Preserving Culture: Judo Inside the Manzanar War Relocation Center Part I

Originally written for a History of Genocide course, expanded and presented at a conference in the Spring of 2019 during my graduate career, the following is the first part of an article exploring the role judo played in the Japanese American Internment Camps during the Second World War, specifically the Manzanar Camp in southeastern California. Read part two here.


Slam! A young Japanese American boy throws his partner over his hip onto the canvas-covered mat in the Rohwer Internment Camp, Arkansas. Thump! Ippon! A crowd of Japanese Americans erupt in cheer after a slightly older Japanese American scores a point by reaping his opponent’s leg from the outside in the Heart Mountain Internment Camp, Wyoming. Boom! A Caucasian male sweeps his opponent’s foot from under him while moving sideways, as a crowd applauds in the Manzanar Internment Camp, California, in the camp’s first tournament welcoming non-inmates. After picking themselves back up, the partners and opponents bow to their counterpart. Once off the canvas-covered sawdust and woodchip padding, the men and boys begin laughing, complimenting one another on the recent throw and point, swearing that next time, the outcome will be different. These inmate males practice the Japanese martial art of judo, “the Gentle Way,” as a means to make it through the average day in the Japanese American Internment Camps during the Second World War to find a new life in their ancient culture.

Just three months after the fateful surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in early December, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the unconstitutional removal of any personnel from military areas if needed. This allowed General John L. Dewitt and other military officials and politicians to push for the removal of Japanese immigrants and their descendants – a staggering amount of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States mainland. After the end of both the Second World War and the closure of the Internment Camps, this removal led many scholars to label such actions as racially motivated, spurred on by both war hysteria and failed political leadership. In addition, many historians focus on the “jail-like facilities” and the “bleak and dreary surroundings” of those camps, leading some scholars to research the effect such a traumatic experience on not only the survivors, but their descendants had as well. Still, others focus on Japanese American resistance against such injustice, like the four Supreme Court cases that surfaced during the war years: Yasui v. United States (1943), Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), ex parte Endo (1944), and Korematsu v. United States. Countless memoirs from inmates themselves exist, telling of their own experiences in the Internment Camps, ranging from both negative to positive.[1]

Bombing Pearl Harbor
Bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. Source:

There are, however, only a few historiographical articles that focus on the leisure and recreation in the Internment Camps, placing the actions of the inmates in a positive light. Alison W. Wrynn’s chapter covers the topic with a broad brush, painting many of the Internment Camps the same. To a certain extent, the camps’ leisure and recreation were the same as the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) who, at first, began creating and setting up recreational activities, which soon the inmates themselves began to take over and produce activities they wanted. In another article, Samuel O. Regalado explores the popularity of baseball in the camps, especially the second-generation Japanese Americans (nisei), who captured the “spirit of the game as it was played in their prewar life” while in the confines of the Internment Camps.[2]

While Wrynn does not delve into the impact that such programs and activities had on the inmates, Regalado does investigate the impact of the American sport on the inmates, specifically on the nisei. From this, a question arises: how did Japanese sports impact the inmates, specifically that of judo? Judo was one of the many Japanese pastimes and traditions that the inmates looked to for solace. The martial art appealed to both the first-generation Japanese Americans (issei) and the nisei, becoming an avenue of comfort and an activity to strengthen the Japanese American community after the generational tensions that arose during the Pearl Harbor aftermath. The Manzanar War Relocation Center (Manzanar Camp) in California best demonstrates this communal rebuilding through a physical activity. Judo, in light of the harshness of camp life and conditions, allowed the inmates to forget about or escape from the realities they lived in the Manzanar Camp and attempted to preserve part of their culture while repairing a fractured community.

