• Art Nomura

Chapter 18, segment 2 of 3, 'Confined'

True to his word, Kaworu found a way to leave Manzanar.

In mid-June, 1942 he and his older brother Jiro signed up for work ‘furloughs’ in Idaho thinning sugar beets. The insatiable manpower demands of the military and wartime industry had created a labor crisis for farmers throughout the country. In the Rocky Mountain west, vast fields of sugar beets, onions, and potatoes in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana sat unattended as young men were called away to serve in the military and war related jobs. Ironically, despite reservations among some to hire ‘Jap’ laborers, inmates of the WRA concentration camps became crucial to filling the labor void.

Kaworu and Jiro were bussed to Idaho where they spent long days in the backbreaking task of thinning sugar beets. This work involved stooping over endless rows of the fledgling beets and carefully removing the less promising sprouts of the multi-stemmed root vegetable with short-handled hoes.

As the growing season progressed, work evolved to weeding, then eventually harvesting the crops. Although wages were paid, after charges for lodging and food, the net amount earned in the early work furloughs amounted to less than a dollar a day. But what motivated Kaworu and many of the other camp inmates to submit to exhausting work and sub-par living conditions was not the chance to make money, but the opportunity to breathe ‘free air’.

After the sugar beet harvest, Jiro returned to Manzanar, but Kaworu stayed on to sort and sack potatoes through the fall and early winter. When that job was done, Kaworu decided to visit the WRA camp in Minidoka, Idaho to witness what life was like in a different relocation center.

However, after an overnight look-around his visit took an unexpected turn. Even though he had been on work furlough away from Manzanar for over six months, once in Minidoka, he was not allowed to leave. nIt took him over a month and a half to obtain permission to return to Manzanar. When he finally was allowed to leave, he was accompanied by an armed soldier for the entire return trip.

While Kaworu and Jiro were away, Mizuko joined the camouflage factory work force. Although the initial job notice stipulated that workers had to be U.S. citizens, no one verified Mizuko’s status and she was put to work without any complications. She was assigned to a five-person team in one of the four eighteen-foot tall work sheds.

Most of the other workers were young Nisei in their late teens and early twenties.

Kibei inmates like Mizuko's son Henry were eligible to work at the camo factory or other camp jobs because they were U.S. citizens, but the vast majority chose not to. Most kibei felt conflicted because they had been raised in Japan, and even though they were usually not openly rooting for Japan, the idea of supporting the U.S. war effort against Japanese family and friends was emotionally untenable.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Henry had married a Nisei woman, a long-standing general animosity existed between the Nisei and the kibei. The Nisei, despite being raised by Japanese born parents had been encouraged to excel in school and in so doing, most had set their sights on attaining the mythical American Dream. The kibei, their formative values deeply influenced by the language and culture of Japan, often found the themselves at odds with Nisei values, attitudes, and behavior.

The American belief in the importance of individuality and forthrightness were in direct opposition to the Japanese acceptance of the pre-eminence of the group and the circumspect behavior necessary to maintain harmony within it. Language was also a divisive area. Japanese was the first language for the kibei, while for many of the Nisei it was a distant second, utilized only when communicating with their issei parents.

Because of the lack of kibei participation and the near absence of issei workers, the camo net factory environment felt youthfully American. Within a week American pop music blared from loud speakers throughout the factory. For the unmarried employees, working at the net factory provided a venue to meet new friends and size up prospective mates.

The tasks in the factory were rigging, folding, packing, shipping, and ‘garnishing‘ the nets. Like most of the other workers, Mizuko was employed as a garnisher. Using a pulley and rope system, a completed camouflage net was hung in tandem with the net to be worked on. The working net hung directly in front of the completed one, enabling workers to duplicate the patterns and colors employed in the finished sample. Piles of burlap strips, dyed in earth tones of greens, browns, yellows, oranges, and reds, and measuring three inches in width by two to four feet in length were stacked behind each garnishing worker.

On the large 30’ x 30’ nets, two garnishers faced each other from opposite sides of the hanging net and wove the strips by hand into the mesh. As the work progressed, the sample net and the work-in-progress were raised in tandem, so that the areas to be woven would continue to be within reach.

The work of a net garnisher was simple, but tedious. The primary challenge was not the labor itself, but the working conditions. The camouflage sheds were hot and airless, lint from the net materials filled the air, and the acrid odor of the dyed fabric was ever present.

Workers were required to wear thin cotton masks to filter out the airborne lint and dust. Monitors appeared periodically with water buckets and pushed workers to ingest salt tablets to stem the effects of dehydration. Mizuko drank the water but eschewed the tablets. Those that did swallow the tablets invariably suffered stomach upsets.

In the beginning, the crews worked an eight-hour day, not including an hour for lunch. While acclimating to the work, some of the teams left the factory exhausted, but Mizuko, the senior member of her crew, was used to working twelve-hour days on the farm and handled the job with relative ease.

Following a settling-in period, the management instituted a production quota of four nets a day per crew for the large 30’ X 30’ nets. For some crews this continued to mean a full day’s labor, but Mizuko’s crew, bolstered by her work ethic, ingenuity, and good-natured encouragement, honed their efficiency to the point where they met the day’s quota in just five hours of work. As a result, Mizuko, for the first time in her life, began to enjoy ‘leisure time’ during the workweek.

