Health In Japanese Internment Camps

Megumi Corley is a third year Biological Chemistry major at Grinnell College. After Grinnell, she plans on attending dental school.

On February 19th, 1942, ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. [1] This infamous law forced the removal of thousands of people of Japanese descent from their homes on the West Coast, first to temporary assembly centers and then to internment camps. American citizen or not, anyone with Japanese blood was forced to leave their home and job. Medical professionals were also among those that were interned. The U.S. government conscripted these physicians and nurses to provide healthcare for the rest of the inmates while at the same time, being confined and imprisoned themselves. [2] Through their ingenuity and self-sacrifice, interned physicians were able to prevent public health disasters and exemplify what it means to serve as a medical professional.

When Japanese-Americans were first forced to leave their homes, they were placed in temporary assembly centers which had the potential for great epidemic disease, leading to many physicians working long hours even during their first few days of internment. Physicians attempted to vaccinate their future internees even before leaving their home communities, as they realized the high risk of communicable disease which would come from the crowded conditions at the assembly centers. [3] However, only a small percentage of those interned were vaccinated before their internment, because of the short time frame from the notification of forced removal to the actual date of removal. Though they were unable to vaccinate most before extraction, the doctors provided vaccines out of pocket, in order to help the greater community. Their valiant efforts to assist those they could, shows the determination physicians had to prevent mass spread of disease. They would continue to prevent epidemics once they reached assembly centers by providing inoculations for whooping cough, small pox, diphtheria, and other diseases to thousands of internees. [4]

Poster informing the removal of people with Japanese ancestry

The importance of vaccines and inoculations was evident once people arrived at the assembly centers and were placed in unsanitary conditions and close quarters. The assembly centers, where all the Japanese were moved to before the more permanent centers were created, were hastily set up by the government. Many of the assembly centers were racetracks and fairgrounds just several weeks prior. Unlucky families were placed in stables that had been bleached, but still smelled of manure. [5] Crowded and demoralizing living conditions created a space for disease to thrive, and a great need for physicians. The Japanese physicians who were placed in the centers were paid less than $25 a month to provide care to their fellow internees, and also forced to live in these conditions. [6] Despite their own misfortunes, the doctors realized their necessity to the survival of the people in the camp and worked daily in order to keep people healthy. Their heroic actions in working long days and nights to provide people with the care they needed shows the physicians’ persistence to their work regardless of working conditions, displaying what it means to be a true medical professional.

The government and military’s lack of common sense regarding women and children’s needs in the camp led to many uncomfortable and unsanitary health issues to which physicians had to care for. When families were forced from their homes, mothers were ordered to supply for themselves what they needed for their children for the temporary camps, but were only told that they could take what they could carry. This meant many mothers did not have many necessities needed to take care of their children. [7] Even more shocking were the conditions that some mothers had to give birth in while at the assembly centers. One example includes Thomas Takei’s story in which she had to give birth to her daughter on top of a dining table. [8] Physicians had to get creative in situations such as Takei’s when they were forced to work with very minimal supplies. The doctors and nurses’ ability to think quickly and work with what they had allowed many mothers such as Takei, to give birth throughout internment. As medical professionals, they were determined to provide care for their patients no matter what the conditions were.

A family waiting for an evacuation bus

Medical equipment did not only lack in terms of taking care of pregnant women and their children, but with other procedures as well. Dentists who were interned provided dental care to their fellow internees with the supplies that they brought from home. However, they would soon run out of supplies, leaving them to rely on the government to provide them with what they needed. Many times, supplies did not come promptly, leaving patients having to wait days for care. [9] Conditions of medical assistance were also not up to par with the usual practices of the time. Dr. George Hashiba at the Tule Lake internment camp recalled having to seal windows, as dust would not stop entering the operating room, creating an unsanitary surgical environment. [10] It was difficult for the physicians to work in environments that were less than satisfactory, forcing many to get creative with how they treated patients. The physicians’ drive to continue practicing, despite little to no encouragement from the government, displays their desire to help their community in any way possible.

The dust complained about by Dr. Hashiba was a condition loathed by most, and many contracted health issues because of it. Many of the assembly centers and internment camps were in desert areas with large amounts of dust. Several of the camps had regular dust storms causing serious health issues. One common problem was coccidioidomycosis, a fungal disease found in soil that causes infection when inhaled. [11] The dust was also problematic to people with asthma. Dust was unfortunately an issue the physicians could not solve. They did the best they could in ameliorating symptoms, but could they could not stop the dust from swirling outside or entering buildings from the many cracks.

