Group of incarcerees eating special farewell seafood meal in barrack on makeshift table

Recreating a Taste of “Home”: The Challenge of Finding Good Food While Incarcerated

by Emily Anderson

The first meals at Heart Mountain and the other incarceration camps, as recalled later by former incarcerees, were inedible. For Japanese Americans exhausted from days of travel and still devastated by the disruption to their lives and careers, their first meals—consisting of Army surplus canned foods like sauerkraut and canned mini-sausages or pungent mutton stew—seemed like the last straw. Japanese immigrants and their American children were accustomed to diets with typical Japanese foods like rice, fish, soy-based products like tofu and miso, and Japanese fresh and pickled vegetables they often grew themselves. Highly processed canned foods and organ meats were foreign and difficult to stomach. In some camps, the distasteful and oddly textured meat served in mess halls led to rumors among incarcerees that they were being served horse meat. 

Food is never just about sustenance or survival; it is also about comfort, cultural adaptation and resilience, and even power. In all ten of the camps established by the government’s newly created War Relocation Authority (WRA), the “disgusting” and “ghastly” first meals were gradually replaced—through great effort and experimentation—with better fare. Incarcerees grew vegetables on large-scale farms developed within the confines of camps. Livestock—besides sheep—supplemented the cheap and offensive meats. Even more importantly, familiar vegetables, comfort foods like tofu and miso, and even fresh fish were either sourced from within the camps or brought in from the outside.

This ad from the Heart Mountain Sentinel shows some of the food products on offer at the canteen stores inside the camp. Stores also typically stocked basic food items such as dry cereal, canned soup, and coffee.
George Hirahara poses with his catch after a day of ice fishing on the Shoshone River. Incarcerees improved their diet by hooking local trout—until the state legislature banned them from seeking fishing licenses.
Photo by Frank C. Hirahara, Washington State University 

The War Relocation Authority included agricultural self-sustenance as a criterion for selecting sites for the camps. It proposed that even locations with poor soil could be transformed by incarcerees into viable farmland that would be attractive to white farmers after the war. This proposal encouraged neighboring communities to accept the controversial intrusion of a concentration camp nearby, and promoted the idea that through adding to food production—both for themselves and for possible sale on the open market—Japanese Americans were directly helping the war effort. 

WRA officials naively envisioned dozens of eager incarcerated farmers tilling the fields to produce their own food, and with such success that they would also have surplus to sell. Their vision was quickly dashed. The vast majority of incarcerees at Heart Mountain—and in most of the camps—developed their farming skills and knowledge in California. The temperate climate and year-round growing season failed to prepare them for the complex conditions in the high desert of Wyoming, the alkaline soil of central Utah, or the swamps of Arkansas. Despite the government’s insistence that the camps were built on fertile soil, the reality was that topography, elevation, climate, and soil composition severely limited what could be grown and for how long. Government officials also failed to account for how vulnerable the growing crops would be to the same harsh conditions that made human habitation challenging. 

At first, food in the Heart Mountain mess halls did not reflect typical Japanese American meals at all. This gradually changed, as incarcerees helped to supply their own fresh ingredients.
Estelle Ishigo, HMWF

In addition to growing their own produce, Heart Mountain incarcerees also raised hogs and chickens providing a steady supply of eggs and meat to the camp. Most of the food at Heart Mountain was prepared in mess hall kitchens like this one.

Photos of pigs, chicken, and kitchen courtesy of the Satoru Maeda Heart Mountain Photo Album, Gerth Archives and Special Collections, CSUDH

