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They’ve come a Long Way: Chinese American Support for Japanese Americans in World War II

One aspect of Japanese American history that has been increasingly explored in recent times is the complex and revealing question of relations between Nikkei and other racial and religious minority groups over the 20th century. For example, Scott Kurashige’s The Shifting Grounds of Race examines the contrasting conditions facing Japanese Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles, and their varied (and sometimes competing) efforts to overcome discrimination. Ellen Eisenberg’s The First to Cry Down Injustice? covers the reaction of Jewish Americans in the Western states to the wartime removal of Japanese Americans.

However, rather less seems to have been written about the relations between Japanese Americans and other Asian American groups—most notably Chinese Americans.1 This is curious, as Nikkei arguably had more contact with Chinese, especially on the West Coast, than with any other ethnic community in the early 20th century. In cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles, concentrations of the two populations lived and worked in neighboring enclaves. In San Francisco, dozens of Issei merchants opened shops in Chinatown. In the small farming towns, immigrant laborers spent their money after hours in Chinese gambling dens. All around the region, Japanese families frequented Chinese restaurants (such as the Far East Café in Little Tokyo) where they felt welcomed and where they could find cheap and succulent Asian-style dishes.

For another thing, when people have discussed interethnic relations between the two groups, they have generally have assumed, without cause, that until the Asian American movement of the late 1960s and 1970s Chinese and Japanese Americans throughout the country remained entirely separate and hostile—mirroring the conflict between their home countries during the period of the Pacific War. In particular, multiple histories of Asian Americans and World War II have mentioned the Chinese Americans who wore “I am Chinese” buttons after Pearl Harbor to distinguish themselves from Japanese Americans and avert racist attacks. Jane Hong has written, “For many Asian Americans, the need to prove their loyalty to America meant turning a blind eye to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, lest they throw their own allegiance into doubt.”2 Hong admits that there were individuals who raised doubts about the morality of mass confinement or expressed solidarity, but adds that such people were exceptional.

To be sure, there were widespread tensions between West Coast Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the years before Pearl Harbor. Chinese communities mobilized to support nationalist resistance to the Japanese occupation of China and organized boycotts of Japanese goods, even as Japanese consulates and the Nikkei press backed Tokyo’s policy. Nonetheless, many Issei and Nisei privately expressed support for China’s cause, and a few openly backed the Chinese. Shin Sekai editor Eddie Shimano joined dockside protests against exports to Japan. James Oda, a Kibei and future MIS analyst, wrote in the short-lived newspaper News of the World in fall 1937 that Nisei should avoid getting drawn into support for Japan’s war in China. That same year Ken Nikaido of Honolulu organized local branches of the “American Friends of the Chinese People” and the “United Committee for Boycott of Japanese Goods.”

By the same token, Hong is correct that protest over mass removal was hardly the rule among West Coast Chinese Americans—or any other ethnic communities (including Japanese)—during 1942. Still, there were numerous cases throughout the wartime period in which Chinese Americans throughout the country expressed solidarity with Japanese Americans and worked to make conditions better for them.

First, there were Chinese Nisei who defended the patriotism of the Nikkei. In March 1942, when TIME magazine falsely reported rumors that “Japanese high school boys from Hawaii” had figured among the pilots in the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, a dozen high school students from Honolulu wrote in to rebut the story. Two of the letters TIME published were from Chinese Americans. Colleen Lau wrote, “We, Americans all, study, work, and play with Japanese high school boys here in the islands, and, I am sure, are in a position to know them perhaps a little better than others. They show their feelings, in speech and in deed, that they’re behind the U.S.A. to a man…”

Next, Chinese American artists and intellectuals supported their friends and comrades. Author Lin Yutang joined the advisory board of the antifascist activist group Japanese American Committee for Democracy after it was formed in late 1941. Helena Kuo, journalist and author of I’ve Come a Long Way, who fled China after the Japanese invasion and came to the United States in 1939, joined forces with Japanese-born feminist and activist Ayako Ishigaki (AKA Haru Matsui) in joint lecture tours. After Pearl Harbor, when Ishigaki and her husband, the artist Eitaro Ishigaki, faced a curfew as enemy aliens and feared racist violence, Kuo visited them and went on shopping trips to keep them supplied with food. The well-known Chinese American artist Dong Kingman (Kuo’s future husband), communicated with the War Relocation Authority during 1942-43, offering to come spend a residence in one of the camps. After being granted permission, he even planned to visit Heart Mountain and paint during his teaching stint at University of Wyoming in July 1943—for unknown reasons the visit seems not to have taken place. The popular dance duo of Dorothy Toy & Paul Wing left San Francisco so that Toy (born Dorothy Takahashi) would not be incarcerated with her family, and moved to New York for the duration.

Then there were Chinese who collaborated with their Nikkei neighbors to ease their mass removal. David W. Lee, a Chinese American in Portland, Oregon, bought the grocery store of a local Nisei, James Kida. Raymond Chew, a trucker in Mountain View, CA, who hauled produce for his Issei friend and neighbor Yasokichi Antoku, leased ten acres of his produce ranch before removal. In both cases, the families in question remained in touch.

