In 1942, my grandma Setsuko Kawashiri and the rest of the Kawashiri clan were “relocated” from their home in California to the Arizona desert. Locked up and forced to live in near-inhumane conditions by the U.S. government, she spent her formative teenage years in an incarceration* camp. A period of unjust incarceration was forced upon the Japanese community during the war because they simply looked like the enemy.
My grandma and her family traveled via train to the small desert town of Parker, Arizona, where they were transferred to flatbed trucks for the ride into camp on part of a Navajo Native American Reservation. They were assigned quarters by family units and given cloth bags to fill with straw and cots to sleep on. They stowed their meager belongings (only what they could carry), made up their cots, and began their three year stay in a relocation camp alongside thousands of other Japanese Americans.
Life In The Camp
The buildings were ugly black tar-papered barracks. There were four units to most of the barracks, eighteen barracks to a block, plus a laundry room, two latrines, and a mess hall. The structures were rife with holes and the constant dust storms would leave little mounds of dust on the horizontal structural boards. Everyone carried chiffon scarves to filter out the constant dust and tote umbrellas to ward off the hot desert sun. As time went on, the incarcerated residents began to fill the spaces between the barracks with vegetables and flowers to cut down the dust somewhat.
“It took considerable time to get used to community bathing (one large room with half dozen showerheads) and rows of door-less toilet stalls,” my grandmother wrote in her essay. “There was little storage space in the barracks, but then who had things to store? We were allowed to bring only what could be carried and sharp objects were banned as were radios, cameras, etc.”
The blocks were mostly set four to a section with firebreaks dividing the sections. My family was assigned 226-11A and 11B — two whole rooms for a family with nine. The barracks were wired for electricity but there were no pipes for water, leaving grandma and her family to carry buckets of water from the taps at the end of each barrack or from the latrine if they needed hot water.
Poston was isolated by miles of sand, desert trees, and brush. So much so that there wasn’t enclosed fencing nor any guard towers, allowing everyone to roam as far as they felt. My grandmother took advantage of this, going on walks to visit family members in other camps and looking for other landmarks.
“One day my grandfather and I walked all the way to Camp III to see my aunt. It must have been at least five to ten miles of unpaved road — it took us all day to make the round trip. The Colorado River was within walking distance (perhaps 10 miles). A group of men in the block started an on-going fishing contest and the former trail made by the Indians’ horses and cows became a well used path. Even my grandfather joined the competition — he was at least 70 years old. They built a large fishpond between the two latrines and kept it filled with proof of their catches, including a few snapping turtles.”
But with the natural barriers came problems. In the flat desert there were few visible landmarks to point out direction. A few people became lost or disoriented in the brush, unable to find their way back from a walk. People were warned to carry matches for a signal fire and not walk alone. Some were even felled by heat exhaustion. Because of the wolves, there were no burials in the camp, and those who died in camp were buried in Phoenix instead. The wolves were also attracted by the smell of food and would visit the garbage cans during the night.
“One physical feature we did enjoy was the clear night sky which made it seem we could touch the star just by reaching up. One night just before the camps closed, the boys borrowed a dump truck, hosed it out, and we went out to the sand dunes and had an impromptu song fest under the stars. Someone told me that if I were to climb the water tower I could see the lights of Needles, California. I never found out whether that was true.”
My grandma also chronicled the talent, creativity, and ingenuity in the camp.
“There was a lot of talent and time in the community. They volunteered to build a swimming pool using a section of the irrigation canal. Boy, did we make use of that! That’s where I learned how to do the ‘deadman’s float.’ A piggery was established. An amphitheatre named ‘The Cottonwood Bowl’ was built with a stage and the seating was tiered (chairs not provided).”
Poston had a small two ward hospital. It was located in Camp I and had an ambulance on call for the other camps. My grandmother’s younger brother was born in the camp hospital on August 3, 1942. Grandma became acquainted with the hospital as well because she had an appendicitis attack during her second year at Poston. Her scar was about the size of a large caterpillar.
There was no police or fire station. There were a few campwide administration offices and each block had its own Block Manager. They had a canteen for the bare necessities, and everything else had to be ordered from Sears, Montgomery War, or Spiegel catalogs. “These catalogs were the most popular books around! Most of the older folk could manage ‘Sears’ but ‘Montgomery Ward’ was something else! I think the common version was ‘Mongamori,’” she wrote.
