Alice Ito’s late father Tosh used to drive by the area where he grew up in Bellevue. She remembered how he would chuckle at how much had changed.
Just 75 years ago, a dirt road led to the Ito family house and their farm. Eventually it was replaced by a four-lane street. Just like the rest of Japanese American families in Bellevue before World War II, Tosh and his siblings helped tend to their parents’ farm in the sleepy community known for its strawberry fields. Almost a third of the students in some Bellevue classrooms were Japanese Americans.
This was all before Feb. 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that would incarcerate around 110,000 people with Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast in 10 “relocation centers” during World War II.
This included the 60 Japanese American families who were living in the small farming community of Bellevue and who had spent decades clearing and farming the land.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, some immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan were sent to internment camps. Internment of foreign nationals was common in times of war. But Executive Order 9066 was different — the order locked up U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast, including children as young as two weeks old from Seattle.
But as the Ito family planted seeds, watered and harvested crops, most notably strawberries, as an Eastside businessman named Miller Freeman spread anti-Japanese beliefs, as meticulously described in David Neiwert’s 2005 book “Strawberry Days.”
Freeman’s family — today headed by his grandson, developer Kemper Freeman Jr. — became among the biggest beneficiaries of the development of Bellevue that immediately followed the expulsion of the Japanese Americans who had made significant contributions to making the town a livable community.
From farms to camps
In Bellevue, Japanese immigrants in early decades in 20th century slowly and patiently built their fortune by doing what white residents had moved away from: they did the back-breaking work of clearing the large and deeply rooted stumps and made Bellevue suitable for farming and homes.
In 1930s, Japanese farms contributed to around 75 percent of produce grown in the region. According to 1930 census, there were 523 Japanese farms in Washington state, which translated to about 13,000 acres. Japanese farmers occupied many of the 515 vendor stalls at Pike Place Market in 1939. In Bellevue, the Japanese American community had a community center which was located just north of present-day Bellevue Square.
At the same time, businessman Miller Freeman — whose family eventually built Bellevue Square — owned several trade newspapers such as Pacific Fisherman, The Washington Farmer, The Town Crier and a handful others. His publications were an influential news source for businesses, but also became a platform for his anti-Japanese sentiments. Through his newspapers, he advocated for alien land laws in Washington. Freeman and others like him believed that there was no hope for Japanese people to ever become “real American.” He wrote in one Seattle Star editorial dated 1919: “Oil and water do not mix.”
Today, there are some people who try to use the attack on Pearl Harbor to justify the incarceration of immigrants of Japanese descent and Japanese American. But pervasive fear-mongering and discrimination against the Japanese had been simmering for decades and set the stage for acceptance of the Executive Order.
For example, in 1921, Washington state legislators passed the Alien Land Law which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” to own land or enter leases that were longer than three years.
The 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, ended further immigration from Japan. Washington state Congressman Albert Johnson, the chief author of this act, was Miller Freeman’s close ally, as David Neiwert had found out through researching for his book.
The attack on Pearl Harbor provided political cover, so to speak, to get rid of a lot of Japanese and Japanese Americans.
Tosh Ito told Neiwert that he was in Seattle when a bomb fell on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. He had heard the announcement on the radio:
“Towards the evening, I started driving back. Just as I approached the entrance to the tunnel [leading to the Interstate 90 floating bridge], a police officer stopped me. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I was going home to Bellevue. He proceeded to inspect the car, and he looked in the trunk, to see what I had, if anything…There were a lot of unnecessary, uncalled-for excuses to search us to see if we were doing something subversive, or spying.”
Months later, Ito’s parents and siblings gathered their possessions — two suitcases per person was the allowed amount all could bring to camp — and headed to their new home that felt like a prison.
The Ito family first was taken to a temporary holding center in Fresno, California, then to Tule Lake War Relocation Center near the California and Oregon state line and finally to Minidoka War Relocation Center in Jerome, Idaho. Coincidentally, decades later Neiwert would go hunting there with his father, where some of the structures from the incarceration still stood.
That spring, crops left by Japanese farmers in Bellevue and elsewhere in the region were not harvested, and white farmers could not fill the gap. The number of stalls at Pike Place Market fell to 196. The Strawberry Festival, which made made Bellevue a tourist destination, did not take place that year.
Leading up to the day Japanese families were rounded up to go to their respective incarceration camps, many families had to sell their businesses and properties — as nobody knew how long they would be gone for — for cheap. A few lucky Bellevue families, like the Itos, who owned their land through their American-born children were able to arrange with their neighbors to tend to their farms.
