History of Japanese American incarceration finds modern parallel

Japanese Americans walk down the Bainbridge Islan ferry dock to catch a special ferry to Seattle for mass removal in 1942. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry)
Japanese Americans walk down the Bainbridge Island ferry dock to catch a special ferry to Seattle for mass removal in 1942. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry)

Feb. 19 is the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II.

Over the years, I’ve had a troubled relationship with what we Japanese Americans call “the internment.”

Sometimes I have been tired of talking about it. The repeated stories of woe, hardship, lost businesses, lost family members, lost time.

We thought what happened to us could never happen again. But now we face a new executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and anti-Muslim sentiment becoming common in American political discourse. What happened to Japanese Americans in World War II has become even more relevant in 2017.

When I was growing up in Seattle in a Japanese American family and community, no one talked about those lost years of World War II — locked up behind barbed wire, living in temporary barracks, not knowing how long it would last. There was embarrassment, shame, depression.

Then in the 1970s, taking up the call from the Civil Rights movement, Asian American students, professors, and workers became activists. We were emboldened by our participation in the anti-war movement, the formation of ethnic studies and threats to Seattle’s International District, our historic home.

We wanted to know the truth about what happened before our time, so we created community-based media such as the Asian Family Affair and International Examiner newspapers. We pursued oral histories by the first and second generation Japanese Americans who had endured what we called “the camp experience.” We found artwork, poetry and photographs of the 10 internment camps.

We uncovered legal cases. Federal courts finally held that there had been no military necessity for the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. After all, there had not been a single case of espionage or spying for the government of Japan among them.

Building up to the executive order

President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on Dec. 7, 1941. Thousands of men, women and children of Japanese descent who lived on the West Coast were ordered from their homes and incarcerated in camps, limited to one suitcase each. There were no trials, nor any direct accusations of aiding the country that had attacked the United States.

But the executive order against Japanese immigrants and their American-born offspring did not come from out of the blue.

Japanese newcomers had been arriving in Pacific Northwest port cities and building lively communities for about 50 years. They first came to the United States to work on lumber and railroads, and then branched out to fishing and agriculture. Many settled in the surrounding areas of King, Pierce and Kitsap Counties. Japanese farmers worked hard to establish farms in Yakima, Toppenish, Wapato.

Japantown in Seattle’s International District featured grocery stores, cafes and services in the home language, as well as labor, music and prefectural clubs. Trading companies imported Japanese dry goods. The taste of home was found in Japanese restaurants serving the familiar sukiyaki and miso soup.

Excellent florists were supplied by Japanese greenhouses. The best strawberries came from Japanese farms in Bellevue, Bainbridge, Kent Valley

The community supported several Japanese-language newspapers and the English language Japanese American Courier. Buddhist, Catholic and other Christian churches provided spiritual guidance in Japanese and more chances for social solidarity. The Japanese School kept up the old language. Japanese enriched their cultural life through traditional drama, dance and music performances.

In 1900, there were six Japanese-owned hotels. By 1925 there were 127 Japanese-owned or managed hotels, mainly in the downtown area. Even after the Depression decimated businesses all over Seattle, the Japanese entrepreneurs survived.

By 1940, when Japanese were 2 percent of Seattle’s population, they owned 63 percent of produce greenhouses, 63 percent of hotels and apartments, 15 percent of restaurants, 23 percent of dry-cleaning shops and 17 percent of groceries in Seattle.

They were very successful but not accepted by all. Politicians, journalists and lobbying groups had become wary of this group of immigrants who spoke a strange language, tended to stick together and prayed in temples wearing robes. The immigrants’ hard work began to compete with local businesses and farmers. And they seemed to want to live permanently in America.

In 1921, Washington State enacted the Alien Land Law, wherein noncitizens of Japanese ancestry could not own land. Some purchased real estate in the name of their American-born children.  The Immigration Act of 1924 cut the flow of newcomers from Japan, saying that “aliens ineligible for citizenship” should not be allowed to move to this country or become citizens.

Furthermore, real estate red-lining meant that Japanese immigrants could not buy or rent in any neighborhood they chose. Thus, they were kept to the Japantown, International District and in the Central Area.

This lack of freedom of movement — long before the incarceration order — contributed to the notion that Japanese were clannish, secretive and not English-speaking.

The attack on Pearl Harbor brought anti-Japanese hysteria and the Japanese on the West Coast were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Only a few politicians, such as the mayors of Tacoma and Wapato, opposed the internment. A respected journalist in Bainbridge, Walt Woodard, wrote against the internment.

In April 1942, over several days, 7,000 Seattle Japanese — the majority of them American citizens — were sent by train to Camp Harmony, hastily built from horse stalls at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. After a few months, they were sent to Camp Minidoka in the barren desert of southern Idaho.

Others were sent to the Tule Lake camp in northern California. It became the biggest and most heavily guarded of the 10 camps, with 19,000 residents.

The author’s mother Ayame Kyotani (at right) and student performing classical dance in Tule Lake camp, circa 1943. (Photo via Jcallegacy.com courtesy Mayumi Tsutakawa)

My mother, the American daughter of immigrants who had been living in Sacramento, was interned there. It’s where she met my father, another American child of immigrants, who was serving in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service teaching the Japanese language.

Many Nisei (second-generation) soldiers joined the U.S. Army. Some served in the highly decorated 442nd and 100th battalions, which served in European battle zones and suffered high casualties.

At the same time, a brave few Japanese Americans sat in jail for resisting the forced-evacuation order. Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington student, spent time in jail for resisting being sent to the camps. While he was jailed in King County, hundreds of UW students marched in protest.

Hirabayashi finally was vindicated more than 40 years later, by the Ninth Court of Appeals. The court found that there had been no military necessity for the evacuation because there had been no proof that Japanese committed spying or espionage.

The camps closed by the fall of 1945, after the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing about 200,000. My mother’s older brother died in the Hiroshima blast.

But the oppression didn’t end with the official close of the camps.

Many Japanese had no home to come back to. Often their old neighborhoods and former places of employment were hostile to their return, with graffiti stating “No Japs Wanted” scrawled on their old homes. Few Japanese farmers returned to their former homesteads. Employers refused to rehire Japanese, fearing open rebellion from their other workers or customers.

Reparations for Japanese Americans who were sent to the camps came in 1988, after 43 years of activism, political advocacy, negotiation and legislation. An act of Congress authorized a payment of $20,000 for each person who had been imprisoned in camp.

American concentration camps can, and did, happen. Both citizens and noncitizens were imprisoned with no due process of law.

Today, we are left with these questions: How does an immigrant community face racist and religious hatred? What responsibility do we all have to prevent another mass incarceration of a single ethnic group with no due process under our Constitution? And if it does happen, what recourse is there for redress?

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