The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Group Work Behind Barbed Wire: The Role of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in the WWII Internment of Japanese Americans

Friday, January 18, 2013: 10:00 AM
Executive Center 2B (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Yoosun Park, PhD, Associate Professor, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Alicia Simoni, MA, MSW student, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Alex Kim, BA, Student- Master's, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Andrea Yoshida, BA, Student - Master's, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Background and Purpose:

The YWCA’s history as early 20thcentury’s most racially and culturally progressive social welfare organization is little known in social work. An important component of the YWCA’s work in this arena was done on behalf of the approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in 10 Federal “Relocation Camps” during WWII.

By WWII, the YWCA had a long-established relationship with West Coast Japanese American communities. It began monitoring the war effects on its Japanese American members and their communities from the war’s start. In April 1942, in response to the federal program of internment which it termed “a race problem in addition to being a result of war hysteria,” the  YWCA created the Japanese Evacuation Project. Its aims were: 1) to improve living conditions within the Relocation Camps and to ensure that the incarcerated did not feel “that they had not lost touch with the outside world completely”; 2) to aid in their resettlement; and 3) to influence public opinion and relevant legislation.

This study, part of a larger project analyzing social work’s involvement in the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, traces the work of the YWCA in that history.


This history covering the war years (1941-1946) is constructed from archival textual records. Data sources include the records of: The YWCA of the USA, the War Relocation Authority, California State Department of Social Welfare War Services Bureau, and multiple social work organizations. Secondary sources include period social work writings and analyses of the internment and the YWCA (and its off-shoot organizations: the International Institutes and Traveler’s Aid Society).


The YWCA stands out as the most, and arguably the only, consistently proactive social work organization working for the welfare of the Japanese Americans during the internment years. It was unique in dedicating full-time paid workers to the task and in establishing and funding programs within the camps. It prodded and led other social work organizations to coordinate and provide necessary services to post-incarceration Japanese Americans who were “resettled” in new communities across the nation.

Underlying the YWCA’s notable activities were: 1) a well-established anti-racism stance which interpreted the internment as problem of racism, and 2) an organizational grounding in group work and its emphasis on the reciprocal relationship between self and society – the idea that welfare of individuals and the creation of social change toward a more democratic society are complementary. The two factors coalesced in the YWCA’s wartime work as “the fact that we cannot do battle for democracy while denying it in clinging to practices of racial superiority.”

Conclusions and Implications:

The YWCA’s atypical stance, that work on behalf of Japanese Americans “seems not to be a thing merely that we can do; it seems a thing we must do,” stood in stark contrast to the quiescence and/or inconsistent participation of other social work organizations. The analysis of this history offers lessons in the practice of multi-level activism for today’s social work, a field from which the problem of racism has not disappeared.