Japanese American History

Japanese Americans in the Seattle Area

Before the start of World War II, Washington was a relatively small and undeveloped state. However, the onset of the war changed all that. According to Belle Reeves, the Washington Secretary of State at the time, “No state has been more profoundly affected economically by the expansion of war industries than Washington.” Because of the many war contracts that had been awarded to Seattle’s aircraft industry, the population of Washington burgeoned. In fact, workers were needed to assist in the production of all materials, equipment, and supplies related to the war effort.

Many Japanese immigrants had begun to populate areas of the Northwest in the late 1800s, seeking employment on railroad construction crews, in salmon canneries, or in coal mines and sawmills. Despite their efforts to contribute to the American economy and assimilate into its culture, Japanese Americans, even those who had demonstrated their loyalty to the United States, were the objects of anger and resentment during World War II.

While every city, county, and region in Washington was preoccupied with the demands of the war, Japanese Americans were forced to deal with the burdens of the war in a different way. In 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes and taken to internment camps farther inland. According to “Abundant Dreams Diverted,” an article that appeared in the Seattle Times, “government response was quick: 300 Japanese Americans were removed from Bainbridge Island by the end of March 1942; 2000 more from the Seattle area followed in April.” Seattle’s Japan Town, once the second largest in the nation, was emptied in a matter of days. “In Washington state, nearly 13,000 people of Japanese descent ultimately were sent to detention centers—most Seattleites ended up at Camp Minidoka near Hunt, Idaho, while the majority of Western Washington evacuees went to Tule Lake in California.”

In newspaper accounts of the evacuation, the process of relocation was commonly described as calm and efficient. However, for Japanese Americans who were forced to sell most of their belongings at ridiculously low prices and who were uncertain about their futures the move was both terrifying and perplexing. If anything, resignation and deep sorrow, rather than a sense of cooperation, rendered them unable to respond with anything except their familiar Japanese stoicism.

It is important to note that not one of the Japanese Americans incarcerated during this time was ever formally charged with espionage or any other war-related crime. Despite the apologies and monetary compensations that were later offered by the U.S. government, the real tragedy was not the loss of businesses and property, but instead the loss of the innocent dreams that Japanese immigrants brought to America—dreams that would never be reclaimed—even long after the end of World War II.

November 2005

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