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.