based on the true stories of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, whose lives intersected during World War II. Sylvia is Mexican-Puerto Rican American and Aki is Japanese American. After Aki and her family were forcibly removed from their home in Westminster, CA and sent to Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, Sylvia and her family rented the Munemitsu’s asparagus farm.
Evacuation vs. Forced Removal: The U.S. government used the term “evacuation” when Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from the West Coast. “Evacuation” implies the move was for their own safety. This was not the case. In reality, armed U.S. soldiers forcibly removed a singled-out group of people.
Alternating between Arizona and California, the novel imagines the lives of both families and girls as they struggle for access to education. When Sylvia is not allowed to go to Westminster’s “white” school, she finds herself at the center of a landmark legal battle—Mendez v. Westminster. This case laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
But what would Aki’s experience with school have been? In this post, we will explore what the historical record tells us about Aki’s experience as a student.
How did the incarceration of Japanese Americans begin?
Sylvia & Aki takes place in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Racism and prejudice towards Japanese Americans was at an all time high. (Discrimination had long impacted Japanese American farmers, who white farmers saw as competition.) On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, ordering the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.
Internment vs. Incarceration: The term “internment,” was used by the U.S. government to refer to the incarceration of “enemy aliens” (U.S. residents who came from another country). However, nearly 2/3 of incarcerated Japanese Americans were American citizens. Historians now agree that the term incarceration is more appropriate, as it reflects the conditions faced by Japanese Americans and that they were under suspicion of a crime against the country.
Aki Munemitsu was one of over 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to concentration camps under the Executive Order, which labeled her and her family as “enemy aliens.” Even though the majority of incarcerated Japanese Americans, including Aki, were American citizens, families were told to pack only what they could carry. They were forced to leave behind their property and most of their belongings. Military personnel rounded up families and brought them to barracks at one of 10 concentration camps. The U.S. government’s extreme action was not because Japanese Americans had committed crimes, but because of fear and prejudice against their racial identity. (In fact, there were only 10 people found guilty of spying for Japan during World War II. All 10 of them were white.) As Conkling writes in the novel, “For the first time in her life, Aki wondered if there was something wrong with being Japanese…. She began to think of being Japanese as not merely different, but bad.” 1
Internment Camp vs. Concentration Camp: Using the term “concentration camp” accurately describes the camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “concentration camps” as “a type of prison where large numbers of people who are not soldiers are forced to live during a time of war, usually in very bad conditions.”
What was school like for Aki?
While Sylvia fought for an equal education in California, what opportunities were there for Aki to learn at Poston War Relocation Center? We can look to oral histories and accounts from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and went to school at Poston to help us imagine Aki’s school experience.
One of the largest of the 10 concentration camps, Poston had a population of 17,814. Poston was unique as it was the only camp located within a Native American reservation, the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation consisting of four distinct groups, Chemehuevi, the Mohave, Hopi, and Navajo. It also was the only camp to have a separate elementary school complex, and this collection of buildings still stands today. At first, Aki would have attended school in makeshift classrooms set up in mess halls (cafeterias) and unused barracks. She would have either sat on the floor or had someone build a home-made chair for her to carry and to sit on during class.
How were the buildings made?
In an oral history, Florence Ohmura Dobashi describes how she would “tramp all over the camp” to attend class while the school complex was still being built, saying, “While we were doing that, the [incarcerated] adults were busy planning and building school buildings. And they built them out of adobe bricks…. They had to build, do all the labor themselves. And they got paid…something like 16 or 18 dollars a month for doing this hard labor.”2
Along with the adobe brick school complex, incarcerated Japanese Americans also built the surrounding irrigation systems and roads. This infrastructure work was one of the main reasons the U.S. federal government chose the camp’s location. The federal agency that ran the Native American reservation system took advantage of the Japanese American labor to build this cheap infrastructure.
What was it like to learn?
The school complex, like the rest of the barracks at Poston, were often overcrowded and had poor ventilation. Instructors often conducted class outdoors and had to think outside the box. Kitako Izumizaki worked as a nursery school teacher at Poston. She recalls, “We used to take the kids for a nature walk, because it’s boring just doing nothing much. And I remember this little boy, he had found little rabbit droppings, and he had picked them all up and put ’em in his pocket.”3
School supplies and equipment in the camps were always in short supply. Mas Hashimoto remembers, “we didn’t have books, paper, pencils and such for the longest time.” Along with a lack of supplies and curriculum, Hashimoto noted, “Nobody really wanted to teach U.S. history because, you know, teach about liberty and justice for all, tell us about the Constitution.” (That same Constitution allowed Hashimoto and his classmates at Poston to be imprisoned with no trial or substantial evidence.) “Some of the kids became somewhat rebellious,” says Hashimoto, “especially in civics and history classes, and I can understand that.”4
Who taught there?