Internment in Manzanar

1942 evacuation
A young child with its family’s luggage shortly after Executive Order 9066 came into effect. Source:

In the days following Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan and its German and Italian allies. In the weeks after the declaration of war, the Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) began arresting and imprisoning German, Italian, and Japanese nationals, placing these Nikkei (Japanese American community) leaders and influencers into detention camps. In the absence of many community leaders, the nisei-filled Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) attempted to fill the void of leadership by cooperating with American authorities, helping the FBI locate and arrest suspected spies and saboteurs, mostly issei. Though the members of JACL intended to solve the growing anti-Japanese sentiment in both the American public and authorities, the JACL “lacked a true sensitivity to [the Japanese American community’s] concerns,” resulting in many community members believing that the JACL wanted internment. In addition, many nisei and white coaches coordinated baseball games to demonstrate the unity and patriotism of the young Japanese Americans to the public and authorities. Despite the Nikkei’s best efforts to persuade the public and authorities otherwise, a rift between the issei and nisei became apparent as President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, essentially removing all Nikkei from the West Coast. Now the issei and nisei must learn to cope with this generational rift in the internment camps, especially the Manzanar Camp.[3]

manzanar camp
Manzanar Camp, built in desolate area in Southeastern California. Source:

Built in a desolate and an unpopulated area, the Manzanar Camp, like the ten other internment camps stretching from the West Coast to the Midwest, experienced extreme weather conditions – high winds, heavy rains that created mudslides, and high and low temperatures – that made living in the camp distressing. Designed after the spartan-like military barrack style of the American Armed Forces, these camps provided families with crowded rooms and no interior walls for privacy. Roy Murakami, son of a co-founder of the Manzanar judo dojo, Sego (Seigoro) Murakami, recounted how many roommates his family shared the crowded living space: “there was our family and then another family, and a woman and husband, and two bachelors.” With a population of almost 10,000 inmates, it was hard to accommodate families with their own private living quarters. He also recalled stuffing the holes on the floor and the cracks in the walls with newspaper to shield themselves from the dust, sand, and weather that crept through the structure of the inadequate barracks. Contributing to the spartan-like atmosphere, the camps initially served low quality food to the inmates, had outdated medical facilities, and offered limited educational opportunities. The inmates made up much of the camp’s labor force, as the camp administration gave jobs out on three tiers; unskilled laborers received twelve dollars, skilled laborers received fifteen dollars, and professional laborers received nineteen dollars monthly. Work included farming, carpentry, garbage pick-up and disposal, cooking in the kitchen/mess hall, and administrative positions.[4]

Sego Murakami in 1960
Sego Murakami (right) teaching judo in the 1960s. Source:

In the way of recreation and leisure, there were no active programs in place during the initial weeks of internment, as, according to Wrynn, “endless boredom, limited opportunities, and lack of freedom” plagued the inmates. To make camp life a little more bearable, the WCCA began creating recreational and leisure programs for the inmates in all camps. Only after the WCCA created programs, as mentioned previously with Wrynn, did the inmates soon took leadership of the activity programs and offered activities that the inmates wanted. Soon, inmates began filling their spare time with Western sports, like baseball, making mochi, or rice cakes, traditional Noh and kabuki theater, Japanese board games of go, shogi, and mahjong, judo, calligraphy, scroll painting, and other American and Japanese pastimes.[5]

Judo Begins in Manzanar

Manzanar’s judo dojo began in early June of 1942, using canvas-covered sawdust as a mat for the judoka. The judoka, as Roy remembers, came together almost immediately to establish a judo dojo, which Recreation Director Axel Neilson approved, demonstrating the acceptance of a Japanese pastime in the camp as well as sympathy for the inmates. Manzanar was not the only internment camp to have judo. Camps in Tule Lake, California, Crystal City, Texas, Santa Anita, California, Park County, Wyoming (Heart Mountain Camp), Puyallup, Washington (Camp Harmony), Millard County, Utah (Topaz Camp), Desha County, Arkansas (Rohwer Camp), and Jerome County, Idaho (Minidoka Camp) all allowed judoka to begin their own judo clubs. Though some were short-lived and others may not have been as large as the judo club/dojo in Manzanar Camp, judo still proved to be a connective community activity that kept issei and nisei together. In addition, in both internment camps and assembly centers, inmates established their own presses, distributing newspapers to the rest of the camp or center, telling everyone about the upcoming sports game or match.[6]

