For the longest time, whenever I would hear about Japanese concentration camps, I would associate them with the government operating out of fear and negatively affecting the lives of over 100,000 Japanese American citizens. When learning about camp, it's commonplace to hear about the harsh conditions, terrible food, and having to pack only what you could carry. It wasn't until I started having more conversations with my grandma and other folks whose family members were in growing up camp that I started to recognize that there were parts of the life the community built in camp that they thoroughly enjoyed. From the communal aspect of being close to neighbors and friends to the extracurricular activities and events, life in camp for kids and students was almost (dare I say) fun. For parents and members of the older generations, however, I would imagine their experience would've been marked by more of the distressing aspects of having to uproot your family and experience the harsh realities of camp.
Understanding both of these narratives has shaped the way I've looked at the different parts of life in camp. Games and activities played during this time are no exception. For kids and students, I imagine it would be a fun way to pass the time with friends. For parents and older folks, I imagine it would be an escape, respite after long days, and a place to commune with friends in familiar ways.
In an effort to provide a fun way to connect with family and even get a different glimpse of camp, we've gathered a list of common card games and board games played in Japanese American concentration camps. Rules and instructions are included to teach you how to play, along with archived photos from various camps.
One of the more popular and commonly mentioned games played in camp, Rummy (or Rum or even Gin Rummy) remains to be one of the best-known card games in the US. It’s a matching game at heart and from what it sounds like, it doesn’t require a ton of skill, strategy or even competition, BUT I’ve also never played it and I could be entirely incorrect. I would love to have some bachans and jichans absolutely destroy me at Rummy and prove me wrong.
The fact that you need a special 48-card deck already means we’re off to the races. I’m also only about 70% sure I’m pronouncing this game’s name correctly? You’ve got tricks, you’ve got trumps, you’ve got dix (pronounced “deece”), you’ve got melds, and you’ve got marriage - the terminology alone entices me to learn more about it. This is the first time I’ve heard of this card game, but between its unique name and popularity amongst JAs in camp, maybe the 48-card special deck could be in my future.
The object of Hearts is to be the player with the lowest score at the end of the game - a “less is more” approach to game play. While it sounds easy to play, there’s ample room for strategy and competition (my kind of game). The official Bicycle playing card website dubs it “truly one of the greatest card games ever devised for four players, each playing individually.” I don’t know about you, but if Bicycle playing cards describes it as being one of the greatest, I’m taking their word for it.
Okay, this game epitomizes bachans and jichans going to their friends’ or community centers for Bridge night. The rules and possibilities of this game sound absolutely absurd - there are more books about Bridge than any other game, with the exception of chess. Illustrious and mysterious, I almost aspire to be one of those bachans who’d kick ass and take names at a game like Bridge on Tuesday nights. I should probably learn how to shuffle better than a 3rd grader before that, but I’ll start practicing now.
I’m a sucker for decorative card designs, especially ones with a dramatic backstory. Hanafuda was popularized in the mid-16th century when it was brought to Japan from the Portugese. Around 1650 during prohibition, gambling with cards remained highly popular, leading to disguised card designs. And each time gambling with a card deck of a particular design became too popular, the government banned it, and prompted a new design, resulting in the creation of increasingly abstract and minimalist regional patterns. SPICY. Nintendo was also founded for the purposes of producing and selling hand-crafted hanafuda! It has since evolved (obviously), but you can still play it on Nintendo DS and Nintendo Switch today.
I’m pretty sure my family had one of these game boards, but it was the kind of game where you never had all the pieces/marbles to play a full game, so it just hung out in the game closet. The rules and game play are simple for young kids to play. Could be the abstract strategy game to pull some of the kiddos away from their iPhones or iPads. May I even recommend Mancala?
Go is one of the two more traditional Japanese games popular amongst the older Issei and Nisei generations in camp. This strategy game is about conquering territory using black and white stones on a 19x19 grid board. Several black and white Go stones have been discovered at various internment camp sites, around different blocks (even near elementary school blocks), suggesting that this culturally specific game could’ve been played amongst the older and younger generations.
Also known as Japanese chess, Shogi is the second of the two strategy games popular amongst the older generations in camp. I don’t know how to play chess, so not only consider the in-depth strategy required to play this game, but to also look at the pieces with characters in a different language is enough for me to be highly, highly intimidated. Similar to Bridge, I imagine jichans sitting around various boards playing tournament-style in the park with their friends. Their minds probably moving at a million miles an hour trying to strategize their captures and game faces that would make you think you lost before the game even started. Checkmate.