"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Record of a community destroyed

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy for more than just the attack on Pearl Harbor. The events of that day, coupled with racist sentiments long existing in U.S. society, led to a dark chapter in that nation's history: The internment of an entire community of U.S. citizens for no other reason than their ancestry.

David Neiwert's Strawberry Days (Palgrave Macmillan, 280 pp, 29.95 dollars) is an examination of the internment of Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent on the U.S. West Coast. In the book, Neiwert combines extensive historical research--hundreds of primary and secondary source documents and broad-ranging interviews with numerous internees--to trace the history of the Japanese-American community in the town of Bellevue, Wash., a former farming community that is now a suburb of Seattle.

In an e-mail exchange with The Daily Yomiuri, Neiwert explained that Strawberry Days grew out a series of articles he wrote as news editor of the Bellevue Journal-American on the long-term effects of the internment on the local Japanese community.

Strawberry Days is really three books in one: A detailed historical chronicle of the whos, whats, wheres, whens and hows of the internment and the events leading up to it; a series of personal anecdotes and emotional reminiscences from internees and those who knew them; and an insightful, well-reasoned analysis of why the internment happened and what its ramifications are.

Neiwert tracks the history of Japanese immigration to the United States beginning in 1884, just two years after Chinese immigrants had been barred. The first came mostly to work in the Hawaiian sugar industry, later moving to work on rail gangs and in sawmills and canneries in places like Washington. The number of Japanese living in the United States swelled rapidly from about 2,000 in 1890 to more than 24,000 in 1910, according to census figures quoted in the book.

Most of the Japanese immigrants came from rural prefectures, and by the turn of the century many were working in local farm fields. In some areas, including Bellevue, issei and nisei leased or even bought land that they cleared and started truck farms on.

Just as with the Chinese decades earlier, the Japanese immigrants became the target of racist campaigns up and down the coast, led in the Seattle area by Miller Freeman, a publisher and businessman who later became a key figure in Bellevue. Neiwert catalogues various anti-Japanese campaigns including a 1906 move by the San Francisco school board which, under pressure from the Asiatic Exclusion League, ordered all Japanese students to attend the city's Chinese-only school, a slight that led to U.S.-Japanese saber-rattling that resulted in a de facto ban on immigration from Japan.

Miller's role in whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment dated back to as early as 1904 as a proponent of the "Yellow Peril" conspiracy theory, which held that Japanese immigrants had been sent to the United States as secret shock troops and spies for a coming invasion, a theory that was given much credence by those calling for internment years later. Miller continued to lead his Anti-Japanese League, wielding significant political clout in Seattle and pressing successfully for anti-Japanese legislation.

"These groups were really as mainstream as could be. White supremacism was part of the cultural air that Americans breathed back then. The campaigns emanated from the core of power politics, i.e., both the moneyed and the working classes. And there was a clear connection between those campaigns and the internment; many of the same figures emerged to promote internment--Miller Freeman being a classic case--and nearly identical arguments were heard throughout, especially those that painted a portrait of Japanese-Americans as likely traitors," Neiwert told The Daily Yomiuri.

Despite all this, Bellevue's Japanese community thrived. Specializing in strawberries, they were so successful that by the 1930s Bellevue's annual June strawberry festival was attracting 15,000 visitors to the town of fewer than 2,000 residents. The Japanese truck farmers there formed a very successful farming cooperative and community association and their berries were shipped all over the country from their own rail siding. Times were good.

With the coming of war, all this changed. Japanese-Americans were hounded from jobs and constantly suspected of espionage in the wave of hysteria following Pearl Harbor. Worse followed in the actions and attitude of Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the West Coast defenses who called for Japanese, citizens and immigrants alike, to be removed from the region. In May 1942, Bellevue's entire Japanese population--about 60 families comprising more than 300 people--were evacuated and interned along with about 120,000 other nisei, more than two-thirds of them U.S. citizens by birth. Most lost any personal possessions they couldn't carry.

Strawberry Days most harrowing chapters deal with internees' personal experiences of the evacuation and early period of internment. The most heartbreaking deal with their return after the war to find the farms they had been forced to abandon overgrown or sold for development. In Bellevue, one of the major developers was Freeman.

In one wrenching anecdote, Neiwert relates the story of Kiyo Yabuki, a Bellevue native who volunteered for the U.S. Army while interned and was badly wounded in France serving with the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the nisei unit's famous rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion. After spending most of a year in Vancouver, Wash., hospital, Yabuki took his army uniform to a Bellevue laundry for dry-cleaning. The shop refused to serve him because he was Japanese.

To Neiwert, the historical issue is still a timely one for a number of reasons: "First is the overarching lesson of the internment: That Americans, in times of great national stress, were willing to completely discard the rights of our fellow citizens--so long as it wasn't us. We also were willing to assume that race or ethnicity itself was cause to suspect others of treason. I don't think these propensities have gone away; in fact, they've been resurfacing a lot since 9/11...[the internment] gave the military the precedent it sought to enable it to arrest and detain civilians in a non-battlefield situation without any recourse to the courts. That precedent has come back to us in the form of military tribunals and 'enemy combatant status' instituted by the Bush administration since 9/11."

When the U.S. Supreme Court gave the constitutional seal of approval to the internment in its notorious Korematsu vs United States decision (in which U.S. citizen Fred Korematsu unsuccessfully appealed his conviction for the "crime" of refusing to leave his home), Justice Robert Jackson wrote in dissent that the precedent was "a loaded gun" that could be turned on the rest of the populace at any time.

"That warning, " says Neiwert, "has now come home to roost."

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