Perhaps most poignant were the cases of Chinese-Japanese American couples separated by mass confinement—the WRA did not keep statistics of how many inmates had Chinese spouses, but the evidence suggests that there were at least a dozen. Grace Woo, the Nisei wife of Lun P. Woo, a Chinese grocer in Seattle, was sent to Minidoka with the family’s two children, and they remained separated until January 1944, when Grace became the first Nisei permitted to return to the Seattle area, and the family was again reunited. Charles Leonard Won, a Chinese American from San Francisco, agreed in July 1942 to marry Jean Mio Ikebuchi, his longtime sweetheart, who was confined at Santa Anita, and then to accompany her to camp for their honeymoon. The two received a license and made plans to wed, but Ikebuchi decided to break off the engagement until after the war, fearing that as the only Chinese in Santa Anita her husband might be mistreated. (Sadly, it would seem that Jean Mio Ikebuchi did not ever marry her young swain, as she is listed in later records as Mrs. Miyo Kaneda). Louise Liwa Yakai Chew, the wife of a Chinese American grocer in Oakland, felt herself to be so Chinese that she did not even register with the government as a Japanese American in Spring 1942. Arrested for disobeying military evacuation orders, she was brought before Judge Adolphus St. Sure and reported in tears that she felt completely Chinese and would “rather die than be sent to a Japanese assembly center.” She was convicted nevertheless, then immediately paroled to the Topaz camp. After a month there, she was released for temporary labor outside camp, but soon fell ill and was permitted to leave camp. She applied for a permit to rejoin her husband, but it was refused, so she moved instead to stay with family in Cleveland and New York. During this period, her husband sent money to help support her. In contrast, Kay Kiyoko Horikawa Chinn did not even wait for permission to return to the West Coast after leaving camp in early 1943. Rather, she rushed back to Seattle to be reunited with her husband Harry Chinn (AKA Chin S. Lin). After spending just two months at home, however, Chinn was arrested by FBI agents and jailed. After pleading guilty to violating military exclusion orders, she was offered a suspended sentence if she relocated outside the excluded area, and she moved with her husband to the city of Spokane.

Once Japanese Americans were incarcerated, Chinese American individuals and groups mobilized to support them. Although ethnic Chinese actors in Hollywood such as Richard Loo became known for portraying evil Japanese in propaganda films, African American columnist George Schuyler reported that many refused to play treacherous Japanese Americans, for fear of stirring up anti-Asian racism. For example, in the 1942 propaganda film “Little Tokyo, U.S.A.”, the part of a loyal Japanese American killed by his fellows was played by a Chinese actor, but the Nisei traitors were played by whites. When in early 1943 a white reader wrote a letter to the Sacramento Bee opposing the WRA’s plan to permit loyal Japanese-Americans to resettle outside camp, two Chinese Americans responded by taking their side. Robert Kwot lauded the loyalty of the “American Japanese” he had known, in particular a Nisei friend in camp who had confided in a letter his desire to join the American army and fight the Japanese empire. Walter A. Lum called for liberation of loyal Japanese Americans and implored readers to promote “democratic principles.” Shortly afterwards, in a widely-reported speech in Utah, Walter Ching, a graduate student at University of California, publicly denounced white supremacy and race-baiting attacks on Japanese Americans: “My people have suffered the most from Japanese activities, but I cannot condone United States persecution of American-born Japanese who are in this country through no fault of their own…If you persecute the American-born Japanese in your nation now; if you exercise hatred toward the negro and begin to criticize the Jew, perhaps you will then turn against the Chinese 30 years hence.” (Topaz Times March 11, 1944).

In mid-1943 a Chinese Christian Youth Conference, meeting at Lake Tahoe under the direction of the redoubtable Beulah Ong (who would later become a well-known actress under the name Beulah Quo), issued a resolution supporting Fair Play for Japanese-Americans and denouncing racial hatred and discrimination against loyal American citizens of Japanese ancestry. Reverend Harold Joh, a minister from Oakland, California, labored at the Topaz camp during summer 1944 in the Protestant church program. Henry Shue Tom, a YMCA secretary in San Francisco, wrote a letter of appreciation to the Pacific Citizen, praising its contents. In fall 1944, before the U.S. Army lifted the wholesale exclusion of Japanese Americans, numerous Chinese Americans expressed support for their return. A second Chinese Christian Youth Conference, meeting at San Anselmo, called for a cordial welcome to returnees.  UCLA Student Hazel Wong spoke up at a public meeting in Santa Barbara to endorse their presence: “I believe a loyal Japanese American is not half so dangerous as a prejudiced American.”

After the war, some Japanese Americans found housing and employment among Chinese Americans (Many Nikkei were welcomed back to San Francisco Chinatown, which had been hit hard economically by their removal). In 1946 Chinese American Post 638 of the American Legion came upon the idea of presenting washing machines to hospitalized soldiers, and post commander Harry Lee suggested honoring a wounded Nisei GI. As a result, the post offered Nisei veteran Rokuro Moriguchi, a veteran being treated at Birmingham General Hospital, with a new washing machine. The Japanese American Citizens League likewise offered support to Chinese Americans facing discrimination, most notably in Amer v. California, a case involving a World War II veteran challenging restrictive covenants. All these incidents of solidarity and collaboration, even if they did not represent a majority position, helped foster the goodwill and understanding of shared interests that made later alliances possible.

Chinese American Legionaires of Post No. 628 in Los Angeles visited Birmingham general hospital on Dec. 29, 1946 to present a portable washing machine to a wounded Japanese American soldier, Private First Class Rokuro Moriguchi. (Photo from Pacific Citizen on January 11, 1947. Taken by Toyo Miyatake Studio)

Notes: 

1. A recent French Masters thesis explores Chinese-Japanese solidarity in the U.S. during this era. Leo Szwalberg, «Les luttes communes des Japonais-Américains et des Chinois-Américains de la Seconde Guerre mondiale à l'égalité des droits civiques : 1941-1988» (2016) 

2. Jane Hong, “Asian American response to Incarceration,” DENSHO Encyclopedia, 

© 2018 Greg Robinson

chinese internment Japanese World War II