These challenges notwithstanding, by the end of the first year of incarceration, the initial harvest of camp-grown crops offered incarcerees more familiar and more palatable foods. In Heart Mountain, farming occurred in both formal and informal settings. Issei seed salesman Kumezo Hatchimonji helped arrange for a communal victory garden to be established on the west edge of the camp. In its first year, around 150 people, many first-time farmers, planted and harvested crops from the garden for their own consumption and for distribution in the mess halls. With Hatchimonji’s help to procure the crucial seeds necessary to grow Japanese vegetables, these crops improved the offerings in the mess halls. Simultaneously, a camp farm of over 1,400 acres was established. This farm became the main source for improvements to what was available for incarcerees to eat, producing a variety of leafy greens like nappa cabbage, spinach, takana, and shingiku, along with root vegetables that were easier to store like rutabaga, red radishes, and beets. One crucial factor unique to Heart Mountain was the arrival of Japanese Americans from Washington’s Yakima Valley, who introduced hot caps—individual greenhouse-like coverings that protected young plants—and improved the farm’s chances of successfully growing crops despite the harsh weather. 

This first harvest also produced daikon, but in order to grow Japanese crops at a large scale, it was necessary to acquire more seeds, many of which were not available outside of the west coast. In the Heart Mountain Sentinel, a simple announcement requested that people with “Japanese vegetable seeds, especially daikon, adzuki, go-bo and shiro uri seeds” sell them to the agricultural department. At the Gila River camp in Arizona, where a formal seed program was developed, a December 24, 1942 article explained that if residents could provide the Agricultural Department with Japanese vegetable seeds, it might be possible “to provide the mess halls with these products.” Furthermore, “All donors will have twice the amount of seeds returned to them after the initial planting.”  

Other important staples, like soy bean-derived tofu and miso, were manufactured onsite. Issei who had, until recently, earned their living by manufacturing tofu or miso led the effort to create and put into operation commercial factories for these essential foods. The first discussions for creating a tofu factory occurred at the Poston, Arizona camp in October 1942; half of the camps had factories up and running and supplying hundreds of cakes of tofu to mess halls by late 1943. In Heart Mountain, the tofu factory made its first batch in time for tofu to be a featured item on the 1944 New Year’s Day menu. A twelve-person crew led by Kichizo Umeno, who had operated a tofu firm in San Francisco before World War II, eventually churned out 800 cakes a day. 

Meals were served cafeteria style in the mess halls. Dinner bells at each hall signaled for incarcerees to line up at meal times, and people quickly learned to recognize the particular tone of their mess hall’s bell.
National Archives
Stanley Hayami and his family share a meal in their mess hall. The mess halls were often cramped and noisy—not the ideal place for a relaxing family dinner.
Photo by Frank C. Hirahara, Washington State University 

In addition to tofu and miso, shoyu was also produced in the Manzanar camp in California, and three kinds of noodles were made in a factory in Poston. Other camps sought out purveyors of Japanese food to provide mess halls with more appetizing food for the incarcerees. For example, until the Amache camp in Colorado had its own tofu factory, it contracted with wholesaler George T. Nagamoto, from the nearby town of Swink, for tofu. He also sold “koji, miso, shoyu, [and] agé [deep-fried tofu].” The demand for Japanese staples like soy sauce was so great that once the WRA camps were opened, Japanese groceries outside of the West Coast exclusion area faced bare shelves. Stock “dwindled to almost nothing… because inter-mountain Japanese merchants…sold their stock to various relocation centers.” Stores also frequently placed ads in camp newspapers to inform incarcerees of the availability of these staples.

Perhaps the most astonishing category of food available in the WRA camps was fresh ocean fish. To supplement meals served in the mess halls, multiple camps created fish markets where incarcerees could purchase a wide variety of seafood. In the Gila River-Courier, the opening of the fish market (a weekly market appearing in the “block 6 ironing room at Canal and block 42 at Butte”) was marked with fanfare, with an article titled: “Ika, Ten Cents a Pound.” In addition to the “slimy but delicious mollusk” ika, or squid, customers were also likely to find “sea bass, bonita (sic), pike, mackerel, sardines, oysters, shrimps, and sundry others.” The Topaz Times in Utah noted the decision to sell fish at the Topaz camp canteen in a tiny announcement at the bottom of the front page with the title, “A Fish Story.” Eventually, when the fish market opened, customers could get “buri with bone; sashimi; shrimps large size; shrimps medium size; oysters ½ pint; chicken-friers; suzuko-kasazuke; suzuko-shiozuke.” In Heart Mountain, beginning in September 1943, fresh fish was available on “Tuesday and Friday mornings at the block 21 laundry room and in the afternoons at the block 6 laundry room. James Tsuchiya, an experienced fish dealer, will be in charge.”

