Portland played a major role in isolating Japanese Americans during World War II
Portland is at the center of one of the most debated controversies of World War II, the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American citizens and Japanese immigrants. President Franklin Roosevelt authorized this by signing Executive Order 9066 a little more than 80 years ago on Feb. 19, 1942.
Among other things, the order allowed Portland to be transformed into a major hub for rounding up Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast and shipping them to inland camps where most of them spent the rest of the war. Among them was the Kikkawa family.
Prior to her death on Nov. 1, 2019, Emiko Kikkawa, 98 years old and still sharp of mind, shared her family’s World War II experiences with the Portland Tribune. Her daughter, Joyce, who was three at the time of the internments, lives in Vancouver, Washington, today and confirmed her mother’s memories during a recent visit to the Japanese-American Museum in Old Town.
“There it is,” Joyce said, pointing to a toy elephant in a display case at the museum. “It was almost all I was allowed to bring.”
Married in 1938, Emiko and her husband, Kazuo, were second-generation Japanese Nisei and U.S. citizens. They operated a small farm on leased land near Gresham. Before the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, she recalled no ethnic tensions existing between Japanese-Americans and anyone else.
However, after the attack, “everything changed.” Racial slurs directed against them began immediately.
In May 1942 — three months after the issuance of XO 9066 — the Kikkawa family received notification by mail to report to the Civilian Relocation Center at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, today known as the Portland Expo Center. Required to report in only a single week, they were ordered to bring with them only what they could actually carry on their person. Joyce recalls bringing her toy elephant as one of her only “possessions.”
When the family arrived at the Expo Center in a truck, they were totally dismayed at what they faced. Their temporary “home” turned out to be a stockyard that was intended to be shared with some 3,800 other detainees. The main building had been converted from animal stalls into spaces for human habitation by simply covering the bare ground with plywood sheets. The walls consisted of hanging canvas. No ceilings existed. It was very noisy with little to no privacy for the families. Toilets, baths and cooking facilities were all communal. Furniture consisted solely of wooden bunks. Animals had been the last denizens of their living space.
The area was surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. No one was allowed to leave, although friends could bring to them much-needed personal items. Outside the wire, people drove by, shouting racial insults and throwing objects at the internees. The family felt totally humiliated.
“When it got hot, the place smelled awful,” Emiko said. A strong chemical was used in an attempt to counter the odor, but it only made the odor more pungent.
The group stayed at center for two months. In September, they were moved east by rail to the newly-built Minidoka War Relocation Center, an internment camp located in south-central Idaho.
Along the way, Emiko noticed that the window shades of the passenger train cars were pulled down so no one could see out or in for the duration of the trip. As the train passed through Pendleton, then the site of an Army Air Force base, armed guards outside made sure that no one peered out. One internee worried that the plan was for them to be taken out into the desert and shot.
When at last they arrived at Minidoka, they found themselves in a bleak, desolate land — dry, dusty, windy and covered by sagebrush. It was a 950-acre compound again surrounded by barbed-wire. Armed guards in watch towers pointed their weapons inward. Minidoka would eventually be “home” to some 13,000 people for the rest of the war.The family’s initial accommodations, not yet completed, consisted of wood-framed, tarpaper-covered military-style barracks. Whole families were assigned to one room “apartments” that contained only army cots and a pot-bellied, wood-burning stove. And as at the Expo Center, baths, laundry facilities, kitchens and dining areas were communal. With 9,500 internees at any one time, privacy was again nearly non-existent.
No one could leave the camp without written permission to do so. Initially, no radios or cameras were allowed to the internees, so all contact with the outside world was by either newspaper or the post. Surprisingly, contact with relatives in Japan was possible by way of the helpful Swiss who acted as intermediaries. Kindly Pennsylvania Quaker groups also sent them “care packages” and the Sears Catalog allowed the internees to mail-order many necessities. And the radio ban eventually was lifted.
Making the best of it
None of these hardships discouraged the industrious, innovative internees. Scrap lumber left from the camp’s construction was fashioned into functional furniture. Two baseball diamonds and a recreation hall were built; schools and medical facilities were established. Emiko remembered that the medical care and food were “good.”
