Following the beating of a kibei (nisei educated in Japan) in Poston concentration camp on November 14, 1942, the camp's security police rounded up about 50 Japanese Americans for questioning. They detained two suspects for further questioning, and kept them for several days in jail pending the arrival of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Meanwhile, family and friends of those two agitated for their release, reflecting the general sentiment of the camp.
Delegations from the camp's residents met with camp administrators on November 17 and 18 to insist on the men's innocence and demand their release. Those proved fruitless, so on November 18, the delegates called for a mass meeting in front of the jail where the men were being held, attracting a crowd estimated at about 2,500. The protestors demanded the unconditional and immediate release of the two prisoners. The camp administrators urged patience and rejected the demand, leading to the resignation of Poston's Community Council, Issei Advisory Board (IAB), and block managers, all of the bodies for community self-rule.
That night, November 18, Japanese Americans elected a new body called the Emergency Committee of 72 and its working core, the Emergency Council of 12. Those new governing entities called for a general strike, except for essential services like the mess hall, hospital, schools, and fire department, to shut the camp down the next day. Hardliners among Poston's administrators favored calling in the military to crush the uprising, while others urged negotiation and compromise. Japanese Americans were likewise divided, and the strikers had to exert pressure, including threats and beatings, to maintain solidarity within the group.
As described by an eyewitness, “This was no ordinary strike…. It was a community upheaval….” Blocks were organized, regular shifts of men, women, and children stood watch beside fires lit to keep the crowd warm. Flags designating each block were raised to show support for the strike. Pictures of inu or informers were posted, and speakers denounced informers and expressed repeatedly their grievances. “Community sentiment had crystallized in the demonstration, and for
the first time since evacuation there was a sense of striking back at oppressors” (Spicer et al., 133).
On November 23 and 24, negotiations to end the strike were carried out, and in those meetings it became clear that the camp residents chaffed against rules that stifled their independence. The two men held in jail simply provided an opening for a discussion of broader and deeper issues troubling Poston's residents. The strikers wanted the ability to settle disputes among Japanese Americans, greater autonomy in hiring and firing workers, and more responsibility in managing the camp's administrative and economic structures. This time, Poston's administrators granted recognition to the Emergency Committee, and released one of the prisoners but held the other for a trial to be held inside the camp. Those responses satisfied the strike leaders, and the crisis subsided.
The Poston strike followed a history of Japanese American resistance in the camp. Broadly, Japanese Americans believed the U.S. government held them against their will and without justification, and it was thus responsible for housing, feeding, and clothing them in the War Relocation Army (WRA) concentration camps. They accordingly refused to perform labor that failed to benefit them directly. The Poston Official Information Bulletin editorialized, “Let Us Cooperate,” noting many construction projects were being delayed due to a lack of workers. It argued, “whatever is constructed, planted, or built here is for our benefit,” and went on to express cooperation as a Japanese virtue, reminding readers that Japanese were never lazy and urged, “never in this history of America has a person of Japanese descent ever been on relief. Let us not spoil our fine record at Poston by breaking this splendid precedent” (Okihiro, 27).
Following WRA policy, Poston's administration limited voting and office holding and to nisei or U.S. citizens against Japanese Americans who preferred the elders, the issei, over their children. On June 5, 1942, the WRA's director, Dillon Myer, issued a directive barring issei or noncitizens from voting and holding office. Just over two weeks later on June 23, Poston's City Planning Board recommended that no distinction be made between citizens and noncitizens in voting and office holding, and proposed three branches of government in the camp. Poston's administrators, accordingly, dissolved the Planning Board three days after it defied the WRA director's instructions and sponsored an election. The camp's residents thereby lost interest in so-called self-government. As a WRA study found, “It is incorrect to assume that the residents were either entirely in favor of or vitally interested in the establishment of local government. The exclusion of Issei from office engendered some opposition. The vast majority of residents, however, remained disinterested spectators” (Okihiro, 28).
In the WRA-sponsored election, the nisei chose and served on the Community Council, which had little support. In fact, many in the camp called it a “child council” and its members, “stooges” or inu (dogs). The council operated that summer but in September 1942, in defiance of WRA policy, Poston's Japanese Americans formed the Issei Advisory Board (IAB), consisting of an issei representative for each block. During the Poston strike, 20 former IAB members were elected to the Emergency Committee of 72, and the Emergency Executive Council of 12
excluded nisei members except for a kibei, showing the community's preference for issei leaders.
After successfully negotiating the end of the strike, the Emergency Committee transformed itself into a new City Planning Board, consisting of one issei and one nisei elected from each block. The board developed plans, like the old board, for community government. The Poston strike thereby achieved its goal of a more democratic form of Japanese American self-rule within the constraints of the concentration camp. There would be no preference for U.S. citizen over noncitizen, the board decided, and issei and nisei alike could participate in voting and holding office.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Okihiro, Gary Y. “Japanese Resistance in America's Concentration Camps: A Reevaluation.” Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1973).
Spicer, Edward H., Asael T. Hansen, Katherine Luomala, and Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People: Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969.