This is the opening paragraph in the first Footnote in this series that started over a month ago:
How would you like to own a thriving farm, have a crop soon to be harvested but the government comes in, forces you to leave the farm and puts you on a train to a distant location and then puts you in a fenced compound with guard towers! No, I am not describing Nazi Germany. I am describing what happened in the United States in 1942 to people who had last names like Tanamura, Yamaguchi, and Tanaka. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps during World War II Many were farmers, gardeners, or owned agricultural businesses. They got a raw deal.
In this Footnote we will learn about the experiences of the internees when they were released from the internment camps. For many it was much more than a raw deal, it was a tragedy.
Figure 1. Shuichi Yamamoto, last Amache evacuee to leave the Granada Project Relocation Center in Colorado, says “Goodbye” to Project Director James G. Lindley, as this War Relocation Authority camp was officially closed October 15, 1945. Mr. Yamamoto, 65 years of age, returned to his former home in Marysville, California. Source: War Relocation Authority.
As Word War II ended, the relocation centers closed between 1944 and 1945 and internees spread out across the United States. Given $25 and a train ticket to the destination of their choice, internees took one last glance at the relocation camp that had been their home for the past three years and never looked back (Su, 2011). By 1946 all of the camps that forcibly held Japanese Americans were closed.
Many of the evacuees decided to move on. For those who did not have a home, business, or property on the west coast they considered relocating. There was nothing back home for them except discrimination and possibly violence. Only 30% of the internees from the Tacoma, Washington area returned home. Of the 2,000 Japanese who were interned from the Florin, California area only 20% returned. Because of the seasonal labor program in the internment camps many had been exposed to opportunities in other parts of America other than the west coast. So, they did not return “home.”
The discrimination facing the returnees was not imagined or hypothetical, it was real. After returning home to the farm near Sacramento Al Tsukamoto went to town to get a part for his tractor. He was told the part was not stocked. After a Caucasian friend was informed of this, he went to town to the same store and was sold the part on the spot.
The discrimination was even codified into law. Resolution No. 207 adopted by the Sacramento City Council in May of 1943 stated, “we are opposed to the return of any Japanese from concentration camps to their former locations.” (See Figure 2)
Figure 2. Resolution #207 from Sacramento, California. Note the words “concentration camp.” This is what they were called at first but the name was later softened to be “internment centers.”
This resolution was finally repealed in 2014
Threats to property and violence were real. The Doi family, the first family returning from an internment camp to Auburn, California (40 miles northeast of Sacramento), experienced a packing shed being burned and shots being fired (See figure 3). The irony of the situation was that one Doi son, Shig, was serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe. Shig’s reaction was (Niiya, 2020), “I was getting shot at from the enemy, and then at home in my own country, people were shooting at my dad. I was risking my life for this country, and my government was not protecting my folks.”
Figure 3. Article in The San Francisco Examiner, January 21, 1945.
What do you think about the word “Jap” in the headline?
In February of 1945 four men were arrested for the arson and violence directed against the Doi family. Even though one of the defendants confessed to the crime and implicated the others, their attorney presented no evidence of their innocence. Instead he talked about the Bataan Death March and argued that this is a white man’s country, and it should be kept that way. The jury acquitted the men on all charges (Niiya, 2020).
Many more examples of discrimination and violence against the Japanese after they were released from internment camps could be given.
In the spring of 1942 when the internment started some Japanese Americans left their homes and belongings intact and rented out their houses, some attempted to put their belongings into storage, but many sold what they could. In Personal Justice Denied, the 1982 Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens report, it was stated (p. 122):
Businessmen were forced to dispose of their inventory and business at distress prices. lt was difficult for evacuees to get reasonable prices in a hostile marketplace, Individuals sold their personal belongings in a buyer’s market, realizing only a fraction of their worth.
The makeshift warehouses which evacuees used – homes, garages and other structures-were vandalized; the goods frequently stolen or destroyed. Often those who had agreed to serve as caretakers for the evacuees’ property mulcted [mulcted: deprive someone of money or possessions by fraudulent means] them in various ways. Some who had found tenants for their property discovered, to their sorrow and financial loss, that the promised rent never appeared or that tenants did not continue the previous land use; many disposed of evacuees’ property as their own, or simply abandoned it.
The National Archives have records from the War Relocation Authority that the Japanese lost between $2 billion and $5 billion dollars worth of property (Zenter, 2019).
In the first Footnote of this series on May 20, the question was asked, “If you owned a farm and knew you were going to be imprisoned in six days for who knows how long, what would you do regarding your farm?”
Many of the farmers tried to sell equipment, tools, and any other items that could be liquidated before reporting to the internment centers. However, the farmers only received pennies on the dollar because of the bargain basement prices. A Japanese farmer had bought a Fordson tractor for $750, His son wrote (Personal Justice Denied, 1982, p. 126) “Imagine his delight, after a lifetime of farming with nothing but a horse, plow, shovel, and bare hand, to finally be able to use such a device. He finally had begun to achieve some success. A dream was really coming true.” The farmer then received his notice of internment. The prized tractor was sold for $75.
The timing of the internment in the spring of 1942 could have not been worse (Personal Justice Denied, 1982, p.124):
For many evacuees the most immediate, painful loss was their profit from what promised to be a bumper crop in 1942. The parents of Jack Fujimoto lost the proceeds from an abundant crop of cucumbers and berries which they were unable to harvest before evacuation in May. Instead, the caretaker benefited from the hard work of this couple who had tilled the soil without much success until then. The Fujimotos never heard from the caretaker.
