Letter from Aiko Nakatani 1943

This document is a handwritten letter from Aiko Nakatani to Sally Lucas Jean, written in 1943. The missive is signed ‘Aiko,’ and based on the identifying information provided in the letter, such as her block number and the fact that she was Jean’s secretary, we have identified her as Aiko Nakatani. Aiko Nakatani was a young Japanese American woman from Los Angeles interned in the Poston camp in Arizona during the Second World War. While living in Los Angeles, Aiko completed four years of high school and attended Japanese language school. She could read, write and speak both English and Japanese. As a Nisei fluent in Japanese, Aiko probably would have garnered suspicion by the U.S. government in their attempts to thwart alleged espionage and conspiracy. While at Poston, Aiko worked in the health sector of the camp as the “Secretary to Health Education Consultant” (Nakatani).  At the time of this letter, Aiko was nineteen years old, living in the Poston Relocation camp in Arizona. Aiko’s father, Kakichi R. Nakatani, died in Poston after contracting an illness and being treated in the “contagion ward” (Nakatani). He was born in Japan in 1886 and lived in Japan until he was nineteen years old (Nakatani, National Archives). Aiko Nakatani’s experience in Poston illuminates several issues that are important in considering Japanese Americans’ time in incarceration camps.

This letter sheds light on an unlikely relationship as Aiko thanks Jean for teaching her career skills, providing emotional support and for bestowing gifts upon her. Aiko expresses that she looked to Jean as a role model. In Poston as well as other relocation centers, camp responsibilities often took parents away from children during meal times and other times crucial for family bonding (Sasaki interview). Children, often confused about their circumstances in camp, looked to adults other than their parents for answers. May K. Sasaki who was interned in Camp Minidoka recalls admiring a teacher in the camp who stressed to her students that being Japanese was not a crime (Sasaki interview). This was in stark contrast to the conclusions many Nisei drew on their own about why they were in camp, especially when their parents did not provide answers. Aiko worked within the camp, as many did to earn money as well as to occupy their free time and to feel like they were contributing something worthwhile. Aiko worked as a secretary for Jean and Jean provided a parental authority in Aiko’s life when her father died. Aiko acknowledges that Jean was a valuable teacher and anguishes over how she will ever be able to repay the debt. According to the letter, Jean helped Aiko develop the necessary skills to be a secretary in the camp. This ultimately gave Aiko a purpose in a place where many people felt purposeless. This occupation also gave her an opportunity to develop important skills.  Higher training was a problem in the camps, where the highest education available was high school.

Densho Interview with May K. Sasaki

Aiko’s father died prior to her writing this letter. Several incarcerees in Poston contracted polio and were placed in a separate ward; this could have included Kakichi Nakatani, as the illness from which he died is not identified in public records. Aiko speaks of the time of her father’s illness and death, thanking Jean for her support during this difficult time. Jean attended Aiko’s father’s funeral and brought flowers with a vase. Their friendship was strange given the circumstances but Aiko acknowledges this and praises Jean for her lack of “racial prejudice” This is notable, given that racial prejudice amongst Caucasians is the inherent reason that Aiko is interned in camp.

Aiko mentions her father’s death and funeral, calling attention to this somber aspect of camp life. Funerals occurred within the camp when people died while incarcerated. Flowers for the ceremony were often fashioned out of paper by internees as shown in archived photos from camp (Buddhist funeral photograph). Wreaths made out of crepe paper were common. Fresh flowers were a rarity in the dry climate of Poston and the other relocation camps in desert climates. There was a designated place in the camps for people to be buried but most internees had their deceased loved ones cremated, keeping the urn in their barracks (PJD 178). Most hoped to spread the ashes once they were released from detainment because few wanted to bury their loved ones in a place they hoped to never return after being released. Some camps built funeral parlors, which provided a venue for internees to mourn their lost relatives. Tule Lake constructed a funeral parlor that was akin in structure to a barracks (Camp funeral parlor photograph). This scanty building is likely similar to the one Jean visited to pay respects to Aiko’s father. At one specific ceremony for fallen Japanese American soldiers, a photo was taken in the camp funeral parlor where the attendees and mourning family posed in front of a cross (funeral for Nisei soldier photograph). Special religious burial rituals were difficult to accommodate. Also, few Japanese Americans could bear the emotional toll of burying someone in what was essentially the middle of nowhere. This was a place where they had suffered great injustice.

Incarceration took most of the agency away from the family unit in making arrangements for their deceased loved ones. This was one of the most agonizing violations of the freedoms of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government. Being denied the resources such as fresh flowers and the opportunity to host a reception after a funeral in the memory of a loved one was a painful restriction for many Japanese Americans in camp.

Many young women worked as secretaries within camp, like Lily Sakemi, pictured here, who is close in age to Nakatani when she worked for Jean.

Aiko’s letter to Sally Lucas Jean provides an exclusive insight into the life of a young woman whose life was interrupted by internment at Poston and how she dealt with this unjust situation. Aiko sought refuge with a slightly older Caucasian woman for whom she worked when personal tragedy befell her.  It is interesting to look at who Japanese American adolescents turned to for advice and support during their times at camp as well as the way in which death and funerals within the camps were addressed. The Japanese Americans’ times in camps such as Poston must not be forgotten because their time in camp had such profound impacts on the rest of their lives.


by Corinne Jurney

Works Cited

“List of Medical Personnel 1942,” Folder 74 in the Sally Lucas Jean papers #4290, Southern Historical     Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Letter to Sally Lucas Jean 1942,” Folder 74 in the Sally Lucas Jean papers #4290, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Nakatani, Aiko. Japanese-American Internee Data File, 1942 – 1946. Records About Japanese Americans    Relocated During World War II, created 1988 – 1989, documenting the period 1942 –   1946. Record Group 210. National Archives, Washington, DC.

