Chasing Details

Monday, November 10, 2014

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am working on a middle grade historical novel about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. My research included numerous memoirs and other non-fiction accounts. While they agree on the broad picture, they do not always agree on the details. So what’s a writer to do?   

Here’s one example.

My protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the war breaks out, and she and her mother are sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The sources agree that the Japanese Americans at Tanforan ate all their meals at a mess hall. But they don’t agree about who provided the dishes.

A minor point, you say? Yes, and the story certainly doesn’t hinge on its accuracy. Still, I’d like to get it right if I can. When I read a story and notice an inaccuracy, it makes me less likely to read anything else by that author. An error in my story will bother me, but it may also shrink the audience for my next book.

I purchased and read three memoirs and one near-memoir from people who were incarcerated at Tanforan. All of them mention their first meal there. In Citizen 13660, MinĂ© Okubo says she picked up a plate, knife, and fork at the dishware counter in the mess hall and wiped her plate clean with her handkerchief. Toyo Suyemoto agrees and notes that she had to wipe off the particles of food clinging to the dishes (I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment).

But Yoshiko Uchida and Haruko Obata both remember bringing plates and utensils to the mess hall. The Uchida family’s dishes were in their as yet undelivered luggage, so the three women took their place in line each “clutching a plate and silverware borrowed from friends who had already received their baggage” (Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family). Obata remembers, “At the dining room we had to bring our own plate, knife, fork, and spoon” (Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment). [Emphasis added.]

I could leave those details out, but they provide atmosphere and show the conditions the residents lived in. Either they brought (and washed) their own dishes, or they ate from ones that had food remnants clinging to them. One way or the other, adding the details shows that the Japanese Americans weren’t living a life of luxury at a vacation spa. (Believe it or not, that’s what some Caucasians claimed.)

So what do I do? The best I can, which in this case means to evaluate the sources and make an educated guess.

The accounts from people who were there are evenly split. But since memories fade over time, the account closest to the events is often the most accurate. Okubo’s book was published in 1946—four years after the events—while Uchida’s wasn’t published until 1982, and the other two were published even later. On the other hand, Uchida kept diaries most of her life and, although I don’t know whether she kept one at this time, she may have pulled her description from a contemporaneous account. So it is still a stalemate.

Fortunately, there is other evidence. Two photographs taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 show people waiting in line to enter the mess hall. Lange’s own caption for the photo at the top of this post reads, in part:

Supper time! Meal times are the big events within an assembly center. This is a line-up of evacuees waiting for the B shift at 5:45 P.M. They carry with them their own dishes and cutlery in bags to protect them from the dust.

If you look closely, you will see some of the white cloth bags she refers to.

Another piece of evidence is the official “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” These instructions told the Japanese Americans what to pack, and the list included “sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family.”

Looking at the evidence as a whole, my best guess is that Uchida and Obata were correct and the Japanese Americans arriving at Tanforan had to use their own dishes.

Am I sure that I have it right? No. And there are other arguments for and against that I don’t have space to go into here. But my job is to do the best I can.

Because even little details can be important at times, and sloppy research is as bad as none at all.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a mess line at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

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