Queer prison narratives are common, but queer narratives of internment are almost non-existent. The internment of Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1946 is no different. Despite a lack of institutional acknowledgment, evidence from the lives of camp residents and staff members like Stanley Hayami, Jiro Onuma, and Karon Kehoe demonstrates that queer people did exist in the camps. The limited evidence likely has less to do with a lack of queer experiences than with the national categorization of homosexuality as both a crime and mental illness, stigmas against sexuality, the familial values of the Japanese community, and the organization of the internment camps.
Sexuality and U.S. Legislation
During World War II, federal and state laws prohibited homosexual practices and forms of “sexual deviancy.” In 1909, several states, including California, passed laws condoning the forced sterilization of “moral or sexual perverts,” among other reasons. More than nineteen thousand people had been sterilized by 1948 under these laws. An alternative to sterilization was lobotomization. By 1951, nearly 20,000 people had been lobotomized nationally, and one of the supposedly beneficial side effects was a reduction of homosexual activity. Former surgeon Walter Freeman wrote, “It would appear that homosexuality is of little practical importance after frontal lobotomy.” Between 1937 and 1967, twenty-seven states passed “Sexual Psychopath” laws, which condoned the forced unlimited detainment of sex offenders, including consensual same-sex partners.
As in mainstream American society, same-sex relations had long been stigmatized in the Japanese and Japanese American communities. There may have been extra pressure to conform to heterosexual norms within this immigrant community as part of a desire to assimilate into American culture. This pressure heightened during World War II for Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) men, due to the importance of asserting good citizenship and masculinity. To achieve this might require hiding their sexual behavior and denouncing homosexuality to enlist in the U.S. military, a hyper-masculine institution that regulated and punished same-sex activity. As a result, most evidence of queerness was denied, destroyed, or concealed.
Sexuality and Internment Camps
The structure and layout of the camps reduced the possibility of visible queerness through the multi-generational family-based housing system. This system of organization was atypical among World War II camps, which were predominantly sex-segregated, creating more possibilities for queer experiences and relationships. The photo below shows a typical family apartment at the Amache camp, in Colorado.
At Gila camp, in Arizona, housing was often overcrowded, with all members of a family living together; no separate arrangements were made for couples. The average number of individuals, even in the smallest of housing units, was five residents. Privacy and places for private exploration of one’s identity were scarce.
Traditional Japanese family structures and values shaped camp life, decreasing the acceptability of most shows of outward sexuality, especially ones of a non-heterosexual nature. The ideal Japanese marriage is a state of “Isome no chigiri,” which can be loosely translated to the state of companionship in a brother-sister relationship. Outward displays of affection between husband and wife were infrequent with Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans). In camps, young men and women walking arm-in-arm were often criticized by Issei; married or engaged couples walking hand-in-hand would also be judged. Most courtships had to be clandestine—including heterosexual courtship—to avoid scrutiny and disapproval. With these cultural circumstances, it is not surprising that evidence of queerness is limited. In such close quarters, “coming out” included not only opening up to one’s family, but also to the whole camp community. Beyond disciplinary consequences, there was also the fear of ostracism.
One example of possible queerness comes from the diary of Stanley Hayami, a Nisei at Heart Mountain, in Wyoming. Joanne Oppenheim’s book Stanley Hayami, Nisei Son is a curation of diary entries and letters written by a teenaged Hayami during his 1943 confinement. These personal writings never describe attraction to or interest in any specific man or woman. However, they are full of detailed and intimate sketches of muscular, and often nude, men. In his June 27, 1943, diary entry, Hayami writes of his desire to be alone and his emotional complexity. He adds: “I don’t tell this to anyone because they’ll figure that I’m a queer (Maybe I am).” These writings clearly exhibit the emotional discomfort of young internees and the feeling that they needed to keep their sexuality private.
Proof of Queer Internees
The strongest evidence of queer life during internment is the case of Jiro Onuma, a gay Japanese American Issei who was interned in Camp Topaz, Utah. The records and personal materials of Onuma, held at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society archive in San Francisco, constitute one of the most complete archival collections of queer Asian Americans, providing an invaluable look into this aspect of intersectional history.
Onuma was born in 1904 in Iwate Prefecture, Japan, and moved to America in 1923, spending the majority of his adult life in San Francisco. Prior to the war, Onuma took several photographs of his friends and lovers both in professional photo studios and casually, around the city. His archival files also show that he was a collector of homoerotic male physical culture ephemera. The items in his collection include a postcard of a matador with a detachable bronze erect penis that could be used as a necktie clip and photos of Earle Liederman, a professional body-builder.
In September 1942, the U.S. government forcibly moved Onuma from the Tanforan Assembly Center, in San Bruno, California, to Camp Topaz, in Utah. Although as a young, single bachelor he could have been housed in the bachelors’ quarters, he was placed in a barrack with the Akagaki family, consisting of Topaz baseball star Masao Akagaki and his mother.
