Go For Broke National Education Center and regional partners across the country have unearthed a series of little-known but compelling examples of support and public spirit that supported the Japanese American community during and immediately after WWII.
Read more about each community’s inspiring story:
Japanese Americans made the Mid-Willamette Valley their home during the early 1900s, cultivating nationally renowned celery varieties in the rich bottomlands and running successful business in town. National events, however, tore the community apart. Despite being faced with hate calls and vandalism, several individuals took courageous stands to support their family and neighbors in the face of incarceration. Even before the events of Pearl Harbor, Henry Tanaka wrote a staunch letter of support in a local magazine on behalf of his Issei parents, describing their allegiance to the United States.
Senator Ronald E. Jones faced severe political backlash for suggesting that some of his friends and neighbors of Japanese ancestry might remain loyal to the United States before a national hearing discussing forced removal.
After the removal order had been passed, Japanese American farmers had to quickly sell or lease their property. During their absence, several farmers remained on their land through the planting season to ensure that the community would be able to harvest on time. These and countless other examples tell a powerful story of community resistance, courage and compassion.
It is well known that the local, state, and federal government in Hawai’i prevented the large-scale mistreatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. What is less known, however, are the individual stories of kindness and compassion that were shown to Japanese American residents. Community leaders of Chinese, Portuguese, English, Hawaiian and other nationalities put their reputations on the line to defend Nikkei against harassment and ill treatment. Before the Nisei generation passes on, it is important to capture the individual stories of courage that have so far escaped widespread dissemination.
In 2013, the Grand Marshall of Kingsburg’s famous Swedish Festival was Robert Yano. Mr. Yano and his family were forced to leave their farm and were incarcerated in the Gila River, Arizona concentration camp. Mr. Yano joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and fought in Europe. His experiences, and those of his family, are featured along with accounts of Mats Ando, who served in the military and returned to the farm he was forced to leave with his family.
Although Kingsburg was founded and heavily populated by Swedes, the Japanese American influence was extensive before WWII. Although the town had only 1,500 residents, there were three Japanese grocery/mercantile stores, a noodle house and a Buddhist temple with a school. One of the commercial enterprises was the Mizutani Mercantile Store, which also housed a boarding house and contracted for farm labor. The Mizutani story, along with that of the Ezaki family, will be featured in the exhibition.
In addition, the unique impact of Executive Order 9066 will be explored. As Kingsburg was located on the dividing line for the initial forced relocation, one side of town was required to report to camps before the other.
When young Japanese Americans were being forced into incarceration camps in 1942, Oberlin College invited them to transfer to Oberlin from West Coast schools and, later, to leave camps and study at the college. While many other universities refused to admit Japanese Americans during wartime, Oberlin welcomed them with open arms. With the help of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council and the work of many Quakers, Oberlin accepted close to 40 Nisei students during the war years, one of whom served as student body president. The community of Oberlin proved welcoming too, affirming its support for the Nisei students when state civil defense leaders described them as a threat to public safety.
Oberlin’s response continued the college’s and community’s noteworthy tradition of challenging unjust government policy and providing sanctuary for those in need, just as they did for escaping slaves in the pre-Civil War era.
During the 1940s, Monterey was a fishing community, with large groups of Sicilian and Japanese (both Issei and Nisei) fishermen. The diverse community intermingled and interacted as neighbors and friends. When WWII broke out, the Japanese American families were forcibly removed to incarceration camps. When the camps later closed, many communities around the Monterey area spoke out vehemently against the return of Japanese Americans to their towns.
Within this atmosphere of hate, more than 500 Monterey residents signed a grassroots petition urging kindness to Japanese Americans returning from the camps. Among the signers were Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, noted photographer Edward Weston, poet Robinson Jeffers, and biologist Ed Ricketts. The petition was recently rediscovered along with the typewriter used to write the original petition.
The history of this kindness has been largely forgotten in Monterey.
The Rochester area has always prided itself on being progressive and compassionate. The actions taken by the Sisters of St. Francis for Saint Marys School of Nursing during WWII are a forgotten history. Our viewpoint provides a distinct focus on Nisei women, who are often overlooked in the history of WWII.
