• Art Nomura

Chapter 18, segment 3 of 3, 'Confined'

Mizuko’s next door neighbors in unit 15-6-2 also posed a problem. While the majority of inmates were employed in one of the 70+ work units at Manzanar, some did little or no work.

Mizuko’s next-door neighbors were four bachelors ranging in age from 21 to 41 years old. The three oldest were issei that had arrived in America between 1917-1919 as teenagers. A run of low paying farm jobs and other menial labor had left them financially no better off at the start of the internment than when they first arrived in America from Japan. Since the relocation had wrenched them away from whatever lives they had managed to fashion, they did not feel the inclination to contribute in any way to camp life.

They and their young Nisei roommate only took on the occasional day job to earn cigarette and a little gambling money. Since they were not regularly employed they stayed up until all hours playing cards and exchanging ribald stories. The partition between rooms was composed of a single sheet of plywood so that every word and sound produced in one unit was clearly audible in the next.

Mizuko was forever banging on their common wall to remind her neighbors to ‘keep it down’. Even after their light was finally turned off, the bachelor quartet managed to be disruptive, generating a nightly snoring cacophony.

At the opposite end of the barracks, in unit 15-6-4, Yoshiko and Sam Hasegawa enjoyed better luck with their immediate neighbors. Unit 15-6-3 housed the three Takashira siblings: Kenzo, Tomoye, and Taki. Ranging in age from twenty-six to thirty years old, they became good friends to Yoshiko and Sam. Tomoye, age twenty-nine, in particular, helped Yoshiko whenever her physical condition limited her to bed rest and continued to be a close friend after the war.

As July turned to August the evacuation of west coast Japanese and Japanese Americans neared completion. By August 12th more than 110,000 evacuees had been removed from their west coast homes to be eventually imprisoned in ten inland WRA camps.

At Manzanar the daytime temperatures soared to over 100 degrees. To stave off the unrelenting heat, the inmates of 15-6 took to soaking their sheets with water before going to sleep at night. But their efforts were often for naught. The wooden barracks structure held so much of the daytime heat throughout the night, that sleep was nearly impossible.

In addition, Mr. Hasegawa, Sam’s father, experienced night terrors. In the still of the night, when everyone had finally drifted off to a restless slumber, Kinzaburo would suddenly sit bolt upright and scream horrifically.

By August a work crew had laid down a floor of linoleum in the units of barracks 15-6. On the plus side, this modification sealed off the open knotholes and gaps between the floorboards so that less dust rose up from the ground below the barracks. Unfortunately, the linoleum also blocked off the cooler air that wafted upward from the shaded ground below.

Finally, after a string of hot, sleepless nights, Sam Hasegawa borrowed a shovel from the ditch digging crew and spent the afternoon excavating a wide hole beneath their room. That evening, he and Yoshiko, in a pronounced state of pregnancy, crawled under the barracks into the coolness of the depression. There they enjoyed their best night’s sleep in weeks.

During the days the sun shone so fiercely that the jet-black hair of many inmates was bleached a dark red. Despite the heat, calls for greater production at the net factory put an end to Mizuko’s truncated workdays. To incentivize workers to increase their productivity, awards of fresh watermelons from the camp farm were offered to the crews that made the most nets per week.

In early September, amidst this hellish mix of heat and sleep depravation, Yoshiko went into labor. With the help of her neighbors and Mizuko she made it to the camp hospital. After nearly two days of labor, unrelieved by any pain medication, her son, Roy Hasegawa, was born. Although the pregnancy was nearly full-term, Roy’s umbilical cord caught around his neck as he was emerging. The camp hospital did not have infant incubators or oxygen canisters to assist his labored breathing. After five desperate hours, the infant Roy died.

Although the hospital staff was deeply sympathetic, both the Hasegawas and Nomuras were left wondering if baby Roy would have survived had the camp facilities been equipped with the delivery room necessities common to non-WRA hospitals.

When Roy died, Mizuko wept for the first time in decades. Considering the circumstances of his death, her mantra, shikataganai, it can’t be helped, felt woefully insufficient. The fact that she was living a life of relative ease compared to the rest of her life in America furthered her sense of guilt and despair. She felt that she had done nothing to help save baby Roy.