The following month after the formation of the judo platform, new student registration began in Manzanar Camp, bringing in both issei and nisei. In the same month, the camp judoka received “a loaned sum of $250 to construct a judo platform” from Caucasian judoka in North Hollywood, California, demonstrating the importance of the cultural sport to non-Japanese. By early August, as the camp’s newspaper Manzanar Free Press describes, “great enthusiasm was shown” by the inmates for construction of a dojo building. Adding to the enthusiasm, the women of the camp, both issei and nisei, sewed the keikogi (practice uniforms) and created the belts from “old mattress covers.” By mid-August, the judo platform created “something close to a sensation,” resulting in 150 judoka participating in the opening ceremonies. In late August, according to Manzanar Free Press, about 400 judoka were “turning out daily” for training. In September, the camp held its first judo tournament, or tourney, as the camp newspaper called it. The newspaper called the two-day tournament the greatest attraction in Manzanar; the tournament even outdrew an important softball game, drawing about two-thirds of the current judoka to participate.[7]

Though not a class at Manzanar, classes looked the same even in Rowher Internment Camp, Arkansas, c. 1942. Source:

Many of these judoka, both issei and nisei, were students of the art prior to internment. As Joseph Svinth points out, there were two judo clubs in Oregon, fourteen in Washington state, and countless more in California. Svinth further states that many of the issei, both before the war and during internment, enrolled their nisei sons into judo, kendo, and other Japanese cultural activities to build character and expose their sons to Japanese customs and courtesies that were not readily available in America. In addition, many of the judo instructors in Manzanar and the other internment camps were issei who taught before internment, much like the aforementioned Sego Murakami . With the creation of camp presses, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) allowed the inmates limited autonomy regarding self-governing, allowing for elections and democracy to reign within the camps, if the WRA approved of the election winners. Some semblance of pre-internment life began as the inmates took responsibility for community management. To this end, the inmates improved the overall food quality of the camps, in addition to growing their own food.[8]

Judo, by the fall of 1942, became a camp-wide craze. The inmates, both judoka and non-judoka, felt that the judo members deserved an actual building for the art and donated $800 from the camp jobs they held for the construction of a roof over the current judo platform. The camp administration approved the proposal after new Camp Director Ralph Merritt arrived at Manzanar in late November. Merritt, according to the camp newspaper, was a “humanitarian and a friend” to the Japanese, allowing the inmates to pursue much of their cultural traditions and customs. The camp newspaper did not mention when construction around the platform began, except that when it did, the judo training ceased.[9]

Read part two here.


[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Transcript of Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942) (Print-Friendly Version)” (February 19, 1942), accessed November 17, 2017,; Emiko Hastings, “‘No Longer a Silent Victim of History:’ Repurposing the Documents of Japanese American Internment,” Archival Science 11, no. 1–2 (March 2011): 26; Peggy Daniels Becker, Japanese-American Internment during World War II (Detroit, UNITED STATES: Omnigraphics, Incorporated, 2013), 5; Alison W. Wrynn, “The Recreation and Leisure Pursuits of Japanese Americans in World War II Internment Camps,” in Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 117; Scott Kurashige, “Japanese American Internment,” in The Shifting Grounds of Race, Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2008), 108; Donna K. Nagata, “Transgenerational Impact of the Japanese-American Internment: Clinical Issues in Working with Children of Former Internees,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Psychotherapy With Victims, 28, no. 1 (Spr 1991): 121–28; Donna K. Nagata, Steven J. Trierweiler, and Rebecca Talbot, “Long-Term Effects of Internment during Early Childhood on Third-Generation Japanese Americans,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 69, no. 1 (January 1999): 19–29; Donna K. Nagata, Jackie H. J. Kim, and Teresa U. Nguyen, “Processing Cultural Trauma: Intergenerational Effects of the Japanese American Incarceration,” Journal of Social Issues 71, no. 2 (June 2015): 356–70; Emily Roxworthy, The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma: Racial Performativity and World War II (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008); Yoonmee Chang, “The Japanese American Internment: Master Narratives and Class Critique,” in Writing the Ghetto, Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave (Rutgers University Press, 2010), 73, 77; Precious Yamaguchi, Experiences of Japanese American Women during and after World War II: Living in Internment Camps and Rebuilding Life Afterwards (Lanham, MD, UNITED STATES: Lexington Books, 2014), 48–49; Tasutaro Soga, Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawaii Issei, trans. Kihei Hirai (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008).

[2] Wrynn, “The Recreation and Leisure Pursuits of Japanese Americans in World War II Internment Camps”; Samuel O. Regalado, “Barbed Wire Baseball,” in Nikkei Baseball, Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues (University of Illinois Press, 2013), 113.

