Elected bodies that made up the core unit of inmate "self-government" in the concentration camps run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Authorized and encouraged by WRA, temporary community councils were elected in most of the WRA camps in the first few months of their existence. However, the effectiveness of the councils was compromised by the WRA's insistence that only American citizens be allowed to hold office and by the lack of any real authority granted to these bodies, both of which caused them to be held in low regard by most inmates.
Community government was an important part of WRA planning for the camps from the outset. Its first director, Milton Eisenhower, proposed a "temporary community council" in May 29, 1942 guidelines, specifying that only citizens over the age of 21 be eligible for election. This policy was consistent with the WRA's general favoring of Nisei over Issei and may also have been shaped by concerns over public relations and wanting to confer some additional benefit in camp to citizens, something leaders of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) urged. In most camps, their administrations followed these basic dictates, and temporary community councils—generally made up of one representative per block—were elected by the fall of 1942.
The ban on Issei quickly became a major problem. The leaders of the prewar Japanese American community were almost entirely Issei men. Most Nisei were still children or teenagers, and the majority of those who were adults owed their livelihoods to their parents' generation due to rampant employment discrimination that mostly kept them confined to working within the ethnic economy. Thus, the election of councils that mostly consisted of Nisei men in their twenties who had limited Japanese language ability immediately rendered those bodies illegitimate in the minds of most inmates. A further problem was the proliferation of rumors that many of these Nisei were "inu"—stool pigeons who informed on fellow Japanese to authorities—an accusation that was aimed at anyone seen as being too close to administrators. These problems were recognized almost immediately by both inmates and many WRA administrators, but the ban on Issei participation would remain intact for many more months. As a result, both inmates and administration increasingly turned to block managers—many of whom were Issei—for leadership, further delegitimizing the temporary community councils. In an attempt to address these problems, Issei advisory groups were formed in some camps, including an Issei Advisory Board at Poston and a Planning Board at Tule Lake.
The other core problem the councils faced was a basic lack of authority. Some councils did try to challenge the administration. For instance, at Poston, the council investigated the administration on several fronts, including food allocations, and formed a Judicial Commission and a "Code of Offenses," proposing that inmates be able to adjudicate minor offenses. However Poston administrators derailed any investigations by simply not responding to requests and recommendations and refused to implement the adjudication plans. In this respect, the community councils have been compared to "trustees in a prison system, monitors in a crowded school" by historian Roger Daniels.
After the uprisings/riots at Poston and Manzanar in November and December 1942 and the crisis over registration in the early months of 1943—which resulted in mass resignations of council members at several camps—the WRA finally consented to allowing Issei to serve on the councils. While one observer claimed that this move led to increased effectiveness of the councils, Sandra Taylor describes the later councils at Topaz as being dominated by "intransigent" Issei that led to councils at many camps ceasing operation by the end of 1944.
The WRA's own report conceded the ineffectiveness of the groups:
"It was not surprising that the majority of the residents who were interested—and that number was not great—considered the council less effective than the block managers, lacked confidence in its judgment—or its ability to negotiate with the administration—and resented control by the Nisei and exclusion of the Issei. Neither was it surprising that many administrators felt that the council was at best a useless and innocuous group, and at worst a trouble-making and critical group..."
A fuller study and assessment of the community councils and and of "self-government" in general remains to be conducted.
For More Information
Cates, Rita Takahashi. "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.
Hansen, Arthur A. “Cultural Politics in the Gila River Relocation Center, 1942-1943.” Arizona and the West 27 (Winter 1985): 327-62.
Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Spicer, Edward H., Asael T. Hansen, Katharine Luomala, and Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People: Japanese Americans in the Relocation Centers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969.
Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
United States. War Relocation Authority. Community Government in War Relocation Centers. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, .
- Rita Takahashi Cates, "Comparative Administration and Management of Five War Relocation Authority Camps: America's Incarceration of Persons of Japanese Descent during World War II," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1980, 313.
- Eight of the camps had councils. The two that did not were Manzanar, which relied on elected block managers, and Heart Mountain, where there was a Temporary Council of Block Chairmen, made up of appointed block chairmen who were all Issei. See Cates, "Comparative Administration," 374–76 and Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982; Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 174.
- Cates, "Comparative Administration," 331–32.
- Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 235.
- Gila River Project Attorney James Terry wrote that after Issei were allowed on the councils, "the effectiveness of the councils were greatly increased." See Cates, "Comparative Administration," 320 and Sandra C. Taylor, Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 135.
- United States, War Relocation Authority, Community Government in War Relocation Centers (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, ), 24.