“There were Japanese doctors and cooks,” but the dental care was marginal, she said. Much of their food was fresh, taken from their own “Victory” gardens that were planted and tended by the residents. The famed “Minidoka Band” performed at dances and other social events. The Boy Scouts even formed a troop. While it was not quite “home,” Minidoka was transformed by the internees into a vibrant community. In 1943 the Kikkawa’s second daughter, Gail, was born there.
Joyce remembers that her education suffered, however. There were no books for the classes, so she quickly grew bored and started skipping classes, along with many other students.
“We spent our days walking around the camp,” said Joyce, who brought along a purse her mother made at the Minidoka Center that still looks new.
Amazingly, for most of the men, their spirit of patriotism was not dented. Many enlisted in the armed forces and served brilliantly. Some were assigned duties as interpreters, while others joined the famed 442nd “Go For Broke” regimental combat team. While in combat, mostly along the Italian front line facing the Germans, this legendary group earned more medals for valor per capita than any other American unit.
Because no industries of any kind were permitted the internees, many men worked for wages in the sugar beet fields alongside German POWs. Many of the German prisoners looked down on their Japanese co-workers as inferior and treated them accordingly. Although not well known now, tens of thousands of German and Italian immigrants also were rounded up and interned in other parts of the country, too.
When the war finally ended in 1945, internees were free to return to their original homes. Many had nothing to return to — their property had been lost, their businesses taken over by others. Joyce said that the family feared if they went back to Gresham, they would face ethnic tension. The end of the war did not mean that hard feelings had been assuaged. So for a time they resided in remote Jamieson, Oregon, until they were able to purchase a plot of land near Blue Lake and restart farming. Two more daughters, Marcia and Elaine, joined the family.
Looking back upon the family’s experiences during their time of internment, Joyce describes it as a stressful, difficult and trying period. Nonetheless, the Japanese families who faced this common challenge all emerged as an even more closely knit community than they had been before the war began. Regardless of their ordeal, the Kikkawa family endured and eventually thrived.
The Japanese-American Museum at 411 N.W. Flanders in Old Town is dedicated to preserving the reality of internment. It includes genuine artifacts from the people who lived through them — including Joyce’s toy elephant.
How could internment happen?
Looking back, it is hard to believe the internment happened. But America immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack was a far different country than it is today.
By Dec. 6, 1941, a great majority of Americans were against their nation entering into yet another foreign war. Ending just 23 years before, WWI, the so-called “War to End All Wars,” had cost some 116,000 young lives, more than 53,000 of these in actual combat. The “America First Movement” preached “no more foreign involvements for the United States.” Foreign conflicts were felt to be simply none of America’s business.
Attitudes abruptly changed the next day when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On Dec. 8, Congress passed a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan, the vote falling just one short of being unanimous. The unease greatly deepened on Dec. 11 when Adolph Hitler brought Nazi Germany enflamed tensions by unilaterally declaring war against the United States. Italy soon followed suit.
So, within a matter of days, once-complacent Americans faced three powerful foreign enemies whose goal was, as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto mused, ‘To dictate peace terms in the White House.’
This was thought to be quite possible. By early 1942 in the Pacific, Japanese forces had seized Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China (Vietnam) and were well on their way to occupying much of the Solomon chain, thereby threatening the sea lanes of the Coral Sea and the north coast of Australia. They already controlled Manchuria, Korea and significant portions of the coastal areas of China.
In Europe America’s new foes, Italy and Germany, had overrun all of Western Europe and were battling British forces for control of North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal. In the east, German armies were at the gates of Moscow where it appeared that the Soviet Union would collapse at any moment. Britain, even with American military aid being shipped to them across the Atlantic, seemed to be on its heels.
In early 1942, Americans were furious, united and resolved, but were also unsure and not just a little fearful. If the Axis Powers were able to achieve such stunning successes around the world, why would the United States itself not be in jeopardy? The Japanese had reached all the way across the Pacific and launched a successful sneak attack on an American naval base in Hawaii. Even Australia was on their menu. Why could the West Coast not be next?