In September 1942, it was time for school. Teachers were recruited among the inmates and classes met in vacant barracks. No chairs were provided. If someone wanted to sit, they had to bring their own. There were also no textbooks. All lessons were written on the blackboard. The next year, the community set out to build a school with bricks out of adobe and volunteers. Teachers were recruited from the mainland, although some internees had to teach as well — my grandma included. The students were enthusiastic and there was a school newspaper, drama club, intramural sports, pep rallies, dances, and proms.
They did finally get a public library. That was where my grandma worked her first part-time job, filing books and reference index cards. There were less volumes there than the library she was used to back at home. She used to go to the library early with a friend to see if they could get there before the head librarian took home the one small chunk of ice allotted to the library. It was a great place to while the time away, giving my grandma the chance to learn the fundamentals of the typewriter.
She got paid about $7 per month. She also earned $5 a month tutoring a teacher’s 9-year-old son in math. Though it wasn’t a great deal of money, the highest pay in camp for any of the inmates was $19 per month for full time work and $16 for most jobs. Out of this came the cost of clothing, medicine, and other sundries. “It’s a good thing there were no stores beside the canteen. We had no money to spend!”
“There were funny things that happened too. One day the drain pipes in the laundry room became plugged up. When the plumber got to the cause of the stoppage there were a few red faces — some do-it-yourselfers had been washing rice in the tubs to make rice wine! This might have been the source of the tipsiness of my neighbor on New Year’s Day — he teasingly blocked my path when I was carrying a bucket of hot water home so I threw it at him. I guess he was embarrassed to tell my folks because there were no repercussions.”
As time went on, many of the young adults began to relocate to the “outside.” They went off to college, work, or even to the armed forces. My grandma’s uncle Yoshi was inducted into the Army and served most of his time in Belgium.
My grandma and most of our family remained in the camp for the entire three years. In 1945 the camps were scheduled to close and, with little choice, the family accepted an offer by Seabrook Farms to work in their New Jersey food processing plant. My grandma finished her essay with this final thought:
“I wish I had kept a journal during our stay in Poston. It was an unusual happening! There have been monuments erected and some have gone back on site visits. I don’t plan to do that. I would be interested to know what has happened to some of those we knew during that time.”
My Grandma and Me
The history of my grandma, my family, and the Japanese American incarceration camps is something close to my heart. As a historian, I consider it an important family legacy that I’ve inherited. Throughout my childhood and into my college years, I did many projects about her and her life in the camps, so I was able to speak to her about her experiences over those years. She never did get to read all my research or see my senior thesis get published, but she knew that I was doing it.
More than that, I just wish we had had more time together. She was my last living grandparent. The last 28 years of her life were spent battling Parkinson’s Disease before she passed away in 2013, the day after I turned 21.
Although my grandma and I lived very different lives, there are things that we have in common. Grandma chose to strike out on her own by leaving her family after New Jersey, moving to Washington D.C., and starting a new life there, while the rest of the family moved back to California.
I’ve been striking out on my own since I left for college. I went halfway across the country to go to college in Illinois, lived in Paris after graduation, moved to London to complete an M.A., and now live in Japan. Both of us are independent and adventurous.
While her sisters and one brother all married Japanese, my grandma met new people and married outside of her race at a time when it was illegal in many states for people of two different races to be married. I’m not married myself, but coincidentally my partner is half Japanese as well. He’s British though, so there’s still quite a big difference. As a Japanese Brit, he doesn’t carry the same wartime legacy as Japanese Americans. He had the chance to meet the remaining Kawashiris during a trip to California, and they all loved him, especially his accent.
My grandma was an incredibly strong woman, graced with both intelligence and kindness. I’d like to think of myself as strong as well, but it’s going to take a lot for me to get anywhere close to her level of strength.
If you’d like to learn more about the Japanese American Experience during World War II, you can check out my senior thesis at maliaogawa.com. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or similar stories and experiences you’d like to share.
This post is the second in a two-part series Learning From the Japanese American Incareration Camps. Part 1 is here.
*A previous version of this article has been amended to updated terminology, changing from ‘internment camp’ to ‘incarceration camp’ to reflect learnings and resources provided by members of the Japanese American community in how using the term ‘internment’ is a euphemism for the actual brutalities of the experiences of Japanese Americans. Please visit Densho.org to learn more. The author would also like to acknowledge that the term ‘internment camp’ in the original article is something she grew up using within her family and is progressing in her own learning journey.
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