Idling away the afternoons with naps, games, or mindless chitchat like some of the other inmates never entered Mizuko’s mind. Instead, she kept herself busy sewing, knitting, and crocheting items for her family and catching up on her reading and correspondence.

As the heat of summer rose, Mizuko found it more comfortable to sit outside in the shade of the barracks than to stay inside her oven-like room. Her industriousness, skill, and friendly manner soon drew others to her. By the end of June a group of issei women joined her each afternoon, eager to learn the household arts from Mizuko and to talk about the latest camp news.

The notion of greater self-sufficiency was taking hold in Manzanar and many inmates were keen about learning how they could individually improve the quality of their lives while confined. The camp co-op store began stocking sewing supplies, fabric, and yarn that were used by many of the women to produce useful items for themselves and their families.

Mizuko was surprised to discover that many of the issei women did not know how to knit, crochet, or even sew. A patient and thorough teacher, she taught many how to recycle the army surplus clothing they received from the WRA. She taught them how to unravel the wool sweaters they were given and re-knit them into properly sized and redesigned mittens, mufflers, and sweaters.

One afternoon a regular member of the group shyly approached Mizuko.

Sumimasen, sensei, excuse me, teacher,” she said self-consciously.

“I could not help but notice that you are often reading and writing letters.”

Abe-san, an issei about Mizuko’s age, pulled a dog-eared envelope from her pocket.

“I received this letter a while ago, but it embarrasses me to say that I do not know what it says.”

“May I take a look at it?” Mizuko asked gently.

Arigato sensei.”

Please, it is not necessary to call me sensei,” Mizuko replied.

“But you certainly are, sensei,” the woman insisted.

“You have taught us how to sew and knit. We are very grateful and happy that you have taken the time to teach us,” she said gesturing toward the contented gathering of older women sitting around them.

“When I came from Japan to join my late husband on his farm in California I was only fifteen years old. I grew up on a farm in Japan and ended up doing farm work again when I came to America. My husband could read a little, but he had no time to teach me how.”

Mizuko unfolded the letter and read it, then looked up at Abe-san.

“It appears that your brother has had to leave the family farm in Wakayama-ken and move to Hiroshima. He says that they have been fortunate in finding a place to live and are able to find occasional work. He hopes that you and your husband are thriving. That is all it says.”

Totemo arigato gozaimashita, thank you very much,Abe-san replied while bowing repeatedly to Mizuko.

I was so afraid that it was news of someone’s passing. There is so much bad news these days, ne.”

“This letter is written rather simply,” Mizuko observed.

"I think it may be possible for you to read it yourself if you studied for a while. Would you like to learn?”

Emiko Abe became the first of many students whom Mizuko taught to read and write Japanese. Soon the word spread and more students joined in. Every week Mizuko taught reading and writing to a dedicated group of issei woman. As part of their instruction she read them articles from the Japanese section of the Manzanar Free Press and back issues of the Los Angeles Rafu Shimpo.

By studying the most commonly used kanji characters, plus hiragana and romaji, several of the issei learned to read then write on their own.

Being among the other issei was enlightening to Mizuko as well. Before she lived in Manzanar with other Japanese families, she thought that one’s only option as a Japanese American was to go directly to work after high school to make a living. But seeing her issei students’ children planning for college with their families’ full support and encouragement changed her mind. When Kaworu and then Ayako looked to continue their education post-high school she became a staunch supporter.

As the hot summer continued, life settled into tedium broken only by the camp’s enthusiasm for competitive sports and other recreational activities. Mizuko took a flower arranging class that helped her remember what she had learned about ikebana, flower arranging, forty years prior in Japan. Ayako began playing the violin again, a practice she had begun in the 9th grade. Jimmy and Henry took up the clarinet and saxophone respectively, while Yoshiko’s athletic husband Sam became the hot-hitting first baseman for the North Stars in the camp’s top baseball league.

Inmate-run enterprises like barber shops, beauty salons, shoe repair shops, the Canteen and co-op store strove to mirror life outside, and succeeded in providing a veneer of normalcy to camp existence. However, the fact that each inmate had lost businesses, homes, friends, and their neighborhoods because of their forced incarceration stayed in everyone’s thoughts.

Additionally, the barbed wire surrounding them and the guard towers with weapons pointed inward continuously emphasized the inmates unworthy status in the eyes of America.

The arbitrary and capricious nature of the inmates’ lives was typified by their living arrangements. With Kaworu and Jiro away on work furloughs, there were several empty beds in Mizuko’s room at 15-6-1. So in order to maximize use of their unit, the camp authorities moved a complete stranger in: Kazuma Kanno, a sixty-five year old issei man. Although he was listed on the camp register as married, his wife was not in Manzanar, a mystery that he never explained.

Short and slight, Kanno-san’s innocuous appearance contrasted to his contentious personality. After a few days of relative silence, he began offering a daily recital of grievances against the U.S. At the same time he extolled Japan and talked endlessly about how the nikkei in South America had made a better emigration choice than those that had chosen to move to the United States. Day after day, whether anyone listened or not, he would criticize the U.S. government while he advocated relocating all Japanese Americans to Peru, Uruguay, or Brazil.

Mizuko tolerated his point-of-view for a few weeks, but when he ignored her request to turn down his rhetoric in the presence of young Ayako and Jimmy, she asked him to leave. Realizing that he was speaking to an unsympathetic audience he moved to a vacant unit in Block 23 for the duration of the war.

end of Chapter 18, segment 2 or 3, 'Confined'

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