The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Japanese-American Prisoners Did Not Just Go Along

Mar 28, 2022

Over the decades, little attention has been paid to one chapter of the horrible history of the internment of Japanese-Americans—that they did not simply go along with it as willing victims!

It was possible for prisoners at the camps to simply refuse to work, but if they had any special dietary needs, they needed money to buy food. If they did work, they needed money to buy work clothes. Camp directors also “offered” work as a way for prisoners to “prove their loyalty” to the United States.

In June 1942, however, 1200 prisoners at the camp in Santa Anita, California walked off their jobs producing military camouflage netting. They demanded a 4-hour workday and $41 per month, a considerable increase over the $8 to $16 per month they were being paid. A pamphlet later found by FBI agents spoke of unsafe working conditions due to working with ropes with no gloves, causing blisters, and no masks, leading to dry, bloody coughs from inhaling fibers. The pamphlet also raised the question, "Where is DEMOCRACY?... We are in a camp, now we are worse than prisoners."

In August 1942, there were two uprisings at the same camp of 3,000 and 4,000 Japanese prisoners when camp police raided prisoners’ living quarters and seized “contraband” articles like sugar, silverware, towels, and, heaven forbid, whiskey! It took 200 armed soldiers to put down what the authorities called “riots.”

In fact, Japanese-Americans carried out a series of work stoppages at camps in the fall and winter of 1942–43. The authorities often described these strikes as “riots.”

Japanese-American prisoners also resisted in smaller ways. Some spoke out against their treatment and of their pride in being Japanese. Though it was prohibited for them to hold meetings exclusively in their Japanese language and with no Caucasian present, they often did so. Reports of FBI agents tell of numerous cases in which those seen as collaborators with authorities were treated roughly.

None of this should be surprising to anyone who understands that any oppressed people will eventually resist, yet this is a history most Americans have never heard. It deserves to be told.