Like most other camps, the majority of teaching staff at Poston was made up of college-aged nisei and sansei prisoners (nisei are second generation; sansei are third generation Japanese Americans). The rest of the teaching staff were white, often Quakers. According to Roy Kakuda, a third generation Japanese American who was imprisoned at the Poston, “The teachers were hired into the hardships of 120 degree heat, dust storms, inadequate living and working facilities with limited supplies. There was a high turnover rate because of the harsh conditions. Many of the teachers brought their families with school-age children.”5
While the white teachers and their families attended the schools they taught at, unlike their non-white students, they were not imprisoned at Poston. The U.S. government provided white teachers and their families with better housing and better food. In addition, they received much better pay than the Japanese teachers doing the same work. According to Kakuda, “Inmate teachers were paid $19 a month, about 1/10 [one tenth] of the white teacher’s salary.”6
Whether they were white or Japanese American, camp teachers were remembered fondly by past prisoners at all 10 camps, and surviving camp educators were recognized in 2005 at the Japanese American National Museum Gala Dinner. “They gave to us the link to the America we knew: the sense that not all Americans were racist, not all of them saw us as a threat but saw the potential we had as individuals,”7 said Glenn Kumekawa, who was sent to Topaz camp in Utah at age 14.
Were schools integrated?
Roy also remembers how Poston had a multiracial classes with Japanese American, Native American, and Black American students (see photo). As a docent at the Japanese American National Museum, he also heard another instance of cross-racial friendship at Poston between two boys. One was a Japanese American inmate and the other a Native American who lived close by and was permitted to attend the camp school instead. The two became close friends, attending school and playing sports together. One day, the Native American boy’s family even arranged for him to visit his friend in the evening to ride horses. While the two boys were eventually separated when the Japanese American family left the camps, their friendship made a lasting impression. Like Sylvia and Aki, the two were able to forge a connection that both transcended and combated racial inequity and exclusion by the American government.
1 Conkling, Winifred. 2011. Sylvia and Aki. Berkeley: Tricycle Press. Page 22.
2 Florence Ohmura Dobashi, interview by Tom Ikeda, January 19, 2016, (denshovh-dflorence-01-0017), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
3 Kitako Izumizaki, interview by Megan Asaka, July 28, 2008, (denshovh-ikitako-01-0015), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
4 Mas Hashimoto, interview by Tom Ikeda, July 30, 2008, (denshovh-hmas-01-0020), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
5 Roy Kakuda, “Teachers of Poston (Colorado River Relocation Center),” Discover Nikkei, Japanese American National Museum, July 21, 2020.
6 Roy Kakuda, “Teachers of Poston (Colorado River Relocation Center),” Discover Nikkei, Japanese American National Museum, July 21, 2020.
7 Watanabe, T. (2005, February 5). A Lifelong Lesson in Justice. Los Angeles Times.
Allan Austin. “National Japanese American Student Relocation Council,” Densho Encyclopedia (accessed Oct 5 2020)
Chapman, Stephanie, Jessica Keener, Nicole Sobota, and Courtney Whitmore. Prisoners at Home: Everyday Life in Japanese Internment Camps. Digital Public Library of America. July 2015.
Florence Ohmura Dobashi, interview by Tom Ikeda, January 19, 2016, (denshovh-dflorence-01-0017), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Kitako Izumizaki, interview by Megan Asaka, July 28, 2008, (denshovh-ikitako-01-0015), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Mas Hashimoto, interview by Tom Ikeda, July 30, 2008, (denshovh-hmas-01-0020), Densho Visual History Collection, Densho.
Thomas Fujita-Rony. “Poston (Colorado River),” Densho Encyclopedia.
United States National Park Service, ed. Last updated: March 11, 2019. Poston Elementary School, Unit 1, Colorado River Relocation Center. N.p.: National Park Service.
Varner, Natasha. 2016. What “Back to School” Looked Like in World War II Concentration Camps. Densho.
Watanabe, T. (2005, February 5). A Lifelong Lesson in Justice. Los Angeles Times.