Bits and Pieces, Mostly from Seattle

1. The Japanese language newspaper Great North American Times began publishing in 1909 in Seattle and continued to publish until 1942 when Seattle's Japanese American community was relocated to internment camps.

2. Washington state legislators pass the Alien Land Law in 1921. In 1921, Washington state legislators pass the Alien Land Law restricting property ownership. Washington's 1889 constitution had banned the sale of land to "aliens ineligible in citizenship." Asians were the only immigrants ineligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens. The new law extended the restrictions to cover leasing or renting land and renewing old leases.

Issei (first generation Japanese American) farmers got around the law by making arrangements with white farmers, who would technically own the land and employ the Japanese farmers as "managers." Issei farmers also bought land in the names of their children (Nisei), who were American citizens by virtue of being born in the U.S., or in the name of other, older Nisei, but that loophole was closed by a 1923 amendment to the land law.

3. Japanese American Citizen's League (JACL) founded in Seattle in 1930. In 1930, the Japanese American Citizen's League (JACL), the first national organization of Japanese Americans in the country, is founded in Seattle.

The focus of the JACL was on sharing with the larger community the educational and business achievements of the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans). It was also a way for Nisei to socialize, meet, and pull together as an ethnic community. The JACL emphasized the American way of life, American citizenship, and so on. From 1936-1938, James Sakamoto (1903-1955), publisher of the Japanese American Courier, the first English-language Japanese American newspaper in the United States, served as the organization's second national president.

The War Years: When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Sakamoto and other JACL leaders became defacto community spokesmen and acted as liaisons between the U.S. government and the Japanese community. Sakamoto headed the JACL Emergency Defense Council, which translated government regulations for distraught immigrants, conducted first aid classes, and gathered and distributed food.

The role of the JACL during the forced evacuation and incarceration of West Coast Japanese is controversial. Sakamoto and other JACL leaders went beyond acquiescence to active cooperation with the internment of 9,600 Japanese American residents of Seattle and King County. The organization actively opposed dissent.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, Clarence Arai, a Seattle lawyer who was an early leader of the JACL and a community leader during internment, reported subversive activities in the Japanese community to the FBI. Later, the JACL refused to back draft resisters in the inland concentration camps.

Challenges and Questions: The JACL line was not representative of the community as a whole. Seattle Nisei attorneys Shinao Masuda and Kenji Ito openly challenged the JACL's and Sakamoto's authority, contending that the JACL administration was undemocratic because its leaders were not elected, and that the JACL was a tool of the U.S. government.

Although the JACL received a vote of confidence in an election in Camp Harmony (the camp at the Puyallup fairgrounds), by the time the community was relocated to the internment camp called Minidoka in southern Idaho, the tide of opinion had turned against Sakamoto and other JACL leaders. As a result, they had little say in how Minidoka was run, though Sakamoto did help recruit Nisei for the U.S. Army in 1943.

4. Seattle School Board accepts the forced resignation of Japanese American teachers on February 27, 1942. On February 27, 1942, the Seattle School Board accepts the resignation of 27 employees who are Americans of Japanese ancestry. The young women have been pressured to resign by the school district, which in turn has been pressured by a committee led by Esther Sekor, a Gatewood Elementary School mother. The white mothers circulated a petition and received a lot of press. The Japanese American women were further pressured to resign by Japanese American Courier editor James Sakamoto, who insisted that they would be fired if they did not resign.

5. City of Seattle dismisses all employees of Japanese descent on March 20, 1942. On March 20, 1942, the City of Seattle dismisses five persons employed by the Department of Lighting because of their Japanese descent. The firings follow President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066, which sets in motion the expulsion of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to 10 inland prison camps. Forty-two years later, in 1984, the City passes an ordinance which states that "in the interest of fairness, justice, and honor, The City of Seattle should make reparation to City employees of Japanese ancestry who were terminated, laid-off or dismissed from City employment pursuant to Executive Order No. 9066."

Shame: At the time, the employees felt shame for their ancestry. In 1984, Sumiko Haji Kuriyama, one of the Seattle City Light clerks who lost his job, explained,

"It is difficult to admit, but at that time I felt shame and embarrassment, rather than anger -- shame that I was of Japanese ancestry. How simple life would have been if I were a Caucasian like so many of my friends. My parents had taught me that I was an American, that the United States was my home chosen by them, and that I must be a loyal citizen ... ." (Shimabukuro).

But with the passage of time, Kuriyama felt shame at the violation of American values: "With the passage of years, with varied experiences, and with age, I look back with shame as an American that we allowed civil liberties to be taken away ..." (Shimabukuro).

Reparations: In March 1984, City council member Dolores Sibonga (b.1931) introduced Ordinance 111571, in which the City Council would make reparations, with a payment of $5,000 to each of the unjustly fired employees. The City Council passed the bill without dissent on March 5, 1984, and Seattle Mayor Charles Royer signed it the next day.

