Falling in love: Courtship in a Japanese American incarceration camp

By Cedric S. Yeh
Happy couple posing beneath cherry blossom trees

During the opening months of World War II, almost 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens of the United States, were forced out of their homes and into detention camps established by the U.S. government. Many would spend the next three years living under armed guard, behind barbed wire. Life did continue behind the barbed wire. Though residents had been deprived of their most basic rights, Japanese Americans lived as normally as possible. Internees produced a wide variety of arts and crafts objects from natural materials found in and near the camps. Today's blog post by Deputy Chair and Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History Cedric Yeh explores the story behind some of these small, handmade objects.

Call me a cynic or a dried-out old historian, but I don't usually expect to find romance amongst my collections. Old uniforms, firearms, and insignia aren't fertile ground for stories of first loves and engagements. Then I came across some objects on the history of Japanese Americans during WWII. They were a set of lovingly hand-crafted pins and were clearly made for someone's sweetheart. My curiosity got the better of me and I had to find out more. Who made them? Who were they for? Did the pressures of living in the camps bring them together or push them apart?


A handmade pin from Jerome, a Japanese American internment camp
A pin made for May Asaki by Paul Ishimoto at Jerome, an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans

May Asaki had just turned 22 when she and her family were forced to leave their home in California and relocate to Jerome, an incarceration camp in Arkansas. She'd had plans to go to Hollywood and become a costume designer. But instead she found herself behind barbwire with little to do but survive and care for her family. Her mother, only 48 years old, had passed away soon after arriving at the camp, leaving May as the oldest of 11 siblings. She tried her hand as a receptionist, a nurse's assistant, and finally a clerk in the camp hospital supply room. It was there she first met Paul Ishimoto.  


Left: Paul, around age 22. right: May.
Left: Paul, around age 22. right: May, around age 19.

Paul had been assigned a job at May's hospital. When he first saw May at the receptionist desk, he felt an electric shock. He thought she had the most beautiful eyes. It was love at first sight, except May wasn't interested. He seemed older and she'd heard of him and his reputation of turning ladies' heads. With her mother gone, she had a family to take care of. She was going to make it through this difficult time and dating wasn't in the picture. Then Paul started to show up at the same events as May. He struck up a relationship with May's father. He was seen less and less around other women.

And then there were the gifts—pins, necklaces, and other carvings. Each one showed great care and feeling.


Two other gifts Paul created for May
Two other gifts Paul created for May

Maybe May had time for a date or two. There weren't many activities in the camps, but Paul remembered going to the movies and other times just grabbing snacks from the canteen. 


A celebratory dance at Jerome, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives. Hikaru Iwasaki.
A celebratory dance at Jerome, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives. Photograph by Hikaru Iwasaki.

When Paul found out Jerome was to be closed down, he asked the question, "Will you marry me?"

May said no.

It was heart breaking but, once again, May had to think of her family. Some of her siblings were quite young. They needed their surrogate mother. There was no room for romance. No room for another family. She looked for ways out. She asked her co-workers for their opinions. She got her father to agree that Paul wasn't the right type for her. She had responsibilities.

Then one day she found Paul in front of her barracks. He looked gaunt and almost unrecognizable. Paul hadn't been eating or sleeping. He said, "I can't live without you. You have to marry me." May recalled later that it looked like Paul had at most two to three weeks left in him. She couldn't have his death on her hands. What was a young woman to do? To paraphrase one co-worker's advice: 'Don't make a decision you'll regret for the rest of your life. Don't end up a spinster regretting the one that got away.'

Paul and May Ishimoto were married in April of 1944. They got leave from camp and went to Little Rock to buy a wedding outfit and get rings. She didn't remember how they left or returned from the camp—it was all a blur. Paul's family went into the woods to gather flowers and made the other preparations. May's father pulled off a huge surprise by creating a picture-perfect  wedding cake. The wedding was attended by a small group of family.


The couple at their wedding
The couple at their wedding

Was this a storybook romance with a Hollywood ending? Perhaps not, but it does show that, even in the midst of being unjustly imprisoned by your own government in squalor and misery far away from home, love could persevere, overcoming sadness and turmoil.

Paul and May Ishimoto went on to lead rich and fulfilling lives. Paul went from being a prisoner to a member of the wartime spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services. This led to a career in the federal government. May had an incredible career in costume design for American Ballet Theatre, and travelled the world, earning success and accolades. She and Paul had four children of their own and were loving parents. But in the end it was the decision in Jerome that changed it all, when May said "Yes," thanks to Paul's love, a particular skill at wood carvings, and a bit of melodrama.


The couple in later years, at a cherry blossom festival
The couple in later years, at a cherry blossom festival

Cedric Yeh is the deputy chair and associate curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. He writes, "I would not have been able to tell this story without the gracious and eager support of the Ishimoto family. All of the children and some grandchildren contributed to parts of the above story. This is their story as well as May and Paul's. Thank you."

You can see more photos in our Flickr set.