Japanese-American farmers remember WWII incarceration camps

In FERN’s latest story, with KQED’s California Report, reporter Lisa Morehouse returned with some of the survivors of Japanese-American incarceration camps and their relatives to the Lake Tule camp in Northern California, where 15,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them farmers, were forced to grow food for the U.S. government. Understandably, many Japanese-Americans were deeply troubled by President Trump’s announcements of a refugee ban and suggestion of a Muslim registry.

Many of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were rounded up in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor were farmers, despite the fact that multiple laws across the country made it difficult if not impossible for them to have long-term leases on land. By 1940, the Japanese-American community cultivated nearly 40 percent of the vegetables in California, with nearly two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast working in agriculture.

“Over 1,000 Japanese-Americans worked in the fields [at Lake Tule], most earning just $12 a month, a quarter of what farmworkers made at the time,” says Morehouse. In fact, all 10 of the country’s incarceration camps had working farms, where they grew dozens of crops and raised food animals.

But even as the U.S. government made money selling the impressive amount of produce that came out of the Lake Tule fields, officials required the prisoners to complete a loyalty questionnaire. One of the questions asked: “Would you cut your ties with Japan and the emperor?” It was a trick, since the prisoners didn’t believe they had ties with the emperor in the first place. But anyone who refused to answer “yes” was jailed.

Yet for many Japanese-American prisoners, the worst fate was what happened when they returned to their farms after the war and found them in ruins, the equipment stolen and the land overgrown. “By 1960, the number of Japanese-American farmers dropped to a quarter of their pre-war presence,” says Morehouse. “With lost farms, homes, and businesses, it’s estimated that wartime incarceration cost Japanese-Americans up to $4 billion in today’s values.”