History Retold: In the summer of 1983, a movement for redress was begun and the women who had resigned in 1942 came together once again. According to Robert Shimabukuro's account, one of the women told her story with great emotion, as if it had happened the day before:

"Called into the office of the assistant superintendent, she had been told that her employment, along with that of other clerks of Japanese ancestry, was a detriment to the school district. She was also told that she was expected to attend a meeting the following day, where she should strongly urge her Japanese American peers to resign from their respective posts. The assistant superintendent warned that each of the "girls" would be fired if they did not resign. The woman vividly recounted her attempts to compose herself in the ladies' room after the confrontation, so that she could take public transportation home" (Shimibukuro).

Sakamoto's Role: On February 24, 1942, James Sakamoto called all 27 of the women into the offices of the Japanese American Courier. According to May Ota Higa, one of the women, Sakamoto pleaded with them to resign, because as loyal American citizens, they should cooperate with the government; because resigning was in keeping with traditional graciousness; and because being fired would create a record of disgrace.

The women signed the following letter in Sakamoto's office:

"To the School Board:

"We, the undersigned American citizens of Japanese ancestry, have learned that our presence as employees in the Seattle School system has been protested by certain persons and organizations.

"Most of us have received our education in local schools, and have been proud of the fact, as we have been proud of our position as employees.

"We do not take this action in any spirit of defeat, but believe we can by our resignations demonstrate beyond dispute that we have the best interest of the school system at heart. We take this step to prove our loyalty to the school system and the United States by not becoming a contributing factor to dissension and disunity when national unity in spirit and deed is vitally necessary to the defense of and complete victory for America.

"We have no ill will toward those who have protested our employment in the school system. We feel that is their privilege.

"We only hope that the welfare of the schools will be served by our action in resigning the positions we now occupy.

"Finally, we wish to express our heartfelt appreciation to the School Board, the superintendents, the principals and teachers for the kind treatment accorded us.

Signed this twenty-fourth day of February, 1942.

"Martha T. Inouye, Esther K. Uchimura, Kyoko Kikuchi, Mariko Ozaki, May Daty, Kay K. Yokoyama, Yoshiko Kozu, Ai Takizawa, Yoshiko Yano, Kiku Tomita, Chizuko Ikeda, Marjorie Ota, Ruby Shitama, Toyo Okuda, Alice M. Kawanishi, Sally Shimanaka, Mitsuko Murao, Teruko Nakata, May Ota, Emi Kamachi, Masa Yamamura, Anna Yamada, Ayako Morita, Kazuko Kuroda, Jane Sugawara, Yuri Ike, Ayame Ike."

Undemocratic, Intolerant, Disrespectful: Before the School Board could approve the resignation, the story filled the papers. There were several protests, including a petition signed by more than a thousand University of Washington students that called the Gatewood mothers' petition "undemocratic, intolerant, disrespectful of the rights of American citizens."

The Seattle School Board accepted the resignations on February 27, 1942.

Redress: Forty-two years later, on April 11, 1984, the Seattle School Board began to consider testimony concerning a resolution for redress of this wrong. The resolution for redress passed by a narrow margin. An act of the state legislature was required before the Seattle School Board could recognize a "moral obligation" as a basis for making reparation payments.

The bill (H. B. 1415) passed the Washington State House of Representatives on February 15, 1984, and passed the Senate three weeks later. On April 3, 1986, Governor Booth Gardner signed it into law at a packed and emotional ceremony in Seattle's International District. The ceremony was attended by those former clerks who were still living. One of them, May Namba, had just been rehired by the Seattle School District.

6. Gordon Hirabayashi challenges Japanese American exclusion orders on May 16, 1942. On May 16, 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi (b. 1918), University of Washington senior, Quaker, and conscientious objector, drives with his attorney to the Seattle FBI office and challenges the Army's exclusion orders from the West Coast, orders which apply to all Japanese Americans and to their immigrant elders. To comply with these orders, which he believes are based upon racial prejudice and represent a violation of the United States Constitution and the rights of citizens, this principled American-born citizen of Japanese descent writes as part of a four-page statement: "I would be giving helpless consent to the denial of practically all of the things which give me incentive to live."

Hirabayashi was subsequently charged with disobeying Public Law 503, which provided criminal penalties for violations of the exclusion orders, and for failure to comply with the Army's curfew order. After refusal to post bail, which would have required that he join the Seattle Japanese community now being held en masse at the Puyallup Assembly Center, Hirabayashi was placed in the King County jail to await trial.

On October 20, 1942, the U.S. District Court in Seattle found him guilty on both counts, leading to a 90-day jail sentence. Hirabayashi appealed the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was asked to rule on the legality of the exclusion order, the curfew order, and Public Law 503. Argued in May 1943 and reported the next month, the justices unanimously denied his appeal after the solicitor general argued successfully that the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans was a "military necessity." In his assent, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "We cannot sit in judgment of the military requirements of that hour." Hirabayashi, who had been released from jail pending outcome of the appeal process, was ordered back to prison to complete his sentence.

In one of the historic Japanese American internment cases brought in the 1980s, Hirabayashi challenged these decisions, and in 1986 and 1987, his exclusion and curfew convictions were overturned.

