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Mukashi Banashi - Part 3

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The children cradled the hopes of the Japanese community, for as American-born citizens, they would be entitled to the rights that the Issei were denied. But, as social and economic barriers continued to plague the community, the future of the second generation did not appear very promising. In 1913, the state had passed the first Alien Land Law, aimed particularly at the Japanese, forbidding them to own land and limiting leases to a period of three years. Some Issei, like the Abes, put the title of their farm in the name of the Osaki’s eldest son who was American-born, and thereby managed to circumvent the law. Others formed corporations with non-alien members. But in 1920, a more severe law was passed, closing the loopholes of the first: now leasing was completely abolished and land could no longer be legally held by a native-born minor.1 The only option open to the Japanese farmer was cropping contracts but even that was abolished in 1921.

Faced with these discriminatory laws Japanese communities tried to allay the hostilities by demonstrating their patriotism and interest in public affairs. In Fowler, a committee of Japanese businessmen, farmers, and laborers banned together and donated $390 toward the construction of the Fowler Legion Home. The contribution was given as an appreciation of the services rendered by “our American boys” in World War I.2

However, on December 7, 1941, the decades of racial prejudice and discrimination came to a head. The following day, Yoshiburo Okuda, a sixty-five year old Fowler farmer and American resident for thirty-five years, was the first Japanese in the district to be arrested, fingerprinted, photographed, and detained while driving down Highway 99.3 Thereafter, all persons of Japanese ancestry traveling along the highway were arrested and detained until receiving clearance. Curfew was posted between the hours of 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.; travel was restricted to a five-mile radius; radios, cameras, and firearms were confiscated and all dealings with Japanese came to a standstill as a result of the Treasury Department Orders. Shortly thereafter, no funds were paid to Japanese regardless of citizenship.

To demonstrate their loyalty and support the local Japanese Americans rushed to sign up with the Fresno Civilian Defense Council and the Red Cross. Meetings were hastily called within the Japanese American communities, and organizations placed ads in the local newspapers expressing their dedication to defeat the “common enemy” and to report all cases of espionage and sabotage to the authorities. Japanese men and women, young and old, citizens and aliens, wore white buttons bearing the American flag and an inscription “WE ALSO DEFEND.”

However, their actions were to no avail for on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, stamped with the United States Supreme Court’s approval, thus setting the stage for the mass incarceration of 120,000 West Coast Japanese (64 percent of whom were American citizens) into concentration camps, violating and depriving the constitutional rights of an entire group of people solely because of race.4

By May 9, 1942, Fresno’s Assembly Centers at Pinedale, located approximately eight miles north of the city, and at the Fresno Fairgrounds—where barns and stables were quickly converted into barracks—were ready for the internment of over 10,000 inmates. From these centers they were moved inland into permanent camps--mainly in Jerome, Arkansas; Poston and Gila River, Arizona--where they were designated to stay until the end of the war.

On the eve of their departure, the fear and anxiety that gripped the minds of the Issei women were still vivid, but instead they elected to dwell on the more positive aspects of that experience. Mrs. Sato chose to tell me about the Armenian family that took care of the family farm. "They stayed for five years and were going to buy it." she said. "The wife used to send us packages in camp. Their boy came to pick us up when we came back in 1945. They were good to us."

Mrs. Abe recounted the warm memories she had of the Van Houstons who took care of her farm. "When we had to leave for camp, Mr. Van Houston took us to the departure station in Selma. Imagine, a big man like him crying as we left? My husband told him not to worry because at least we are all together as a family. We'll be all right. 'Yes,' he sobbed, 'but what am I going to do when you leave?"'

Other families were not as fortunate as the Satos and Abes, though. Mrs. Hata remembered the Uchidas, a family that was interned in the same camp as she, who lost everything. "He was a Sanger man-owned 315 acres," she recalled. "Uchida-san worked so hard to reclaim the land, leveling, cultivating, and growing trees from saplings. When he was in camp, the packing house boss, with whom he had entrusted his farm, wrote and said, 'I won't renew the packing contract.' He threatened that the land would be confiscated because of illegal ownership. His children opposed the sale, but Uchida-san finally gave in to the threats, selling his farm for the same price he paid for it twenty years before."

Memories of camp life were experiences on which the women did not elaborate in great detail. A short comment or two was all the information they chose to provide. "I worked just as hard in camp," Mrs. Yamaguchi offered. "There was plenty of washing and ironing to do because all the children were working. It was so cold my husband would go with others to chop down trees from the forest and haul it back to camp, delivering it by horse throughout the blocks. I cried, thinking that we could never go back to our farm again."

Mrs. Abe stated proudly that her eldest son, Aki, would not let her work while she was in camp. "I had worked so hard all my life," she exclaimed, "and besides, they were only paying $16 a month. Yamagita-san and I were the only ones in our block who didn't work. But I kept busy knitting and crocheting."

On July 13,1944, Mitsuye Endo, a twenty-two year old Nisei woman who had worked as a civil service employee for California prior to her incarceration in Tule Lake, petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, seeking release from the camps. The United States Supreme Court skirted the real constitutional issues of the Bill of Rights, especially the guarantee of the due process of law, and ruled that Endo should be given freedom because the War Relocation Authority did not have the right to detain loyal citizens. However, this decision forecasted the release of all inmates, which occurred on January 2, 1945.

When the camps officially closed, former residents slowly trickled back to Fowler, but many chose to settle in other parts of the country. In December 1944, the first reported Japanese American to return to the San Joaquin Valley was Harry Hiraoka of Fowler.5 Those who returned feared the violence and hostility that waited them. Mrs. Abe's hands trembled slightly as she remembered the trepidation she felt: "In camp we had heard all kinds of stories about people getting shot at in California, so when we returned, we kept our windows covered with blankets. We were so scared that we slept under our beds instead of on top of them. I wrote back to my friends in camp and told them that the situation in California was not bad as all the rumors. After that, more people started coming back--it was really a treat to see another Japanese in town."

The initial fear that Mrs. Abe harbored was not totally unfounded, for on February 10, 1945, three shotgun blasts ripped into the house of Frank Osaki, who had recently returned to Fowler after detention in an Arizona concentration camps; shortly thereafter, six shotgun blasts tore into the home of S.J. Kakutani as the family, including five children, sat down to eat dinner.6

Readjusting to life outside the barracks was a painstakingly slow process. Housing and jobs were difficult to find. At first, some stayed at the Buddhist Church while others stayed with friends and relatives who still had a home to return to. Up to the 1950s, many Japanese Americans hired out as field hands until they could secure better jobs. Slowly the community got back on its feet, but it never regained the vitality that sustained it before the war.

Part 4 >>

Notes:

1. Ichihashi.

2. "Japanese Help American Legion; Local Nipponese Contribute $390 Toward the Building Fund is Work of Appreciation," Fowler Ensign, 23 March, 1922.

3. "Fowler Japanese Jailed by FBI in War Probe," Fresno Bee, 8 December, 1941.

4. See Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1976).

5. "First Japanese Family Returns to Fowler District," Fowler Ensign, 14 December, 1944.

6. "Shotgun Fired at Home of Local Japanese," Fowler Ensign, 15 February, 1945.

© 2005 Akemi Kikumura Yano

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