Events supported Americans’ nervousness. Immediately after war was declared, Japanese submarines began attacking American vessels along the California coast. German U-boats patrolled Atlantic waters and struck Britain-bound merchant vessels that were departing American ports. By June, 1942, Japanese submarines I-17, I-25 and I-26 had bombarded the oil facility near Elwood, California, Fort Stevens on the Oregon side of the Columbia River and the Estevan Point lighthouse on Vancouver Island. Later in the year, the I-25 twice launched its floatplane to drop incendiary devices in Oregon forests, intending to touch off fires. Even Hawaii was again struck repeatedly first by submarine bombardment and then by fly-over reconnaissance missions conducted by long-range, four-engine “Emily” seaplanes.
Americans and their government reacted swiftly and decisively to the sudden military threats — both perceived and real — posed by these countries. The exact nature of all the dangers had yet to be determined, but whatever it was to become, it was feared to be imminent. Tensions were especially high along the West Coast, where enemy forces were expected to appear on the horizon at any moment.
Nationwide blackouts were immediately ordered and were rigidly enforced, even in cities that were too far inland to be threatened by air attack. Coastal beaches were patrolled by military units and civilians. Citizens studied aircraft silhouette cards and trained their binoculars skyward to detect incoming enemy marauders. Barrage balloons popped up over vital defense facilities and along the Oregon Coast, where they were soon based in large hangars in Tillamook.
Executive Order 9066
Frantic Americans reasonably asked, how did all of this come about? How could such successful attacks be achieved? Wasn’t national security in place? Suspicions immediately arose that intelligence collected by spies, saboteurs and foreign nationals must somehow have contributed. After all, it was felt, the United States contained so many foreign nationals including German, Italian and Japanese citizens that “surely” at least some of these individuals were sympathetic with their “homelands” and would be apt to assist them in any way possible.
As a result of public pressure and in an attempt to increase national security, President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 issued Executive Order 9066. It stated in part, “I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he…deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he…may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in. or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”
The implementation of XO 9066 was interpreted by the military commanders as essentially a blank check to take whatever action as they deemed necessary. To both quell Americans’ fears and to protect the nation from attack by its own residents, nearly all stops were pulled.
Using a three-tiered review process, many people of German and Italian descent in the US were detained and separated from the general population. Of the approximately 12 million people of German heritage, about 11,000 to 12,000 were interned. However, on the West Coast (but remarkably not Hawaii), all persons of Japanese ancestry who were living within a prescribed distance of the coast, even those who were citizens (more than 110,000), were subject to relocation to internment sites that had been established well east of the coastal areas where much of America’s defense capability — ie, aircraft plants and oil facilities — was situated. And, of course, far away from the beaches where it was thought enemy forces could come ashore.
At the time, the internment scheme was legally challenged and was found by the US Supreme Court to be constitutional under the circumstances then and there existing, ie, a declared war (Korematsu v. United States). Much later, the Korematsu opinion was challenged and overturned. Today the law is clear — citizens of the United States cannot be deprived of life, liberty and property without first being afforded the due process of law.
The painful experiences of Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II are vividly documented at a little known museum in Old Town.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon opened in the Naito Center at 411 N.W. Flanders St. on May 6, 2021. Its mission is to preserve and honor the history and culture of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest, educate the public about the Japanese American experience during WWII, and advocate for the protection of civil rights for all Americans.
Permanent exhibits document the lives of those who lived in the area before World War II when it was a thriving community known as Japantown. Originally opened as the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in 1998 at another location, the museum now houses many photographs and artifacts from those days, including a dentist chair from a Japanese American dentist who practiced there and a recreation of a typical apartment or living room, complete with a couch and radio.
From there, visitors walk past recreations of the deplorable conditions under which Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants were interned following the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Oregon 9066. This year marks the 80th anniversary of that order.
The exhibits include the single rooms hasty constructed at the Civilian Relocation Center located at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, today known as the Portland Expo Center, and the only slightly better barracks at the newly built Minidoka War Relocation Center, an internment camp located in south-central Idaho.
Also on display is the actual jail cell from the former Multnomah County Courthouse where Japanese American lawyer Masuo Yasui was incarcerated for nine months after being deliberately arrested for violating the wartime curfew to test its legality. A federal judge found Yasui guilty and sentenced him to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. His conviction was overturned in 1986.
The Japanese American Museum of Oregon currently is operating by appointment only. More information can be found on its website at jamo.org
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.