Guayule project

The Manzanar Guayule Project was a scientific research group based at the Manzanar concentration camp. Led by a team of Japanese American scientists in partnership with California Institute of Technology professor Robert Emerson, the project's main focus was to develop a natural rubber substitute using the guayule shrub. Unlike other labor projects such as the camouflage net factory at several other camps, the guayule project was unique because it was independent of the WCCA and WRA , and was sponsored directly by the California Institute of Technology. The Manzanar lab developed a sustainable source of rubber that exceeded the strength of traditional Hevea rubber and resulted in three journal publications, yet was terminated at the end of the war on government orders.

Background and Organization

The guayule project emerged out of the need for a rubber substitute during World War II. Prior to the war, US leaders had formulated plans for developing rubber substitutes in case of a cutoff of supplies. Following the capture of Southeast Asia in 1941-42, the Japanese Empire took control of the top growers of Hevea rubber trees, the world's principal source of latex rubber. As a result, the U.S. government created and funded the Emergency Rubber Project. Although numerous alternatives were explored, the ERP's main focus was on the guayule plant.

While the Department of Agriculture's main operation for mass producing guayule rubber was centered in Salinas, a collective of Japanese American scientists, in partnership with Cal Tech professor Robert Emerson, formed a separate lab at Manzanar with the intent of genetically engineering new strands of the plant to improve the yields and quantity of rubber produced with each batch. The scientists who participated in the project included Shimpe "Morganlander" Nishimura, a physicist and Emerson collaborator; geneticist Masuo Kodani; and chemist Kenzie Nozaki. A number of talented nurserymen, such as Frank Kageyama (brother of Mary Kageyama Nomura , the famed "songbird of Manzanar"), helped with the everyday operations of the lab. Another friend of Robert Emerson's, Hugh Anderson, frequented the lab and provided materials for the project.

The project began in April 1942, when Manzanar was still officially the Owens Valley Reception Center. Robert Emerson arrived at the camp with the first batch of guayule cuttings in a burlap sack. In its April 15, 1942 issue, the newly-founded Manzanar Free Press explained that "100,000 seedlings and cuttings arrived here last Monday Morning to be tested for its propagation here." The Free Press declared guayule the "Cinderella plant" that could "eventually solve the serious rubber shortage in this country." The laboratory also held open houses to show the progress of the project to incarcerees, display its importance, and justify its presence and use of resources in the camp. [1]

The Role of Cal Tech

From the beginning, the project was faced with a meager budget. Emergency Rubber Project funding originated from the Department of Agriculture, which was reluctant to fund outside ventures, while the War Relocation Authority, as an independent agency could not command funding on its own. By mid 1943, Emerson was reduced to self-funding his work and biking from Cal Tech to Manzanar, with Anderson driving from Salinas to Manzanar using his supply of war-ration gasoline coupons. Although Emerson and Hugh Anderson saw little financial benefit from the project, they remained dedicated to it, both for its academic potential and as a way to reduce the damage of incarceration. Both dedicated Quakers, Emerson and Anderson believed that the project carried great potential, and refused to see dozens of scientists like Nishimura reduced to menial work, as would be the result of the project folding.

Although support did not come from the government, Emerson succeeded in convincing Cal Tech's President Robert Millikan to sponsor the project. Most well-known for winning the Nobel Prize in 1923, Millikan was one of the longest serving presidents of Cal Tech and became a leader of Southern California's scientific community. While his stances on race are controversial, he stood on multiple occasions in support of Japanese Americans, including submitting written testimony in support of Japanese Americans to the California State Assembly. While the endorsement did not bring a promise of financial support, it guaranteed that the project would remain independent and would publish solely with the support of Emerson as advisor.

Poston Project

Along with the Manzanar project, Emerson made plans for a project at the Poston WRA camp. Using former Los Angeles flower grower Frank Kuwahara as the project leader, Emerson sent Kuwahara seedlings for a guayule farm shortly after the opening of Poston in July 1942. Unfortunately, the Poston project never became official; one explanation for this blamed anti-Japanese sentiment from Arizonans. Although the project was ready to begin, Governor Sidney Osborn refused to have Japanese Americans participate because he believed "the employment of persons of Japanese ancestry in Arizona would endanger the public safety." [2] While Emerson appealed to Osborne's better angels by noting the accomplishments of Japanese Americans and their acceptance in neighboring Colorado, it seems more likely than not that this prevented the expansion of the Poston project and led to its termination. Because of this, the project was limited to Manzanar.