For many families who owned nurseries, evacuation occurred near one of the richest days in the flower business-Mother’s Day, which accounts for one-fifth of the annual sale of flowers. With the Mother’s Day crop about to be harvested, evacuation upon short notice caused obvious financial hardship:
The hardest thing to lose was the full 1942 Mother’s Day crop of flowers which [had been] in process from Christmas time.
When No. 9066 evacuation came, most of the nurseries, with Mother’s Day crop before them, were left with very precarious arrangements, or abandoned.
Some Japanese farmers tried to lease or sell their land before they left for the internment camps. Supposedly the government was to monitor and aid in this process. The stated goal was to preserve the land for the owners or lessees until they returned. However, this was more a pipe dream than a reality. Local officials turned a blind eye to protecting the property of those interned.
One Japanese farmer, Harvey Watanabe, described what happened to his farm (Varner, 2017):
It was leased. The farm was leased. But the lessee just stole everything. Didn’t continue to farm and then left the house vacant so then the vandals got in and got rid, vandalized all of our personal property that was stored in the attic of the house. All the photographs and everything were all… gone. The lessee had stripped it of all the appliances and everything. Plumbing and appliances were stripped out of the house. The horses were sold. The farm implements were sold.
With a few exceptions, the people leasing the land didn’t pay the agreed upon rent, nor did they pay the mortgage or taxes as they had promised to do. Because of this, much of the Japanese owned land was sold at foreclosure auctions. Who do you think bought the land and/or harvested the crops? Look back at the first Footnote in this series to see who would profit the most from the internment of the Japanese farmers. In 1942, the managing secretary of the Western Growers Protective Association (Taylor, 1991, p. 163), “reported that considerable profits were realized by the growers and the shippers because of the Japanese removal.” Wonder Why?
There was nothing the Japanese farmers could do locked up in the internment centers.
Doing the Right Thing
While many people took advantage of the situation, there were a handful of people who did the right thing. One was Bob Fletcher. He was a 1933 graduate of the University of California Davis (known as Davis College then) with a degree in agriculture. He managed a peach orchard for several years after graduation (Yardley, 2013).
Figure 4. Bob Fletcher in 1935 (photo from Marielle Tsukamoto)
In 1942, he was a state agricultural inspector who did not agree with the government-ordered evacuation and felt that Japanese farmers had nothing to do with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As a state agriculture inspector he had worked closely with the Japanese farmers.
In 1942 Bob was approached by a Japanese farmer, Al Tsukamotos, and asked if he would be willing to manage his farm and those of two neighbors while they were in the internment camps. Bob could keep all the profits if he would pay the taxes and mortgage out of the revenue.
Bob gave up his job with the state and for the next three years he worked a total of 90 acres of flame Tokay grapes on three farms. He worked 18-hour days and lived in the bunkhouse reserved for migrant workers. He paid the bills of all three families. He kept only half of the profits.
When the Tsukamotos returned in 1945, they found that Mr. Fletcher had paid off the mortgage and left them money in the bank and that his new wife, Teresa, had cleaned the Tsukamotos’ house in preparation for their return. She had chosen to join her husband in the bunkhouse instead of accepting the Tsukamotos’ offer to live in the family’s house.
For his service, he endured racial slurs and escaped a bullet fired into Tsukamaoto’s barn. At his 100th birthday celebration his niece said, “Being a good, honest person is not always the most popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.” Mr. Fletcher died in 2013 at the age of 101. He did the right thing.
What thousands of interned men and women found when they were released was that the lives they left were no longer available to them. Workers lost their jobs during deportation, and families had lost their homes and property to opportunists who had seized them in their absence.
The last Japanese internment camp closed in March 1946. President Gerald Ford officially repealed Executive Order 9066 in 1976, and in 1988, Congress issued a formal apology and passed the Civil Liberties Act awarding $20,000 each to over 80,000 Japanese Americans as reparations for their treatment.
As educators we need to follow the example of Bob Fletcher and do the right thing.
Personal Note: Next week I will be in Oregon attending the summer conference of the Oregon Agriculture Teachers Association (OATA). While in Oregon I will visit the Japanese American Museum of Oregon in Portland. I am looking forward to the exhibit “Oregon’s Nikkei: An American Story of Resilience.” The exhibit is about the Japanese internment. What is ironic is a workshop I am doing for OATA is titled “Becoming a Resilient Teacher: Lessons learned from the Dust Bowl and Covid-19 Eras.” Resilience seems to be a popular word these days.
We have a special guest editor lined up for next week’s Footnote to wrap up our series about agriculture and the Japanese American internment centers. Stay Tuned.
Niiya, Brian. Terrorist incidents against West Coast returnees. (2020, July 6). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:27, June 13, 2022 from https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Terrorist%20incidents%20against%20West%20Coast%20returnees
Personal Justice Denied. (1982). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/justice-denied
Su, Christopher (2011). An Ambitious Social Experiment: Education in Japanese-American Internment Camps, 1942-1945. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Taylor, Sandra C. “Evacuation and Economic Loss: Questions and Perspectives.” In Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano, eds. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986. Revised edition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.
Varner, Natasha (2017). Sold, Damaged, Stolen, Gone: Japanese American Property Loss During WW II. Densho.
Yardley, William. “Bob Fletcher Dies at 101; Helped Japanese-Americans. “New York Times, June 6, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/us/bob-fletcher-dies-at-101-saved-farms-of-interned-japanese-americans.html?_r=0.
Zenter, Emily (June 4, 2019). What Happened to the Property of Sacramento’s Japanese American Community Interned During World War II, Capradio.