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Imagine being told you have less than a week to leave your home — and that you’re only allowed to bring along whatever you can carry. Imagine having to scramble to uproot your entire life and move your family. Your house and your business would likely need to be sold off in a rush, at whatever price a buyer would offer, because it’s unclear when or if you’d be coming back home. Such a scenario seems farfetched in a land that prides itself on promising every citizen the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, in 1942, the American government deemed citizens of Japanese descent to be “enemy aliens.”
We often look back on World War II and focus on the most violent atrocities — on genocide by the Nazis or the devastating civilian casualties caused by the detonation of two atomic bombs. But the injustice that the American government perpetrated against its own citizens — to West Coast–based Japanese-Americans based solely on their ethnicity — serves as one of the low points in our nation’s 20th-century domestic history. Given our city’s geography, Portland served both as a hub for many Japanese immigrants beginning around the turn of the century, and as a significant site during their wartime relocation and internment.
Following Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States (previously hesitant to join the war effort) was thrust into the fray of World War II. In the wake of these events, jingoist paranoia and outright racism led to the fear that the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (American-born children of Japanese immigrants) would conspire against the United States, despite the lack of any evidence to back up those fears. Anti-Japanese animus swelled throughout the country, especially along the West Coast, which many feared vulnerable to attack. The response from the executive branch was harsh and unparalleled. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, effectively banning Japanese-Americans from living freely in established “military areas” that stretched 200 miles inland from the Pacific Coast. This decree allowed for zones where “any or all persons may be excluded” — literally translated as any and all persons of the slightest Japanese descent.
Paranoia and racism were so rampant at the time that internment supporter General John L. DeWitt went on record with the illogical assertion that the lack of any evidence of sabotage by Japanese-Americans served as “a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” No distinction was made between Japanese-American citizens and those without citizenship. Instead, over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry (62 percent of which were American citizens) were rounded up and incarcerated at ten inland concentration camps and eight U.S. Department of Justice camps, where they would remain throughout the war.
Wartime Injustice in Portland
Though there’s little sign of it now, Portland was once home to a thriving Japantown. Occupying a 10- to 12-block area north of West Burnside between N.W. Second and Sixth avenues, the community sprung up in the late 19th century as employment opportunities with the railroad, agricultural and foresting industries drew in a large number of Japanese immigrants. The need for bathhouses, hotels, markets and other Japanese services fueled an area of town that catered to immigrants who were often young bachelors. Though discriminatory laws in the early 20th century actually forced American women to surrender their citizenship if they married a Japanese man, families were started and family businesses became a staple of Japanese immigrant life, even amidst exclusionary federal immigration laws targeted at the Japanese in the 1920s. Thus, many of these men were only able to find wives by having a third party arrange marriages with Japanese women, sight unseen. These “picture brides” often faced terrible hardships when they arrived, but it was through their efforts in working, creating homes and raising children that the foundations of Japanese communities in America were established.
Japantown’s culture and population evaporated when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. Strict curfews for Japanese-Americans were put into place in military areas. One Portland resident and U.S. citizen, attorney Minoru Yasui, intentionally broke curfew by walking around downtown Portland after 8 p.m., demanding to be arrested so he could challenge the unconstitutional executive order (though the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the curfew when it heard the case a year later). Meanwhile, bank accounts were frozen, the Nikkei (Americans of Japanese descent) were spat upon and openly berated, homes were searched and over 2,000 Issei men on the West Coast were arrested by the F.B.I., largely based on hearsay.
In May 1942, relocation commenced. Portland’s Nikkei were given only days to prepare for the upheaval of their family life, professions and liberty. Property was hastily sold, pets abandoned, businesses shuttered. Because temporary assembly centers were implemented until 10 permanent concentration camps could be established, few Nikkei could be certain what to bring with them — whether to prepare for a climate hot or cold. Portland’s Nikkei (and all others in Military Area No. 1) were forced to report to the Portland Assembly Center, a shoddily constructed camp on the location where livestock expositions were held. The only privacy afforded the incarcerated Nikkei were thin plywood walls that didn’t reach to the ceiling. The stench of manure still pervaded the poorly lit camp.
