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Music in Japanese Internment Camps

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Samantha Sterthaus

on 4 December 2012

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Transcript of Music in Japanese Internment Camps

Japanese Internment Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan in December of 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order calling for the relocation of over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living along the Pacific Coast to prevent any further attack on American soil by possible Japanese combatants living in the Western United States. An Overview Japanese Internment Life in the Camps Life in exile was not easy for the internees. Many of the camps were located in the deserts where temperatures were scorching during the day and freezing at night. The camps were crowded and the internees were devoid of privacy and freedom. Several major camps even had barbed wire and chain linked fenced enclosing them. Japanese Internment Life in the Camps Continued Internees were fed inadequately, and the health consequences they suffered often went ignored, as health care services were mediocre at best. Children were forced to attend school; however, the teaching was usually left to a member of the community for minimal pay. Others could do work for the government in the camps for up to $19 per month. Entire families were moved from their homes into barracks where they often shared a single room, and as a precondition for relocation, internees were allowed little to no personal possessions, as each person was permitted no more than two bags. Social Clubs The unbearable conditions the internees faced led to the formation of social clubs in many of the internment camps to help the internees cope with life behind the fences by helping them make friends and have fun. These social clubs typically included sports, dances, and music. The Culture of Music in
Internment Camps In a sense the music showcased the identity conflict felt by many of the Japanese Americans. The internees were Japanese who still embraced their rich culture and traditions; however, they were also American, immersing themselves in the American culture and its customs. Music in the internment camps included not only traditional Japanese music but also the popular music of the time. As many internees felt forced to choose between two cultures they felt they were a part of both kinds of music were present in the camps, and both affect the lives of the internees in different ways. Traditional Music In a place where the goal was the "Americanization" of Japanese Americans it is surprising how traditional culture survived and flourished. Internees in many camps decided to hold onto their cultural heritage by teaching other internees how to play traditional Japanese instruments. Teachers could earn up to $19 per month for teaching how to play instruments such as koto (long stringed instrument), biwa (lute), and nagauta shamisen (a string instrument accompanied by voice), naniwa bushi (narrative music) and dances such as buyo to other internees. Dances and Celebrations Engei-kai and Bon Dances Engei-kai Bon Dances Music in Japanese Internment Camps By Samantha Sterthaus Western Music The performance of traditional instruments helped the Japanese remain connected to their heritage in the face of what they saw as their impending assimilation into American culture. All aspects of art were transmitted from the Issei to the Nisei including music and kabuki theater. People connected with their Japanese heritage to forge an identity when the one they had was being challenged. The traditional music and allowed the Japanese to hold firmly to their heritage, as it reminded the prisoners of their unity through common ancestry; in spite of any other differences they were one people. Bon dances (also known as ondo dances) are a common practice in Japanese culture. They are a combination of Japanese folk music and dancing that is typically performed during obon, a Buddhist event whose purpose is to honor the deceased. In the internment camps bon dances were also held for Independence Day and Labor Day. The dances typically drew thousands of spectators and participants and allowed the relocated Japanese Americans to melt their two cultures together. Engei-kai, which are similar to talent shows were a common occurrence in every camp. The show included a variety of traditional Japanese acts like music and kabuki and some non-traditional Japanese acts such as piano. They typically occurred monthly; however, in some camps they were a daily event. The engei-kai were so popular that some camps, like Rohwer and Jerome participated in engei-kai exchanged. Other camps such as Tule Lake, Poston, Gila River, and Santa Fe built amphitheaters to house the engei-kai. These performances allowed the internees to practices aspects of both cultures they felt to which they felt connected. Swing Music Minidoka Swing Band Tuxedo Junction Traditional Bon Dance Western music was not only encouraged by the War Relocation Authority, it was funded. The WRA saw music as an additional tool in assimilating the Japanese Americans into American culture. So, they sponsored music appreciation classes taught by both internees and