For Internees, New Life Took Root in Farm Community : History: A center will commemorate thousands who came to Seabrook, N.J., after their release from World War II detention camps.
At the end of World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans freed from detention camps came to this farming village in southern New Jersey hoping to rebuild their lives.
Some left after earning enough money at a large vegetable farm and packing plant to move back to the West Coast. But several hundred remained and left a lasting mark on this bucolic community about 36 miles south of Philadelphia.
Fifty years later, about 500 Japanese Americans still live here and they want their migration remembered. They are working to establish a museum and research facility to chronicle one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history--the detention of thousands of Japanese Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, scheduled to open in October, will commemorate the flight here by more than 2,500 internees who were freed from detention camps in the South and West in 1944 and 1945.
“The important thing is that we don’t want the same thing to happen to any other person,” said John Fuyuume, the cultural center’s project director. “We don’t want them to be incarcerated for prejudicial reasons.”
The Japanese Americans were lured here by industrialist Charles F. Seabrook, who was seeking a labor force for his vegetable farming and packing operation, Seabrook Farms, that filled huge government orders for the troops. Seabrook became the single largest employer of internees.
In April, 1944, Ellen Nakamura, then 25, traveled here from a detention camp in Jerome, Ark., where her family had been held for two years. The only woman and the youngest in a three-member relocation committee, she tried to assess how Japanese Americans would fare at Seabrook Farms.
After visiting Seabrook, Nakamura went from camp to camp persuading other internees to make the cross-country trek. She even had to persuade her fiancee, Kiyomi, promising to marry him only if he would agree to move to New Jersey.
Nakamura said the lush farmland in southern New Jersey was reminiscent of her native Tulare, Calif., where the family farmed vegetables before their detention.
“I was so excited. I couldn’t tell enough about what I saw,” recalled Nakamura, the first Japanese American woman to settle here. “We’d have a new start here.”
The couple married in May, 1944, and a month later moved to Seabrook. Eventually, other family members relocated here too.
“I thought there would be great potential for families,” said Nakamura, who eventually moved from the government-built village to a 73-acre farm several miles away.
Nakamura worked at Seabrook for nearly 40 years, first as a liaison between the company and the former internees and later in the housing department. Her late husband also worked briefly at the plant.
“We never regretted our decision,” said Nakamura, 75, of Elmer.
The cultural center, in the basement of Upper Deerfield Township Hall, will include hundreds of photographs, oral histories and artifacts, says Nakamura, its founder and chairwoman.
A reunion also slated for October is expected to draw former residents from across the country and a few from Japan. One former resident is building a replica of Seabrook Village to be displayed at the gathering.
Elders seldom talk about their internment experience, but want to preserve their history for posterity, Nakamura says. Too many of the younger Japanese Americans know little about their heritage, she says.
Japanese Americans were stunned by the hysteria that swept the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. About 120,000--the majority of them native-born American citizens--were rounded up because of their Japanese ancestry.
“The only question we had was, ‘How come? We’re Americans’ ” recalled Fusa Kazaoka, 64, a retired telephone company worker who lives in Seabrook. “They were treating us like we were enemies.”
An order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed the government to send Japanese Americans to internment camps. The government contended that they were a threat to national security and detained them, without trials or appeals.
Today, a lingering but seldom-voiced bitterness remains. Some former internees refuse to talk about their internment, saying the memory was still too painful.
“Our parents are the ones who suffered,” said Rose Dodohara, 62, who was sent with her family to a Japanese internment camp in Texas in 1944. “For them it was bad.”
It was not until nearly four decades later that the country tried to make amends. President Reagan signed legislation in 1988 granting an apology and $20,000 restitution to each of the estimated 60,000 living camp survivors.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Kazaoka, who came to Seabrook in 1945 when she was 16 and still lives nearby with her 92-year-old mother. “It’s a small price you get for everything you lost.”
Hustled from their homes and farms, the Japanese Americans were transported by train to the detention camps. The shades were drawn and the passengers were guarded by military personnel.
At the camp, hundreds of families were thrown together, living in a communal environment in cramped military-style quarters with little privacy. The remote and isolated camps were surrounded by barbed wire.
By 1943, the government gave the approval for most of the internees to leave the camps if they had jobs and passed a loyalty test. Travel to the West Coast, however, was restricted until the following year.
More than 300 families came here from the Jerome, Ark., camp alone. More came from camps in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Texas.
The former internees welcomed a new start, although most came here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Most had lost their land back in the West, as well as their belongings, which were either sold or stolen.
“We didn’t know where to go,” said Mitsuko Omura, 75, who came here with her husband, children and several other relatives. “So we came here.”
Charles Seabrook persuaded the federal government to build 156 small apartments, a library, community center and dining hall. Each internee was given $25 and a railroad ticket from the camps.
They lived in cinder-block, barracks-style apartments in Seabrook Village--where most remained until the 1960s and ‘70s. Here they began to build a sense of community.
The Japanese Americans who remained in Seabrook became an integral part of the community, which today has about 6,800 residents. Their children excelled in academics and athletics at public schools, before leaving to seek better opportunities.
Residents traveled from house to house in the village celebrating traditional Japanese holidays. Recreational activities were held for youngsters at the village community center.
“It was a perfect place to grow up in,” Kazaoka said. “It was a real safe, comfortable kind of place.”
But the transition here was not easy and the work was hard at the Seabrook plant.
Seabrook provided lodging, lunch and utilities for six months to the newly freed Japanese Americans. In exchange, they had to agree to work in his processing plant and farm for six months.
The salary was usually about 49 cents an hour for menial jobs at the plant. So they could take turns caring for their children, husbands and wives worked alternate shifts, harvesting crops in the fields or packing vegetables on the assembly line.
“It was not an easy life,” says Fuyuume of the culture center, who worked at the factory as a timekeeper supervisor. “Most families had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”
At its peak during and after the war, the plant employed 4,000 people who packed 100 million pounds of frozen, canned and dehydrated vegetables yearly.
Some Japanese Americans worked at the plant until it closed in 1981. Others launched their own businesses nearby or pursued successful careers.
Only a few former internees live in the graffiti-covered village, now a public housing project. The village bears little resemblance to the neatly kept complex described by former residents.
Today, a Buddhist temple stands as one of the few visible reminders of the Japanese American migration to Seabrook. The temple began holding services in 1945 in Seabrook Village.
“It helped out the Japanese community,” recalled Frances Ono, 72, of Bridgeton. “It held the people together.”
The congregation--members of the Jodo Shin sect--is smaller today, with only about 100 members. Once comprised only of Japanese, the temple has about 15 white members with a white priest at the helm.
But the temple, located on a seven-acre site a few miles from its original spot, still serves as a center for spiritual, social and cultural activities.
“It’s like an anchor,” said the Rev. Rebecca MacDonald, the first non-Japanese and first woman priest at the temple. “It’s been a very important part of the community.”
The original Seabrook settlers struggle to keep customs and culture alive through celebrations such as the Obon Festival, held annually on the third Saturday in July to honor dead ancestors. An annual chow mein dinner sponsored by the Japanese-Americans Citizens League still draws hundreds of people.
The elders still speak Japanese, but most of their children did not learn the language. A young descendant of one former internee thought that her grandmother spoke Spanish.
“There are certain things we try to keep up,” Ono said. “Gradually, we’re going to lose it.”