Lack of edible and nutritious food was also an issue physicians could not solve. Unsanitary conditions resulted in a number of outbreaks of food poisoning at the centers. The army did not think to train the food handlers, leading to inexperienced internee workers causing health issues for everyone. Food poisoning led to hundreds of people in the centers all having symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting at once, which did not make for a pleasant camp site as bathrooms were limited. [12] Consuming spoiled food was also incredibly dangerous to expected mothers who could lose their child due to dehydration and vomiting. [13]

While some people were getting rotten, moldy food, others were not fed enough or given proper food according to their health needs. Providing limited food to the internees was apparently a source of pride by government standards, as government officials proudly reported that the average daily cost of feeding each person equaled thirty-eight cents, while daily soldiers’ rations cost taxpayers fifty cents. [14] Malnutrition affected many, as internees were fed mostly canned goods, which were rationed among the people of the camp. Lack of nutritional food led to skin diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies. Others who were healthy before internment developed intestinal and other disorders due to improper nutrition. [15] Adequate food was especially hard to come by for those with health problems such as heart disease and ulcers. Many diabetics did not receive proper food or insulin, a factor that two women at the Poston camp claim led to their father’s death. [16] Baby formula was also not readily available at all times. These food issues could not be solved by physicians. However, by joining protests and riots at the camps to call for better food, physicians were able to help make life at the camps slightly more bearable. [17] They protested the institution that both hired and imprisoned them, fighting for better conditions. The physicians sacrificed their jobs, the small reminder of what life was like before internment, and fought to ensure that their fellow internees could survive the next few year.

One of the toughest jobs of Japanese physicians in internment camps were handling cases of mental illness. Many internees experienced mental health issues such as depression, as they had lost their homes, jobs, and any aspect of normalcy. Internees tried to combat their thoughts, using art as a coping mechanism, but it was often not enough. Depression was so common among inmates that easily treated physical illnesses were often misdiagnosed as “melancholia”, an outdated term for depression. [18] Many had such severe depression that they were driven to take their own lives, as was the case with Hideo Murata who killed himself and was found holding an American citizenship certificate. [19] Those such as Murata could not be saved with the help of the Japanese physicians in the camps. Thoughts stemming from depression were felt by many, and they could not be stopped with the attention of a doctor. The Japanese doctors did their best in ensuring that they were treating their patients to the best of their ability, but the reality was that most could not be helped. Doctors likely felt helpless in situations such as these but continued to move forward with their work knowing that they could still help others. They persisted through the hardships of internment and provided care for those who needed it.

The interned Japanese-American physicians provided extraordinary care to their fellow internees despite limited supplies and their own internal hardships. The U.S. government did not seem to care much for the health of the interned, leaving Japanese physicians to do much of the medical work in the camps. They worked through their own suffering caused by internment and prevented many public health catastrophes with their ingenuity and wit. The achievements of Japanese physicians and nurses during the war show the heroic and humble characteristics medical professionals should try to achieve today. Without their assistance, many more Japanese could have lost their lives. The only solution to ensure that people do not have to suffer at the hands of their own government as Japanese-Americans did during WWII, is to acknowledge the mistakes made and strive to prevent racism from impacting the lives of more innocent people.


[1] Nakanishi, Don, “Surviving Democracy’s “Mistake”: Japanese Americans & the Enduring Legacy of Executive Order 9066″ Ameraisia Journal, 19:1 (1993): 7.

[2] Don K. Nakayama and Gwenn Jensen, “Professionalism Behind Barbed Wire: Health Care in World War II Japanese-American Concentration Camps”, Journal of the National Medical Association 103.4 (2011), 358-363.

[3] Gwenn Jensen, “Dysentery, Dust and Determination: Health Care in the World War II Japanese American Concentration Camps”, Discover Nikkei (June 21, 2005).

[4] Densho, “Medical Care in Camp” Densho Encyclopedia, last modified 2018,

[5] Louis Fiset, “Medical Care for Interened Medical Aliens,” American Journal of Public Health 93.10 (2003): 1644-1655.

[6] Densho, 2018

[7]Susuan McKay, “Maternal Health Care at a Japanese American Relocation Camp, 1942-1945: A Historical Study”, BIRTH 24.3 (September 24, 1997): 188-193.

[8] Densho, 2018

[9] Fiset, 2003

[10] Densho, 2018

[11] Jensen, 2005

[12] Jensen, 2005

[13] Jane Dusselier, “Does Food Make Place?: Food Protests in Japanese American Concentrations Camps” Food and Foodways 10 (September 24, 2010) 137-165.

[14] Dusselier, 2010

[15] Dusselier, 2010

[16] Dusselier, 2010

[17]Dusselier, 2010

[18] Jane Dusselier, Artifacts of Loss: Crafting survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 125-153.

[19] Dusselier, 2008

Further Reading:

Mike Mackey. Remembering Heart Mountain: Essays on Japanese American Internment in Wyoming.  (Western History Publications, 1998)

Naomi Hirahira and Gwenn Jensen. Silent Scars of Healing Hands : Oral Histories of Japanese American Doctors in World War II Detention Camps.( California: Center for Oral and Public History, 2005)

John Howard, Concentration Camps on the Home Front: Japanese Americans in the House of Jim Crow. (University of Chicago Press, 2009).