[3] Soga, Life Behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawaii Issei, 2; Kurashige, “Japanese American Internment,” 108–9; Regalado, “Barbed Wire Baseball,” 92, 94, 97; Greg Robinson, ed., “The Decision to Remove Ethnic Japanese from the West Coast,” in A Tragedy of Democracy, Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), 60–61, 87; Lon Kurashige, ed., “War and the American Front: Collaboration, Protest, and Class in the Internment Crisis,” in Japanese American Celebration and Conflict, A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990 (University of California Press, 2002), 79–85.

[4] Greg Robinson, ed., “The Camp Experience,” in A Tragedy of Democracy, Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), 156; Roy Murakami, Roy Murakami Interview, In Person, January 8, 2009, accessed December 12, 2017,; Jeffery F. Burton et al., “Manzanar Relocation Center,” in Confinement and Ethnicity : An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, Scott and Laurie Oki Series in Asian American Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 163; Robinson, “The Camp Experience,” 157–59; Murakami, Roy Murakami Interview.

[5] Wrynn, “The Recreation and Leisure Pursuits of Japanese Americans in World War II Internment Camps,” 117; Jack Iwata, 93.102.118, 1942, Photograph, 1942, accessed December 8, 2017,; Jack Iwata, 93.102.169, 45 1942, Photograph, 45 1942, accessed December 8, 2017,; Jack Iwata, 93. 102.57, 1942, Photograph, 1942, accessed December 8, 2017,; “Sports and Recreation in Camp,” in Densho Encyclopedia, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017,; “Community Activities,” Manzanar Free Press, September 10, 1943, sec. Manzanar at Play, Library of Congress, accessed December 19, 2017,; Robinson, “The Camp Experience,” 160; Wrynn, “The Recreation and Leisure Pursuits of Japanese Americans in World War II Internment Camps,” 119; Regalado, “Barbed Wire Baseball,” 98, 103.; Noh theater is a traditional Japanese form of musical drama since the fourteenth century, while kabuki theater is a traditional Japanese form of dance drama where the actors wear elaborate make-up, founded in the early seventeenth century. Go is a strategy game that originated from China, where one player must hold more board space than the other. Shogi is Japanese chess while mahjong is a Chinese game similar to that of Rummy.

[6] “Judo Hall at 2-14 Set,” Manzanar Free Press, June 4, 1942, Library of Congress; Murakami, Roy Murakami Interview; Regalado, “Barbed Wire Baseball,” 98.

[7] “Judo Enthusiasts Sought,” Manzanar Free Press, July 31, 1942, Library of Congress; “Center Judo in Full Swing,” Manzanar Free Press, August 5, 1942, sec. Manzanar Sports, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, Library of Congress; “Camp Trivia,” Manzanar Free Press, August 12, 1942, sec. Canteen Cowboy Segment, Library of Congress; “150 Participate in Judo Opening,” Manzanar Free Press, August 12, 1942, sec. Manzanar Sports, Library of Congress; “Judo Captures Young Huskies; 400 Strong Turning Out Daily,” Manzanar Free Press, August 24, 1942, sec. Manzanar Sports, Library of Congress; “Two-Day Judo Tourney Brings Big Turnout,” Manzanar Free Press, September 24, 1942, sec. Manzanar Sports, Library of Congress; Murakami, Roy Murakami Interview; “Judo Jackets Being Completed,” Heart Mountain Sentinel Supplement, September 26, 1942, 6.

[8] Joseph R Svinth, Getting a Grip: Judo in the Nikkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1950 (Guelph (Ontario): EJMAS, 2003), v, 22, 24; Thomas A Green and Joseph R Svinth, “Asian Martial Arts in the United States and Canada,” in Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 448; Brian Masaru Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001), 107; Peggy Daniels Becker, Japanese-American Internment during World War II, 49–51.

[9] “Roof to Be Made,” Manzanar Free Press, November 12, 1942, sec. Manzanar Sports, Library of Congress; “Toss and Tumble…,” Manzanar Free Press, November 23, 1942, Library of Congress; “Ralph Merritt Named New Director. New Project Director Arrives Tuesday Succeeding Sol Kimball,” Manzanar Free Press, November 26, 1942; Murakami, Roy Murakami Interview.


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