While victorious World War II troops got homecoming parades, a far different welcome awaited Japanese-Americans returning from the internment camps where they’d been forced to spend the war.
The Nagaishi family found their Seattle home defaced by graffiti proclaiming “DEATH” and “NO JAPS WANTED.” In a cemetery south of the city, headstones with Japanese names were toppled.
Chuck Kato was 12 when his family returned to Seattle from an internment camp in Idaho. He recalls running an errand to a neighborhood store and being stunned by a sign in the window: “No Japs or Dogs Allowed.”
Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were forced into internment camps after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They were accused of no crime, and two-thirds were native-born Americans, but they were considered a security threat due to their Japanese ancestry.
Although V-J Day closed the camps, it did not end the racism that many Japanese-Americans believe prompted their internment.
Fifty years later, the indignity of the wartime internment still stings as they endure more subtle discrimination blocking Japanese-Americans from feeling accepted as “real Americans.”
“It was pretty hard, all that racial prejudice,” Kato said. “But what can you do? It still exists today.”
The mass evacuation was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942. Military officials, fearing a Japanese attack on the West Coast, said the region’s Japanese-American population could harbor spies and saboteurs. Also lobbying for evacuation were white businessmen and farmers, who resented economic competition from the Japanese-Americans.
Ten “relocation centers” were hurriedly built in desolate areas of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, and Japanese-Americans were given as little as a week to pack and leave their homes and businesses.
Thriving Japanese neighborhoods in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles became ghost towns.
“We lost everything,” said Sharon Aburano, whose parents were prosperous merchants in Seattle before being forced to the Minidoka internment camp in southern Idaho’s parched sagebrush country.
Only 44,000 internees remained in the camps at war’s end. Beginning in 1943, the government encouraged families to resettle in the Midwest and East, and many young adults left to attend college.
Young men in the camps could join the military starting in January, 1943, and a year later they were included in the draft. Some refused and were sent to a segregation center at Tule Lake, Calif., but more than 20,000 others joined up.
Chuck Kato’s oldest brother served in the Military Intelligence Service, interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. His second-oldest brother was killed in action while in the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit made up almost entirely of Japanese-American soldiers.
The 442nd’s well-publicized heroics in European battles helped dull some hostility directed toward Japanese-Americans back home. But many white Americans, the memories of Pearl Harbor and bloody Pacific battles still fresh in their minds, could not accept that someone with Japanese blood could be a loyal American.
By February, 1945, fear of a Japanese invasion had lessened and the government opened the West Coast exclusion zone, allowing Japanese-Americans back in. But a lack of jobs and widespread hostility kept many from returning home.
In April, 1945, Frank Arase wrote a letter from Minidoka to the Harrison Dye Works in Seattle, where he’d worked as a delivery person before the war.
A secretary wrote back, saying Arase’s inquiry showed he did not “even remotely comprehend” the bitterness toward Japanese.
“It would indeed be business suicide for Mr. Spalding to hire a Japanese person in any capacity, as there would surely be an almost complete walkout,” the letter said. “I am sure you would bump against the same stone wall should you try to obtain employment anywhere in Seattle at this time.”
After the war, many Japanese-Americans tried to put the war behind them, swearing off their Japanese culture and redoubling their effort to join mainstream America.
“ Shikata ga nai-- it can’t be helped--that was the old saying we always heard,” said Ed Suguro, who was 10 when his family left the internment camp in Tule Lake. “People just got on with their lives and forgot about everything in the past.”
Years later, the buried indignation resurfaced as Japanese-Americans sought official apologies for what some scholars consider the most serious violation of constitutional rights in U.S. history.
In 1982, a federal commission concluded the internment was “motivated largely by racial prejudice and wartime hysteria.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation offering an apology and a $20,000 redress check to every former internee.
Japanese-Americans say they still face barriers to assimilation that Americans of white European stock do not.
It bothered them during World War II that no blanket internment orders applied to Americans of German or Italian descent. And it bothers them today when others assume that they’re recent immigrants from Japan, even though their families may have been in America for generations.
Suguro says he was sheltered from the worst discrimination growing up on a farm outside Seattle. He considered himself all-American, except when he looked in the mirror and saw what others saw--a Japanese.
“Then it hits you in the face,” he said. “You realize you can’t change your appearance, and lots of times, first appearances are how people judge you.”