During its relatively short duration, the Portland Assembly Center housed nearly 3,700 displaced Nikkei at its peak. By the summer of 1942, people in the temporary Portland camp were relocated to a “permanent” facility in Minidoka, Idaho. Despite their unjust incarceration, Japanese-Americans made the best of their situation in the camps, enduring the deplorable conditions, barbed wire and armed guards. Detainees formed a makeshift community that included newspapers, educational classes, fire and police departments and even dances. But the fabric of the family unit was compromised, and open-air latrines degraded their dignity. Astoundingly, even as the Battle of Midway turned the tide of the War in the Pacific, removing any real threat of Imperial Japan’s invasion of the American West Coast, the Nikkei remained incarcerated for nearly three years.
Even with their release, the indignities forced upon the Nikkei continued. Racism abounded and job opportunities proved scarce for those who returned to Portland. Japantown was never resurrected.
Retired professor and local author Linda Tamura — whose Hood River relatives were sent to internment camps even as her father fought in the U.S. military — points out that internment caused much shame for the Nikkei. In conducting research and interviews for her book “Nisei Soldiers Break Their Silence,” Tamura discovered “a reluctance by many to even talk about internment. Many felt like they had done something wrong; that it was something shameful.”
Hood River Nikkei were more likely to return home than were former Portlanders, largely because of a desire to reap the rewards from planting orchards years earlier, or simply because they had nowhere else to go. In fact, Tamura’s grandparents and mother were the first Nikkei family to return to Hood River, thanks in part to their ability to hire a caretaker to run their farm during their absence. Hood River would receive national notoriety when they publicly broadcast racist epithets, and when the names of 16 Japanese-American soldiers were blotted out from a patriotic “honor roll” monument under the dark of night.
Unfathomably, it took until the Carter administration for an investigation into Japanese-American internment to research whether the incarceration of a particular ethnic group (most of whom were U.S. citizens) was just. Finally, during the Reagan years, the government declared that the internment was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Such an acknowledgment was important to survivors. As Tamura puts it, “This was an affirmation that what occurred shouldn’t have happened; that [Japanese-Americans] had been wronged. It was an important first step.”
Activism and Remembrance
Despite this sordid past, Portland is now abundant with commemoration for a people who were wrongly oppressed. The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center educates the public about Japanese-American history on a site where Japantown once stood. Nearby, our waterfront is adorned with the Japanese American Historical Plaza, which was dedicated in 1990 to raise awareness about Portland’s diverse cultural history. The plaza features engraved poetry and a landscape meant to evoke the Japanese tradition, and it’s an especially gorgeous location when the trees are in full bloom in spring.
Those wishing to learn more about Japanese-American internment, or about World War II in general, are encouraged to visit the fascinating exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society. “World War II: A World at War, a State Transformed” commemorates the 70-year anniversary of the war’s end. The exhibit includes historical artifacts, original documents, interactive displays and educational videos that bring to life one of the most volatile periods in our world. Free to Multnomah County residents, the exhibit is on display now until December 7. And for a more sonic experience, the Minidoka Swing Band has been performing music once popular in the internment camps since the band’s inception in 2007. Named after the Idaho camp where Portlanders were sent, the band operates with the mission to “encourage youth to remember the perseverance and accomplishments of those who were interned at U.S. Internment Camps during World War II.”
Even 70-plus years later, the Japanese-American internment camps stand as a vivid reminder of what can happen when war hysteria and racism run amok. The Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL) holds an annual Day of Remembrance and spearheads activism on other issues too, such as fighting discrimination against LGBT, Native-American and Arab-American populations. Vigilance remains important, even in a seemingly more equality-oriented 21st century. After all, just this past summer, former general Wesley Clark misguidedly advocated for the return of internment camps for American citizens deemed to be “radicalized” or “disloyal.” If we’re not careful, history can repeat itself. As Tamura puts it, “We can’t live in the past, but the past is a powerful memory and a powerful conscience. We need to remember when Americans lost their rights.”