Sam, when he returned home from a brief work furlough was inconsolable, alternating between rage and numbness. Yoshiko, on the other hand, seemed almost sanguine in her quietude. Mizuko noticed that in the aftermath of Roy’s death, Yoshiko fingered her rosary constantly and quietly moved her lips in silent prayer. Her faith in God seemed to sustain her. The following Sunday, still racked by her own grief, Mizuko attended Mass for the first time in seven years.

After the service she was invited to attend a prayer meeting of issei women at the church later that week. At the evening meeting she met Sisters Mary Bernadette and Mary Suzanna, two Maryknoll nuns from Japan who had volunteered to attend to the Catholic community in Manzanar. Their spiritual dedication, kindness, and intellect impressed Mizuko, so much so that a few weeks later, she chose to be baptized and accepted into the Catholic faith.

While life in Manzanar remained relatively easy, the morale of the inmates spiraled downward. Although Mizuko, Ayako, and Jimmy continued to take their meals together as a family along with Henry, Mikako, Yoshiko and Sam, many families splintered apart as the different generations sought out dining and social companions of their own age.

The poor quality of camp food was no longer solely attributed to cooking ineptitude. Inmates were rarely served meat, and when available it was inevitably small portions of over-cooked mutton. Sugar was non-existent. There were no jams or jellies. The only sweet spread served was medicinal-tasting apple butter. The contention over food quality escalated when rumors spread about certain camp administrators diverting food meant for the inmates and selling it on the black market for personal gain.

When Jiro returned from his work furlough from Idaho bearing gifts of store bought clothing for his mother and sister Ayako, the family was momentarily distracted from the issues at hand. But almost immediately the rift between Mizuko’s oldest sons, Henry, and Jiro widened.

Unlike most kibei in Manzanar including his brother Henry, Jiro remained level-headed about the nature of their situation, reasoning that while being incarcerated was far from ideal, that the war had created a difficult state of affairs for many, Japanese or not.

On the other hand, Henry took to attending meetings of dissident kibei, intent on confronting camp authority, including members of the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) with complaints of unfair treatment and poor living conditions. The League’s supporters were mainly well-educated Nisei, many of whom were college graduates and believed strongly in supporting the U.S., right or wrong in ordering their incarceration. In direct opposition was a coalition of Nisei who were outraged by their lost of constitutional rights, and kibei who were torn by their emotional allegiance to Japan and the negative impact of being born American. In addition, most of the kibei were angry that because of their poor English skills, they could only aspire to blue collar jobs compared to the white collar prospects of their Nisei counterparts both before and during incarceration. The push and pull between maintaining a semblance of life as ordinary citizens versus the realities of being incarcerated was continually exacerbated by the conflict between the various factions in Manzanar.

On Thanksgiving, a dinner with all the ‘fixings’ including roast turkey, stuffing and pie was served. Plans for a Christmas carnival with parade and booths were set for December 5th and 6th. At the same time plans to put the ‘camo’ net workers under a private contractor and pay them bonuses beyond standard camp pay met with stiff opposition from those that could not work at the factories and/or did not believe that Manzanar inmates should assist in the war effort.

Posters opposing the increased wages were nailed in secret on mess hall doors. Right after Thanksgiving an arson attempt of the Co-op Store was discovered and extinguished before it could cause widespread damage. Meat, eggs, butter, and sugar were severely rationed and complaints about the quality and quantity of mess hall food continued to escalate.

Animosities continued to rise as rumors of food stock pilfering by dishonest camp administrators became more and more virulent. The Nisei discounted the rumors, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The situation came to a head on December 5th, 1942.

Manzanar’s first WRA-assigned director, Roy Nash, had been using informants among the camp population as a way to learn of any potentially secret activities and to identify dissidents. Fred Tayama, one of these informants and a leader in the Nisei-supported Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL), was attacked and beaten by six masked men in his room. Despite the masks he identified one of them as Henry Ueno who happened to be the head of the Kitchen Workers Union. Ueno was arrested and jailed outside of the camp proper.

The next day a crowd, including Henry Nomura, gathered at the Administration Building demanding the release of Ueno. Ralph Merritt, who had replaced Nash as director only a few days before, asked the group leaders to tell the crowd in Japanese that Ueno would be returned to the camp, but was to be kept in custody. Instead, the leaders of the dissidents told the crowd that the prisoner would be returned to the camp, AND released later in the day.

