A chart showing how transfer of evacuees were done starting with Mayer in May and ending with Fresno in October.

Wartime Incarceration of Deaf Japanese Americans

Circulating Now welcomes Selena Moon, MA, a public historian researching Japanese American mixed race history, military history, and disability history. Today she joins us to discuss her research into the experiences of deaf Japanese Americans in the wartime incarceration camps.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, to “prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded.” The order required German, Italian, and Japanese Americans over fourteen to register with the government, established curfews, and created restrictions.

A detail of text on a page titled Public Proclamation 5.
Final report, Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, 1942
National Library of Medicine #01130040R

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) exempted German and Italian Americans based on military enlistment, (pending) citizenship status, jobs, and age. Of Japanese Americans, only those who were hospitalized or institutionalized and could not be removed without endangering their lives, orphans, and “the totally deaf, dumb, or blind” were exempted, but ultimately only a handful would stay behind.

Of the 120,000 Japanese Americans and their families who were relocated, the National Park Service indicates there were 2,000 over 65 and 1,000 disabled or infirm people. The incomplete online National Archives database of Japanese American Internees lists 158 under “aid to dependent children, blind, old age association” and 1,808 under “uncorrectable major physical defect”. I have identified 50 blind and visually impaired, 64 Deaf and hard of hearing (including the White wife of a Japanese incarceree), 100 physically, 45 intellectually, and 11 multiply disabled people, though there may be overlap as not all documents used names.

A chart showing how transfer of evacuees were done starting with Mayer in May and ending with Fresno in October.
Final report, Japanese evacuation from the West Coast, 1942
National Library of Medicine #01130040R

Most were first sent to temporary assembly centers and lived in horse stalls, livestock pavilions, and hastily-built barracks on fairgrounds and racetracks. Several months later, they were transferred to ten incarceration camps: Manzanar and Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Gila River and Poston, Arizona; Topaz, Utah; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Amache, Colorado; and Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. Institutionalized and hospitalized people were exempt “until their physical condition permitted movement or until they were released.”  Artist Markel Uriu, relates the story of how her grandmother was in a full-body cast on December 7, 1941 after a car accident. As soon as she was mobile, the government “sent her straight from the hospital on crutches to Poston.”

Among this disabled population, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s experiences are the most documented.  In his paper “The Wartime Incarceration of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nikkei in U.S. Camps, 1942–1946,” Deaf historian Newby Ely identified 32 deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals held at Tule Lake before July 1943.

A collection of portraits and photographs of Japanese American men and women, labled with thier names.
Figures from “The Wartime Incarceration of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nikkei in U.S. Camps, 1942–1946,” by Newby Ely in Proceedings of the 6th Deaf History International Conference, July 31-August 04, 2006 at the Humboldt University, Berlin, 2006
National Library of Medicine #101561747

The WRA attempted to return or relocate Deaf students to Deaf schools, but many refused to enroll them or had prohibitive costs. Initially there were no schools for disabled children in the camps. Policy change in fall 1943 required each camp to identify and educate all disabled children. But the quality and inclusiveness varied. Ely notes that, “Only…Topaz and Heart Mountain…conduct[ed] special education classes for Deaf students, together with other handicapped children”. However, Manzanar and Tule Lake—the first camps to establish classes in April and May 1943—also had all-inclusive classes. Granada kept students in mainstream schools and provided accommodations.

There was a surprising amount of discussion about disability in WRA and camp documents. Students’ compositions and activities were included in the Manzanar elementary schools newspaper, the Manzanar Whirlwind and camp newspapers discussed the schools’ activities and efforts to aid disabled children, including “Cripple Children’s Clinics” where children with various disabilities were taken to local hospitals for treatment.

The banner for the Mansanar Whirlwind newsletter featuring a mountain, a barracks and a tornado.

However, classes were unsuccessful, especially for Deaf students. Hannah Takagi, described her experience at Tule Lake: “Children suffering from deafness, blindness, mental [disability], and physical paralysis were lumped into one class under the supervision of a teacher…who understood the needs of none of us. She did not even allow me to use sign language.” After the war, many disabled students were so far behind that they struggled in school. Some never returned.

Many former incarcerees and their families have shared their struggles with disabilities, including Hannah Takagi, Mabel Ota—whose daughter Madeline was born intellectually disabled because of inadequate medical conditions in camp—and soldiers disabled in combat. Yet, eighty years later, these stories are still largely left out of Japanese American history.

An informal photograph of an young asian woman with glasses.Selena Moon received her BA in history from Smith College and MA in history and public history certificate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is writing books for adults about Japanese American mixed race and disability history, a picture book about Hannah Takagi Holmes, a Deaf teenager incarcerated at Manzanar and Tule Lake, and a middle grade book about five children with various disabilities in the camps. She can be reached on Twitter at @SelenaMMoon 

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