non-internees. The Nisei participated much more heavily in the classes than the Issei, which underline the increasing trend of the cultural Westernization of the younger Japanese generation. Social clubs played a big role in the enjoyment of Western music. They hosted dances that many of the youth attended. These dances usually featured jazz or swing bands composed of the relocated Japanese Americans or some of the records and record players readily available to them. Not only did these bands spread popular American music throughout the internment camps, they also traveled to events outside the internment camps like high school proms. In this way the popular music helped the Nisei youth connect with one another in the camps, but also remain connected to the outside world and the American culture in which they grew up. Swing bands became a huge success in the relocation camps. Almost every camp had a swing band such as the Music Makers at Amache, Gila River, and Poston, the Harmonaires at Minidoka, and the Jivesters at Topaz. The bands helped the the internees connect with and reaffirm their American identity when the country doubted them. The bands played hits by the likes of Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. Internees felt the music helped them take their minds off of the reality of their imprisonment. It served as a coping mechanism, a connection to American culture, and a means of reassuring Americans who were fearful. Popular Swing Songs "Sleepy Lagoon" by Harry James was very popular in the internment camps, especially in Poston where the swing band, The Music Makers, was named after his band. Duke Ellington was another favorite in the camps. Often his music provided the faster more upbeat music played by the swing bands at socials or for fun. One of his major hits of the time was "Take the A-Train" Music as Resistance Tule Lake, California Original Compositions Comparisons Conclusion There is one example of music being used as resistance in the internment camps, Tule Lake. Tule Lake became a segregation camp where the "disloyal" internees, or "No Nos" were kept. People were determined disloyal if they answered "no" to two poorly worded questions on a questionnaire that asked if they were willing to serve in the military and if they were willing to pledge allegiance only to the United States of America. Once at Tule Lake, a group of ultra-nationalists called the Hokoku Hoshi Dan embarked on a mission to not only opposed the Japanese American assimilation into American culture but to prepare the people for a return to Japan and assimilation into Japanese culture. Their primary method of doing so was by using Japanese culture. The Hokoku Hoshi Dan offered classes in etiquette, Japanese dance, theater, language, and music. They rejected the camps attempts at introducing American culture. Music as Resistance Continued While not many songs seem to have been written in the internment camps there were select few that could be found. Many of the camp songs were published in the newsletters of the camps. Songs have been found at Gila River, Topaz, and Tule Lake. The camp songs composed at the WRA relocation camps were meant to bring the camp together through collective singing. Original Compositions Continued Pilgrimages Every few years people take pilgrimages to internment camps hoping to gain an understanding of what happened there. These pilgrimages typically contain tours, a chance to share memories and stories ceremonies honoring internees that almost always contains some form of music. Ultimately, the pilgrimages provide an opportunity to remember, honor, and understand the Japanese Americans that were interned by experiencing a short time of what they were exposed to. Although it may be uncomfortable to admit, it cannot be denied that the Japanese American Internment Camps of the 1940s were eerily similar to the concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe; therefore, it is no surprise that the role of music was similar in the two situations. Music was used in both situations as a coping mechanism, to keep a culture alive, as resistance, and even as an occupation. There are also some similarities between the use of music in the internment camps and by the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here music is used to adapt to a new and harsh environment and to feel connected to ones culture when separated from it. Music in the internment camps was a key thread that held the internees together when all they knew was being threatened. When both cultures with which they identified were not accepted they had music to keep both in their lives. In the face of unbearable circumstances and living conditions they had music to help them cope. In some cases they even had music to help them resist when they lost all hope. Ultimately, music helped the internees deal with the fact that their own country rejected them and their heritage. Music as Resistance Continued Eventually the Hokoku Hoshi Dan became more militaristic, with some members called the "Association for Serving the Mother Country" marching around the blocks to the sound of bugles. The resistance was determined so threatening at Tule Lake that Marshal Law was declared and federal troops had to occupy the camp.
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