8. Seattle City Council passes Japanese American reparations ordinance on March 5, 1984. On March 5, 1984, the Seattle City Council passes Ordinance 111571, in reparation to municipal employees fired during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. The ordinance is introduced by Council member Delores Sibonga (b. 1931) and states that "in the interest of fairness, justice and honor, The City of Seattle should make reparation to City employees of Japanese ancestry who were terminated, laid-off or dismissed from City employment pursuant to Executive Order No. 9066." The executive order, signed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, forced 110,000 Japanese Americans to leave their West Coast homes and go to prison camps during World War II.

Seattle Mayor Charles Royer signed the reparations ordinance on March 6, 1984, the day after the Seattle City Council passed it. The order called for a payment of $5,000 to the five employees who had been unjustly dismissed four decades earlier. The five included Thomas Kobayashi and Sumiko Kuriyama, who had been Seattle City Light clerks.

9. Government apologizes and awards redress checks to Japanese American centenarians in Seattle on October 14, 1990. On October 14, 1990, in Seattle's Nisei Veterans Hall, the United States government officially apologizes to five Japanese Americans, ages 100 and over, who had been unjustly incarcerated during the internment of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II. During the ceremony, the five, Harry Nakagawa (100 years old), Kichisaburo Ishimitsu (103), Uta Wakamatsu (102), Shoichiro Katsuno (105), and Frank Yatsu (107) each receive, by way of redress, a $20,000 check as required by the Civil Liberties Act (1988).

U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the act for redress into law on August 10, 1988, and President George Bush signed an appropriations supplement into law on November 21, 1989. The law provided that the oldest eligible individuals be paid first.

The hall was packed with joyful and tearful celebrants. The crucial impetus and essential organizing for the redress bill had come from Seattle.

11. Japanese Americans in King County react to declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941. On December 8, 1941, shortly after the United States declares war against Japan, James Sakamoto (1903-1955), editor of Seattle's Japanese-American Courier, issues a statement concerning the unfolding events. He had begun composing his statement about the loyalty of Japanese Americans to America the previous week in response to ominous signs that Japan was becoming aggressive in the Pacific Ocean.

We Cannot Fail America: Sakamoto states:

"No matter what develops involving the United States in the present tragic world situation, we Americans of Japanese ancestry must be prepared and remember that there are certain fundamental truths from which we cannot depart. One of them is that we were born in these United States as American citizens. Now that we have become involved in the Far Eastern conflict that is going to test our worth and mettle as citizens, we cannot fail America.

There is a remote possibility of our becoming the victim of public passion and hysteria. If this should occur, we will stand firm in our resolution that even if America may "disown" us – we will never "disown" America.

One inspiring example of the contribution of Americans of Japanese ancestry to the national defense effort is that more than 3,000 American soldiers of Japanese ancestry are now serving in the military training camps. … The percentage in proportion to population is greater than any other racial group, such as Italian Americans, French Americans, etc. …

It is easy for us at this time to shout our patriotism and declare our loyalty. But we must do much more than mere lip service. Our biggest job, and the hardest, will be to go ahead, doing our work as diligently and as efficiently as we can, to contribute to America's defense. This is a time for calm thinking and quick action, in behalf of America" (The Seattle Star).

Harassment Begins: Fear and suspicion of Japanese Americans had already begun. On the evening of December 7, 1941, Seattle Police "rounded up 51 Japanese aliens considered dangerous by the Federal Bureau of Investigation" and placed them in custody (The Seattle Star). Some of these Seattleites were reportedly members of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce.

On December 8, 1941, Seattle Mayor William ‘Earl' Millikin (1890-1970) issued the following warning to Japanese Americans:

"Seattle must have tolerance toward American-born Japanese, most of whom are loyal. But I also want to warn the Japanese that they must not congregate or make any utterance that could be used as grounds for reprisals" (The Seattle Star).

Seattle Police Chief Herbert Kimsey announced that patrols would be placed around the "Japanese quarter" and stated that anti-Japanese riots would be "crushed with force" (The Seattle Star),

Rear Admiral C. S. Freeman, commander of the 13th Naval District, made the following request:

"The immediate problem for the civilian population is to be on guard for possible sabotage. The navy will appreciate any information regarding suspicious actions on the part of individuals who may seek to do harm locally. I realize that the very great majority of our people, including Japanese residents, are loyal to our country and it therefore is important to avoid unjust or unfounded suspicion. However, all information submitted will be investigated by the proper federal authorities" (The Seattle Star).

The Rear Admiral requested that suspicious activity be submitted to District headquarters in the Exchange building (821 2nd Ave.) in downtown Seattle.

Fear was present in the Japanese American community. There were rumors that some Seattle Japanese youths had been beaten up. One Japanese American said, "I was going to take the children downtown to do some Christmas shopping, but I'm afraid it may not be safe" (The Seattle Star).

Main Index
Japan main page
Japanese-American Internment Camps index page
Japan and World War II index page