Wedding Cake Topper
The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II impacted every aspect of life, including matchmaking and marriages, as this top tier of Frances and Shizuo Nishimura’s wedding cake demonstrates.
You might imagine that getting married would be the farthest thing from anyone’s mind while incarcerated, but it was a way for couples to ensure they would stay together, even if they moved to a different camp. Even under incarceration, life continued on despite the hardship.
Frances (née Itabashi) and Shizuo were married on June 19, 1943, at the Tule Lake concentration camp. They began dating while living in Auburn, Washington, before the U.S. entered World War II. Once at Tule Lake, they decided to get married, potentially earlier than they otherwise would because of an impending transfer to a different camp.
Tule Lake officially opened to incarcerees in May 1942, housing Japanese Americans mainly from Washington, Oregon, and California. In 1943, a loyalty questionnaire was administered to incarcerees across the camps. Tule Lake was to be designated as the segregation site for those the government deemed disloyal, and inmates already housed there who were not to be segregated would need to be moved elsewhere. This impending move motivated Frances and Shizuo to get married with the hope of being able to stay together, no matter where they ended up.
After the wedding, they were transferred together to Amache concentration camp and–somehow–Frances was able to hold on to this memento for the rest of her life. When she passed away in 2019, it was discovered by her daughter Elaine Nishimura. Her mother had never spoken of the cake topper before, so imagine Elaine’s great surprise at prying open a random box and seeing this inside.
The figures of the bride and groom were hand-made for the occasion, but what was the cake top made out of? Lucy Capehart, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at JAMO, guesses that the cake’s top tier was most likely made of plaster and paint, allowing it to stay relatively intact after all these years. There is also a possibility it was an actual edible cake, made with relatively little moisture in the first place and potentially preserved in the air-tight box. Elaine donated the cake topper to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon in 2023, and the question of its composition continues to be researched by museum staff.