Results and Closure

The final results of the guayule project were published two journal articles in 1944. The first, an article co-written by Emerson, Nishimura, Kageyama, and Tomoichi Hata, was published in the Journal of Botany and detailed the growth of guayule shrubs from cuttings and their potential for rubber use. The second, a collaboration between G.L. Stebbins, Jr of U.C. Berkeley and Masuo Kodani published in the Journal of Heredity in 1944, discussed the genetics of cross-breeding guayule shrubs. The team, however, was unable to procure a patent. Nonetheless, these publications confirmed that the scientists had accomplished something: they developed a natural rubber substitute that was stronger than Hevea rubber, easier to manufacture, and environmentally sustainable compared to the petroleum-based synthetic rubber that replaced it. [3] As with most academic articles, the camp scientists laid bare the steps taken by the project, the means of replicating the findings, and identified issues with the propagation process. The sections on plant anatomy—in particular optimizing plant survival through cross-breeding—is the most important contribution to the sustainability of the guayule plant in harsh weather. [4] Intermixed within the notes are allusions to the harsh climate of Manzanar faced by the incarcerated researchers such as "desiccating winds." [5] A third and final article published by the Manzanar team appeared in the November 1947 issue of the journal Industrial Engineering and Chemistry , and was authored by chemist Frank Hirosawa, Shimpe Nishimura, and Robert Emerson. [6]

Yet despite Cal Tech sponsorship, the project slowly diminished. By late 1943 publications on the project in the Manzanar Free Press diminished. Production of guayule dwindled by mid-1944, and by the end of the war the Manzanar lab was closed and the Emergency Rubber Project ceased to exist. Shortly after the closure of the lab, the remaining lab equipment was destroyed. There are two explanations for this: First, the impending closure of Manzanar in late 1945 allowed for research to return to Cal Tech. Second, pressure from rubber exporters and later oil companies influenced the government to shut down the project for good. After the war, Hugh Anderson recalled Washington ordered guayule farmers to "plough up all the fields," an amount that he valued at fifty million dollars. When Anderson bought the remaining 1,150 acres of guayule crop, the government attempted to give him $3,500 in order to destroy it. [7] Shimpe Nishimura shared Anderson's lament of the end of the project, arguing "the big oil companies wouldn't let them do it, because it meant that they could not make synthetic rubber from oil, from their oil. And so they would not be able to make it... Chevron and whatever company was too strong and they said 'No, you can't do it.'" [8] An additional article, published by Emerson, Nishimura, and chemist Frank Hirosawa, was featured in the 1947 issue of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry . [9] Beyond a brief mention of Emerson's contribution in his 1959 obituary and a 1979 article in the Pacific Citizen , publications on the project in the Japanese American press—and broader public knowledge—are nonexistent.

The guayule project represents a unique case of labor and patriotism in camp. Unlike traditional agricultural projects like the seasonal leave program, the "scientific patriotism" practiced by the scientists of the project underscored the support of outsiders like Emerson and the hypocrisy of the government's justifications for incarceration.

Authored by Jonathan van Harmelen , UC Santa Cruz

For More Information

Chiang, Connie Y. Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration . New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

———. "Winning the War at Manzanar: Environmental Patriotism and the Japanese American Incarceration." In Rendering Nature: Animals, Bodies, Places, Politics , edited by Marguerite S. Shaffer and Phoebe S.K. Young. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 237–62.

Finlay, Mark. Growing American Rubber . Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press: 2009.

van Harmelen, Jonathan. "The Scientists and the Shrub: Manzanar's Guayule Project and Incarcerated Japanese American Scientists." Southern California Quarterly 103.1 (Spring 2021): 61–98.

Okazaki, Joyce. " Rubber For The US War Effort: The Manzanar Guayule Project. " Manzanar Committee Blog, March 30, 2009.

Smocovitis, Vassiliki Betty. "Genetics Behind Barbed Wire: Masuo Kodani, Émigré Geneticists, and Wartime Genetics Research at Manzanar Relocation Center." Genetics 187.2 (Feb. 2011): 357–66.


  1. Manzanar Free Press , April 15, 1942.
  2. "Letter from Robert Emerson to Governor Osborne, March 8, 1944," RAM 25.30, Robert Millikan Papers, California Institute of Technology.
  3. "Interview with Hugh Anderson by Arthur Hansen," CSU Fullerton Oral History Program, O.H. 1473, (February 1975), 37.
  4. M.S. Nishimura, Robert Emerson, T. Hata, and Akira Kageyama, "The Propagation of Guayule from Cuttings," American Journal of Botany , 31.7 (Jul., 1944), 417.
  5. Nishimura, et al., "The Propagation of Guayule from Cuttings," 418.
  6. M.S. Nishimura, F.N. Hirosawa, and Robert Emerson, "Rubber from Guayule," Industrial Engineering and Chemistry 39.11 (November 1947).
  7. Hugh Anderson interview, 38.
  8. Mary Kageyama Nomura interview by Tom Ikeda, Segment 23, July 9, 2009, Torrance, California, Densho Visual History Collection Densho Digital Repository, accessed on March 10, 2020 at .
  9. M. S. Nishimura, F. N. Hirosawa, and Robert Emerson, "Rubber from Guayule," Industrial & Engineering Chemistry 39.11 (1947): 1477-85.

Last updated Feb. 4, 2021, 3:37 p.m..