During his time at Topaz, Onuma established a clandestine relationship with another internee. Less than a year later, his lover was moved to Tule Lake, a higher-security camp, for answering “no-no” on the loyalty questionnaire. While there is no evidence of how the two met and established their relationship during camp life, Onuma’s wartime photographs are the sole known photographs of adult gay Issei at the concentration camps. A photo of the men (below) taken at the Topaz Photo Studio (a cooperatively run studio established in the summer of 1943), shows how careful the pair must have been to disguise their romantic relationship as a platonic one; they were able to maintain close proximity and interact intimately without raising scrutiny from other internees or staff members.
After the war, Onuma traveled around the United States and Latin America, became a naturalized citizen in 1956, and passed away at age 86, in 1990. How Onuma not only survived, but also rejected the isolation, absence of privacy, and heteronormativity of incarceration as a gay bachelor from San Francisco is not fully known. What we can most tangibly draw from the records of his life is that homosexual relationships existed, indisputably, at internment camps.
Imagining More Queer Stories
The existence of queer experiences in Japanese American concentration camps can also be found in media and art produced after the war. The novel City in the Sun and play “Tondemonai — Never Happen!” exhibit a longing to bring visibility to lesser-known aspects of this hidden history and validate the experiences of queer internees.
“Tondemonai — Never Happen!” premiered in Los Angeles in May 1970, as the first commercial play on the subject of Japanese internment and wartime conflict. “Tondemonai” is a Japanese word meaning “absurd and unbelievable.” The play is notable for its early coverage of taboo topics, including interracial and homosexual relations. The main love story was that of a Kibei man (a U.S.-born Japanese American who was educated in Japan) and a young Chinese American man who met at Manzanar camp. The play was produced by the Asian American theater company East-West Players. The actors, writers, and directors, all of whom were Asian American, grew up with this history. The play received mixed reviews. Recent writers have acknowledged that focusing on complex queer protagonists without any implication of queerness as a disease or evil was, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, revolutionary. However, emphasizing the taboo nature of these topics in the Japanese American community, a reporter for the media outlet Rafu Shimpo deemed the play “shock value” and denounced the “sordid” profanity and homosexuality.
City in the Sun, a 1946 novel on internment written by a white lesbian camp staff member, further emphasizes the range of experiences of camp life, many of which were queer. In 1942, writer Karon Kehoe and her partner, Monika Kehoe, moved from Detroit to work in Gila River. Because Karon had taken her lover’s name, they were able to pass as half-sisters and live in the same housing unit without suspicion. Though they worked in various camp positions for the War Relocation Authority, they were both, eventually, in the Adult Education Department. These same-sex partners were able to live and work together without anyone knowing their true identity. This emphasizes that queer camp experiences, despite scant evidence, undeniably existed, and were experienced not only by internees but also by staff members.
The novel was a means of protest. Kehoe was “incensed at her fellow Americans for permitting such atrocities to be established while sending their sons to fight.” The plot chronicles the traumatic camp experience of a Japanese American family, the Matsukis. While a same-sex sexual encounter is never an outright part of the plot, illicit queer sexual encounters are suggested throughout. In one scene, the adolescent protagonist is ordered to strip and enter a communal shower with a teenage gang. After, Kehoe writes that “[Shame] always pricking him when he was most ashamed, most afraid, was curiosity about the new experience that had been opened to him. … curiosity changed to pleasure, pleasure to habit and with habit came callousness of conscience and diminution in the intensity of conscious conflict.” Surprisingly, the novel was enthusiastically received by Japanese American reviewers. None of the reviewers commented on the homosexual undertones. Was this lack of acknowledgment due to ignorance or because teenage Nisei male same-sex encounters seemed unremarkable? The novel and its reception raise intriguing questions about alternative camp life. The extent to which the novel represents life at Gila River, or other camps, is unclear. However, the mere existence of its author and plot affirm the existence of a queer camp experience.
In the years following internment, much progress has been made, on a community-wide level, regarding the acknowledgment and support of queer identities.
In 1994, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which was formed in 1929 and had never previously supported any legislation protecting LGBTQ people, voted in favor of same-sex marriage. This decision made the JACL the first national racial minority group to formally support LGBTQ rights, showing changing perceptions in the Japanese American community on the issue of queerness.
Nisei actor George Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, was not only an early and important supporter of the LGBTQ movement but also a former internee. In 1942, the Takei family was moved to Rohwer Camp, in Arkansas, and then to Tule Lake. Takei grew up in the internment system and is now an openly gay man dedicated to same-sex activism, including as spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign’s Coming Out Project.
There were a variety of queer experiences during Japanese American internment, both among detainees and staff people. Though the evidence of this history is not abundant, its existence suggests that there is more to be found. The limited nature of the evidence on this topic reflects the national criminalization of homosexuality, perceptions of sexuality among the Japanese American community, and the housing structure of internment camps.
To date, there is no scholarship on transgender internees and limited personal family stories of queerness in archival projects. While limited evidence makes it difficult to envision and map these possible narratives, it also makes them hard to deny outright. The search for these stories is essential because the erasure of queer history, especially in communities of color, is a longstanding issue tied to the discrimination that these groups faced and continue to face today.