“Young people had most difficult time adjusting. The teenagers to those in late 20s are bewildered.”Complaints to Sp. Consulate Dec, 22, 1943 Minidoka War Relocation Center
I pulled a slim manilla folder from a box. It wasn’t terribly thick and I was not expecting to find much in the folder labeled, “Juvenile Delinquency, 1942-1946.” It was my final day at the archive at the University of Arizona Special Collections before I began the almost 7 hour drive back to Las Vegas. To be very honest, I was not expecting much in this folder as I opened it up to begin skimming and photographing the contents. The waxy papers contained typed reports from the War Relocation Authority (WRA) on children and family life at various Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Yet, this small file contained a history of juvenile delinquency I had never even considered. Internment camps across the southwest, from Minidoka in Utah to Tule Lake in California, found themselves dealing with rampant and seemingly unstoppable juvenile delinquency. Japanese American teenagers were rebels with a very good cause.
This post seeks to explore this initial finding of WRA reports detailing the juvenile delinquency problem within internment camps. This finding, which came about during my dissertation research, merits further investigation and my hope is to start here. While increasing literature on the intersection of juvenile delinquency and immigration is growing within the context of Latinx youth, this archival discovery suggests that there is much more to this history. The experience of Japanese American youth and their immigrant families during the height of the juvenile delinquency moral panic reveal how deeply felt this generation fear was in every community. However, the experience of these youth is particularly unique because of the setting within a highly surveilled internment camp far away from urban centers. Much of juvenile delinquency literature examines the tensions between urbanity and rurality, of “our kids” versus “their kids”, yet for the Japanese American youths at sites like Jerome, Montana or Poston, Arizona, there was something else at play. Japanese American “nisei” teens found themselves at the center of a debate among WRA officials trying to determine if these kids were “too much” like their white counterparts and how to make them more like their “Issei” parents. Immigration and Americanization.
Malicious Mischief in Minidoka (and beyond)
The first document I came across was a list of complaints and field reports from Minidoka War Relocation Center in regards to schools and family life. Some of the notes in the typed out document related complaints about the quality of schools, general lack of resources, cramped living quarters, and general anger at being detained. However, as I continued reading I soon discovered a surprising element to these complaints, the sheer scope and variety of alleged juvenile delinquency. Japanese American teengers were engaging in a number of delinquent activities such as setting fires, theft, vandalism, and general “malicious mischief.”
And this “malicious mischief” was not unique to Minidoka. In fact, gang fights, property damage, car thefts, and general teenage rebellion was not only happening across the various War Relocation Centers, they were on the rise and a growing concern to WRA officials. A report from Tule Lake, Utah details a group of sixteen high school aged boys breaking into a WRA school, breaking windows and locked cabinets as well as leaving “obscene comments on blackboards.” In a 1944 report from Gila, Arizona, the WRA bemoan, “the rise of juvenile delinquency, increase in sex immorality, growing disregard of children for parents…” and a need to do something about juvenile delinquency. A report from Jerome, Arkansas, described the rise of gangs organized by the block units that would collect rocks to then throw at rival gangs, and the YMCA’s less than successful attempts to lure children away from these gangs. While in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, local WRA officials noted a “wave of juvenile delinquency,” and no understanding of how to handle this rising problem.
The scope of juvenile delinquency across these WRA camps reveal that this was not an isolated problem. Rather, it appears to be a feature of WRA camps. Officials dedicated time and effort to make sense of these disaffected youth who did not appear that much different from the juvenile delinquents elsewhere in the United States. In fact, when in comparison with many other case studies of juvenile delinquency from this era, the WRA juvenile delinquents are truly not very different. They were overwhelmingly committing property crimes and engaging in fights with other youth. What is unique about their acts is their targeting of WRA property, something WRA officials noted in all sites included in the folder. In all the sites mentioned above, there is almost no mention of youth breaking into living quarters or targeting fellow Japanese or Japanese American adults. WRA property was the sole focus of these juvenile delinquents. This may have been part of the heightened concern by the WRA which leads to the other critical part of this story. How did the WRA react and make sense of this rising juvenile delinquency wave within their internment camps?
WRA Tries to Manage Delinquency
WRA officials were desperate to make sense of their juvenile delinquency problem. Many of the reports examined family dynamics within the WRA camps as a method of better understanding why so many youth were engaging in delinquent behavior. These reports reveal a not at all surprising generational tension. Youth were described as “rude in the eyes of their parents,” not appreciating their culture, not interested in attending schools, and lacking respect for teachers. This analysis by the WRA seemed to imply that the problem with these particular youth was that they were “too American.” Rather than respecting their parent’s culture, speaking Japanese, and being well mannered, the WRA youth were vocal about seeing themselves as Americans and their belief that being at the WRA camp was a violation of their rights.
In terms of direct action in response to delinquency, the WRA tried a variety of methods. However, it is worth noting and remembering that these youth are already within an internment camp. While the reports do not reveal if there is any attempt at creating juvenile courts or disciplinary boards within the WRA camps, the WRA are limited in what they can do. Youth are not going to be sent out of the WRA to a juvenile court nor would they have been sent to juvenile state schools. This leaves WRA officials with less options. In Minidoka, WRA attempted a curfew and referring juveniles delinquents to on-site psychiatrists. At Tule Lake, officials attempted to create more recreational activities for teenagers to keep them under supervision after school. Gila tried to use bilingual education as a way to mend broken relationships between youth and their parents by teaching the youth Japanese. This method was also said to help fill the free time of these youth so that they would be tempted to engage in gang behavior.
These reports describe a vastly different type of racialization towards Japanese American juvenile delinquents. Unlike Mexican youth in the borderlands, or Irish and Italian youth in New York or Chicago, these WRA youth were increasingly being told to speak their parent’s native language and to hold onto their cultural traditions. In this strange circumstance, the WRA was implying that juvenile delinquency was an American condition that they were struggling to protect immigrant youth from. This flipped narrative complicates our understanding of juvenile justice and immigration, and deserves more attention.
Juvenile Delinquency History is Immigration history
When I discovered the contents of that small manila folder in te University of Arizona Special Collections, it felt like a treasure trove found at the worst time. As I was finishing my dissertation on juvenile delinquency in the borderlands and its impact on Latinx youth, I recognized how important these reports are to understanding the intersection of juvenile delinquency and immigrant communities. However, at the time I also acknowledged that the scope of my dissertation, and the constraints of time and money, meant it would not fit within my final dissertation. Yet, the implication of those papers stayed with me. I hope to begin doing those reports, and the youth of the WRA camps, some justice and expand these findings. The youth of the WRA camps were so much like their counterparts outside of the WRA camps, but the way their delinquency was understood and approached was intrinsically shaped by legacies of immigration and racism. Juvenile justice has long had intersections with immigration history, as scholars of juvenile justice have noted in works examining immigrant communities in Chicago, Montreal, and Los Angeles. The kids of the WRA reveal that the intersection of juvenile justice and immigration has impacted more communities than previously thought, and reminds us to consider the impact of immigration policies on youth and teenagers.