Nakatani, Kakichi R. Japanese-American Internee Data File, 1942 – 1946. Records About Japanese Americans Relocated During World War II, created 1988 – 1989, documenting the period 1942 – 1946. Record Group 210. National Archives, Washington, DC.

May K. Sasaki, interview by Lori Hoshino and Alice Ito, 1997, Densho.

“Buddhist funeral” (denshopd-i39-00019), Densho, Wing Luke Asian Museum: Hatate Collection.

“Camp funeral parlor” (denshopd-i37-00205), Densho, National Archives and Records Administration Collection.

“Funeral for Nisei soldier” (denshopd-i39-00019), Densho, National Archives and Records Administration Collection.

“Lily Sakemi, age 20” War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement. January 1944. Series 12.

First letter from Jean to family and friends

Jean's Letter to Family and Friends

On October 11th, 1942, Sally Lucas Jean wrote to her family and friends about her arrival at the Poston, Arizona camp and her experiences to date. This letter goes into great detail about the camp climate, the difference in how Caucasians and Japanese Americans were treated, and the school system. Jean uses a positive and respectful tone to convey her message, while helping the reader gain insight into a worker’s experience in the camps.

Aerial view of barracks

            In this letter, Jean mentions several times how different the Caucasians and the Japanese Americans were treated. She explains to the reader how the word “Caucasian” is used to distinguish the white employees from the Japanese Americans. She describes how the white employees are housed separately and more favorably than the Japanese Americans. They are housed in single rooms with bathrooms located in their barracks. This differs from the Japanese Americans’ barracks, where an entire Japanese American family would have one space assigned to them in a barrack that was typically about fifteen by twenty feet (“Oregon”). Their bathrooms would be located in a central location. Bathrooms were shared by upwards of 250 people with no partitions between the toilets or the showers. This gave them little privacy (“Relocation”). In some cases the sewer systems had not been built yet, forcing the residents to use outhouses (PJD 160)

Child eating in mess hall

The second time Jean shows this imbalance is when she says that, while the employees are served in a mess hall like the Japanese Americans, their food portions are more generous and have a greater variety.  The Japanese American’s’ provisions customarily consisted of canned rations and boiled potatoes. The most common meals were wieners, dry fish, rice, macaroni, and pickled vegetables (PJD 89). The milk was only for the children and often there were no fresh vegetables or fruit (“Food”). Many of the Japanese Americans were used to rice and vegetables, which made this food indigestible.

Sally Lucas Jean displays prejudice in her letter by saying that the Japanese Americans pay nothing for food or shelter. Her sentence implies that they are fortunate to be housed in the camps as well as lazy for not paying their way. However, this was a mandatory move for the Japanese Americans that took years out of their lives and they lost all citizenship rights. Japanese Americans were not allowed to leave the camps where they were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. They lost employment wages for the years that they were interned and suffered great financial losses. At the end, they were paid ten cents on the dollar for each dollar they had lost. After internment, they had difficulty finding jobs and obtaining loans. They suffered the loss of education and job training that could never be atoned for.  It was not a choice for them to be in the camps like it was for her and it was not a time they could happily look back on.

Jean refuses to voice an opinion on the number of the Japanese Americans that are disloyal. She does not accuse them of sabotage or disloyalty as General DeWitt did (PJD 47-92). Since she does not have the facts, she does not feel that she should make a decision on the loyalty of an entire group. Sally Lucas Jean decides to consider all of the Japanese Americans as being as loyal as she is. She compares them to the “Spanish-Americans” in New Mexico; their parents have partial knowledge of the language and area. “They too, have several generations settled in the land, but they are not being discriminated against like the Japanese Americans are.”

Her tone is rarely negative during the letter, and it often shows how much she respects and pities the

Church group

Japanese Americans that are interned. Jean recalls a time she attended a church service and realized the Japanese Americans were as devout as any other observer. The War Relocation Authority allowed almost all religions to worship, except for State Shinto worship, which was seen as Emperor worship (PJD 173). She describes how they were dressed modestly in Caucasian clothes with clean blouses and groomed hair. She calls them an unfortunate group of people and says she respects how they have accepted their fate. She was in a position of power and did not have to respect them or try to understand their plight; however, she chose to empathize with them and see life from their perspective.


–Mary Willoughby Romm


Burton, J., M. Farrel, F. Lord, and R. Lord. “Poston Relocation Center.” Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. National Park Service, 1 Sept. 2000. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nps.gov/>.

“Food.” University of Washington Libraries. 20 Mar. 1997. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <http://www.lib.washington.edu/exhibits/harmony/exhibit/food.html>.

Letters to Family and Friends October 1942, Folder 75 in the Sally Lucas Jean papers #4290 Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Oregon Responds to World War II: Not Exactly Paradise: Japanese American Internment Camps.” Oregon State Archives. Oregon State. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/exhibits/ww2/threat/camps.htm>.

“Relocation of Japanese Americans – War Relocation Authority – 1943.” Museum of the City of San Francisco. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, May 1943. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist10/relocbook.html>