When Japanese Americans were incarcerated, many young Nisei lost the chance to pursue higher education. With the help of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council and the work of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), students were allowed to leave camp and attend college, if a school would open its doors to them.
By October, 1942, Saint Marys School of Nursing had been approved to accept Japanese American students.
The Cadet Nurse Corp was established in July of 1943, and Saint Mary’s School of Nursing then enrolled more Japanese American women into the nursing program than any other school in the country.
Although the school of nursing no longer exists, the history of those students will not be forgotten.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
During WWII, hundreds of Japanese Americans resettled in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Many of those who came to Minnesota were Nisei soldiers who were trained at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, and then later at Fort Snelling. Others included college students who were welcomed to continue their education at institutions of higher learning such as Macalester College, Hamline University and the University of Minnesota.
Through their dedicated efforts to resettle Japanese Americans from the War Relocation Authority camps, individuals such as Ruth Tanbara, Daisuke Kitagawa and Genevieve Steefel played a crucial role in establishing the wartime Japanese American community in the Twin Cities.
While some universities refused to admit Japanese Americans during the war, Bradley University welcomed incarcerated Nikkei to continue their study at its campus in central Illinois. Bradley continued its open heartedness by enrolling Japanese American soldiers returning from the war. This kindness extended beyond campus to the larger Peoria community, which embraced Japanese Americans relocating to the area from the concentration camps. Nikkei found compassion and job opportunities in Peoria, a welcome change from their earlier experiences during the war.
Much of this history is now forgotten and remains almost virtually unknown by Bradley students and the Peoria community.
When the West Coast turned its back on Japanese Americans during the war years, Chicago welcomed them generously – both in terms of numbers and in terms of kindness. Almost 20,000 Nikkei (Japanese immigrants and their descendants) resettled in Chicago from the incarceration camps during and shortly after the end of WWII. For young adults, Chicago offered schools. The University of Chicago, Northwestern University and others welcomed Nisei from the camps.
For many others, Chicago offered jobs. The Curtiss Candy Company (makers of Butterfinger and Baby Ruth), International Harvester, McClurg Publishing and others offered employment and good pay to Nikkei. Although this history is often forgotten today by the younger generations, many Nisei still speak fondly about Chicago’s opportunities and relative lack of discrimination.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
How did Japanese Americans in the interior West survive WWII? What became of the Issei and Nisei (first and second generation residents of Japanese ancestry) who had pioneered the American West as railroad workers, miners, and farm laborers and had remained to build lives and raise families?
These are the stories of the small and scattered Nikkei communities that dotted the map of New Mexico in the 1940s: ALBUQUERQUE, the springboard from which stories of the past enlighten the present; the southeastern town of CLOVIS, close to the Texas border; GALLUP, in the western part of the state; and SANTA FE and LORDSBURG, two “towns” made up of Issei men incarcerated in Department of Justice (DOJ) prison camps.
The arc of history is a leading player in these stories, reaching from 1942 to today. The plot contains acts of individual and communal kindness and courage alongside acts of violence and vigilantism.
The cast of characters includes city council members and townspeople; offspring of DOJ prisoners and prison guards; descendants of New Mexico Japanese American “founding” families; a Medal of Honor veteran; and three survivors of a town that ousted their Nikkei in 1942 but celebrated their return in 2014.
Additional locations include:
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Images and personal objects loaned by descendants of prisoners and New Mexico’s Japanese American families tell the story of a turbulent time both inside and outside the barbed wire. Historically significant objects include a hand-carved toolbox and a wooden diorama made by Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) incarcerated in Lordsburg; an original issue of the Lordsburg camp’s mimeographed Japanese language newspaper; and New Mexico Department of Justice documents from the 1940s in which John Kaichiro Nakayama requested permission to travel from his home in Las Cruces to El Paso, Texas for medical treatment.
Community curator Nikki Nojima Louis, artistic director of JACL Players, the New Mexico Japanese American Citizens League (NMJACL) theater group, developed the local stories in the exhibition. Louis herself was incarcerated as a child with her mother in Minidoka, an Idaho camp.