The expansion of available foods no doubt improved the daily mess hall experience, but holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day required special menus. Camp newspapers announced festive menus that would be made available on these occasions. Roast chicken, and occasionally roast turkey, was served as the centerpiece of these festive meals, with typical trimmings included. For example, the first Thanksgiving in Topaz featured not only turkey, but also “walnut dressing, cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes, steamed rice, green peas, pumpkin pie, tea and bread and butter.” The Heart Mountain Sentinel reported that “7,500 pounds of turkey and 600 gallons of ice cream” had been ordered for Thanksgiving in 1942, and that “Japanese food [would] be served as long as the necessary items are available.” For Christmas, most mess halls served roast chicken along with assorted vegetables and dessert.

Pounding the mochigome (sticky rice) into rice balls to be enjoyed as a New Year’s treat!
Photo by Frank C. Hirahara, Washington State University 
Asian groceries located outside the West Coast suddenly found themselves with a large population of potential new customers. They often advertised their stock in the Heart Mountain Sentinels.

New Year’s Day, or Oshōgatsu, which was also the most important holiday in Japanese culture, occasioned the most elaborate menu and required the purchase and preparation of numerous specialty foods. The most important was sticky rice, or mochigome, to make rice cakes that were a ubiquitous feature of Oshōgatsu spreads. In multiple camp newspapers, articles announced the moment mochigome had been ordered, and kept readers updated on the progress of shipments until they were safely delivered. The precious rice was distributed ahead of time, and often each camp block was responsible for providing the equipment necessary to pound steaming cooked rice into a big sticky ball. All hands would be on deck to divide up the large warm balls of sticky rice into individual morsels, enjoyed with shoyu, chestnut powder, or in bowls of special broth made especially for New Year’s Day. Other specialty dishes included onishime (simmered chicken and vegetables), kinton (pureed sweet potato and chestnuts), kuromame (sweet black beans), and sunomono (pickled vinegar salad).

For the nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II, inadequate and unpalatable food symbolized the deprivations they experienced. Carefully grown vegetables and manufactured Japanese staples like tofu, miso, and shoyu represented the resilience and ingenuity of incarcerees. Perhaps the author of the Japanese section New Year’s Day article in the Gila News-Courier put it best: “War is war, New Year’s is New Year’s. This New Year’s Day, our traditions will dance in our hearts.” Regardless of the harsh circumstances of incarceration or uncertainty and anxiety of war, food—when it was familiar and comforting—reinforced community ties and reminded incarcerees of a fundamental taste of home.

Group of incarcerees eating special farewell seafood meal in barrack on makeshift table
Enjoying a farewell seafood meal on makeshift tables in one of the barracks.
Okumoto Collection, HMWF

This article was made possible through the support of the Embassy of Japan in the United States.

Headshot of Emily Anderson, author of the food article
Emily Anderson

Emily Anderson is Project Curator at the Japanese American National Museum and a specialist on modern Japan. Having received her PhD in modern Japanese history from UCLA in 2010, she was assistant professor of Japanese history at Washington State University (Pullman, Washington) from 2010-2014, and postdoctoral fellow at University of Auckland in 2014. She is the author of Christianity in Modern Japan: Empire for God (Bloomsbury, 2014) and the editor of Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017) as well as a number of articles and book chapters on religion and imperialism in Japan and the Pacific. She also has extensive experience developing museum exhibits, including co-curating Boyle Heights: Power of Place (JANM, 2002-2003) and Cannibals: Myth and Reality (San Diego Museum of Man, 2015-ongoing). With Duncan Williams (USC), she is currently working on Sutra and Bible: Faith and Japanese American World War II Incarceration (Japanese American National Museum, opening Spring 2022).