That evening, Mikako and Mizuko begged Henry to stay away from the gathering that had been planned to celebrate Ueno’s release. Fortunately, Henry was swayed by his pregnant wife’s entreaties and decided to remain in block 15 for the night. The next morning, the shocking news spread quickly through the camp that men had been killed at the previous night’s ‘riot’ by Army gunfire when the crowd grew unruly following Ueno’s ‘non-release’.

Henry, Mikako, Mizuko, and the rest of the family heard from a neighbor about what had happened. Shocked at what could have happened had he attended, Henry pledged to not attend any further anti-administration meetings and gatherings.

“What a waste of life, let’s pray for the boys that died and see if anything can be done to comfort their families,” Mizuko urged.

After the Manzanar ‘riot’, all camp activities aside from those of basic necessity were suspended. This included publication of the Manzanar Free Press newspaper, and the closure of the Canteen and Co-op Store. The camp Christmas carnival was postponed and ultimately cancelled. The controversial camouflage factory closed its doors, putting Mizuko out of work.

The guard towers on the perimeter of Manzanar were hastily powered up and began a systematic scanning of the campgrounds with powerful searchlights mounted on the tower roofs. Some people reported being tracked by the searchlights as they went to the latrines in the middle of the night. Consequently the sense of imprisonment deepened for even the most pro-government inmate.

But as Christmas drew near, a change in camp policy lightened the mood. As a reaction to what had brought the riots to a head, new Camp Director Merritt abandoned the practice employed by his predecessor of using certain Nisei as spies. Instead he worked through and with the Japanese leadership openly regardless of their citizenship status. As a result there would be no more riots or shootings at Manzanar, but morale remained low.

The camp store and canteen re-opened a few days before Christmas and a last minute attempt was made by camp inmates to create a festive holiday feeling. However, a bitterly cold Christmas day accompanied by a blinding dust storm squelched most of the meager celebration. Nonetheless, something did occur to remind Mizuko of the Christmas spirit.

In the late afternoon of Christmas day, after the howling winds had subsided a little, Mizuko thought she heard a faint knocking. After a moment it repeated and Mizuko opened the door to her former student Abe-san, and two of her friends bundled in clothing from head to toe.

“Come in, come in, how good to see you,” Mizuko said as she waved the visitors into the warmth of the room.

Sumimasen sensei. We are so sorry to bother you like this, but we have something for you,” said Abe-san handing her a package wrapped in green tissue paper.

“Oh no,” said Mizuko, “I cannot accept anything from you.”

“Please sensei, we would be so happy if you would,” Abe-san said angling the gift closer.

Smiling despite herself Mizuko took the package and carefully opened it. “mah-mah, this is beautiful,” she said lifting a olive green knitted sweater up by its shoulders.

“We made it for you together,” Abe-san said as she made a circle gesture to include the women standing behind her.

“I knitted the body. Ito-san and Wada-san knitted the sleeves and the pockets. Please put it on. We’ve been anxious to know if it’s ok.”

Mizuko slipped the sweater on and was pleased by how well it fit and was constructed. The sleeves fell nearly to her fingertips, but she quickly pushed them up to her elbows and put her hands into the sweater’s pockets.

“This is wonderful,” she said beaming at her former students. “I have never received such a special gift before.”

The three women blushed and bowed their heads, embarrassed yet pleased by their teacher’s compliment. As Ayako and Jimmy came over to examine their handiwork, the women awkwardly said their goodbyes and left. In their dimly lit, sparsely furnished barracks room, and with the cold wind rising again outside, Mizuko thought to herself, How blessed I am.

After Christmas the onerous weather lifted, and combined with the long-awaited return of the sun, the mood of the camp started to change for the better. Preparation for oshogotsu, the coming New Year, gave camp members, Christian and Buddhist alike, a sense of common purpose and a positive alternative to rehashing the tragedy of the riots. The camp officials, aware of the importance of the New Year’s celebration and exhibiting a growing sensitivity to the bi-cultural nature of the camp’s population, made arrangements to serve traditional Japanese foods in the camp mess halls for the first time on January 1st, 1943.

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

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