But even then, they were not able to avoid people who took advantage of the situation. Tosh told Neiwert of having to sell the family’s car and car equipments such as truck and tractor next to nothing.
Meanwhile, almost immediately after the Japanese were forced out of Bellevue, Eastside businessmen — including Miller Freeman — began the suburban and urban development that has built the city to what we know today.
With the farmers forced out, the cleared farmland became available for upscale shopping centers and housing developments made accessible with new highways, including the I-90 bridge which was completed in 1940.
“Really, the people who were most agitating for the removal of the Japanese were land development interests who wanted to get the Japanese out of this land that the [Japanese] had turned from marginal properties into valuable properties. [Developers] were ready to give birth to the suburbs,” said David Neiwert.
Despite being key members of Bellevue’s community before World War II, the Japanese American families from Bellevue didn’t share in the city’s incredible growth that started immediately after the war and continues through today.
By the time 11 of the 60 Japanese American farmer families returned to Bellevue, everything had changed forever. Many properties had been wrecked or set on fire, stored possessions stolen and more and families struggled financially.
“The wells had been sabotaged, like garbage and dead animals and stuff had been thrown down into the wells and the well water was their source of water,” Alice Ito told me in a recent interview. “And also they didn’t have any money left to purchase new equipment or used equipment, even. It was still so expensive. They couldn’t start farming again so a lot of the families moved on to something else.”
History of shame and silence
When Alice Ito was growing up in Bellevue in the 1950s and 1960s, she was one of only a couple of Japanese American students and a handful of students of color in her middle school. It was a strikingly different time than when her father Tosh was going to school in Bellevue.
Her father, after leaving his family in an incarceration camp Minidoka to serve in the US Army during World War II, returned to Bellevue to work at the U.S. Post Office. Tosh Ito was the second person of color and Japanese American to work there.
Unlike most families that never returned, the Ito family went back to farming the land that they owned after they were released, but not at the same scale as before the war.
“To me as a little kid it seems like they had rows and rows of peas and beans and strawberries and we had to water it and plow it and weed it and pick it — to me it seemed like a lot of work but to my dad it was nothing,” said Alice.
As was common among the incarcerated families following World War II, trauma of incarceration kept the Ito family from talking about their experiences in the camps to their own children.
Alice Ito said that she only learned about her family’s history in middle school, when her teacher had asked her to do a report on the Japanese American experience during World War II. Her mother Aki, who was spared from incarceration because she grew up in Spokane which was outside of the order, was willing to talk to her about it more than her father Tosh was. The year was 1968.
“I was in junior high and I must have been 13 or 14 and part of it I think I blocked it out. We all had to give a report and a friend of mine who was there in the classroom she said that she remembered that I broke down crying after the report because I was so upset. I kind of wiped out of my mind, some of that, because it was so upsetting,” said Alice.
Legacy of incarceration
Alice Ito learned more about her family’s incarceration history when she went to Stanford University in the 1970s, during the birth of Asian American activism.
Decades later, she was a volunteer for a project collecting oral histories of Japanese Americans in the Bellevue/ Eastside area, for which some people she interviewed recalled losing property and community gathering spaces that once stood right near where Bellevue Square is today.
She also worked for Densho, a non-profit that gathers oral histories and documents regarding the incarceration experiences. It was there that she discovered the connection between the Freeman family and Japanese American families in Bellevue.
“I found out more about Kemper Freeman Jr’s grandfather and that he was quite prominent in the anti-Japanese movement and that he really was very outspoken in saying that the Japanese Americans were not wanted to go back to Bellevue,” Ito said. “I can’t say I was shocked because I knew there was anti-Japanese sentiment but to see that it was so blatant…”
Today, 75 years after the Japanese American Bellevue families were ousted from their farms, Bellevue has become a city with skyscrapers and a bustling downtown. But some things are familiar. Last year, grandson and current owner of Bellevue Square and the rest of the family’s empire, Kemper Freeman Jr. donated $100,000 to Donald Trump, who campaigned for president using exclusionary rhetoric against Muslims and Mexicans.
Alice Ito’s mother still lives in Bellevue and they shop at Bellevue Square sometimes. I asked if she thought about the Freeman family history in the region when she’s there.
“Well…I don’t think about it all the time.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ito family were incarcerated in Minidoka immediately after leaving their home in Bellevue. They were taken to several camps before Minidoka.