Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity



Nihon Bunka/Japanese Culture: One Hundred Years in the Pajaro Valley
by Jane W. Borg and
by Kathy McKenzie Nichols

Chapter 3:
Uneasy Settlement: The War Years

Japan's fateful decision to drop bombs on Pearl Harbor did more than destroy ships and planes - it also exploded the tenuous hold that Japanese immigrants and their descendents had on their adopted country, the United States.

For Issei and Nisei, the news of the December 7, 1941, attack was more than a declaration of war. It was the beginning of an inner battle that hurt them more than they could say.

One woman quoted in Mei Nakano's book described her feelings at the news: "An old wound opened up again, and I found myself shrinking inwardly from my Japanese blood." Watsonville resident Ichiro Yamaguchi wrote, "When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I felt like somebody shot me ... I was worried that something might happen to us."

His fears were warranted, since the next day, the assets of the Japanese were frozen and the arrests of community leaders began. A curfew was imposed as well.

The official spokesman for the Japanese Association, Ichiji Motoki, told the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian that "these people wish to lead peaceful lives and are not the element of potential troublemakers." Even so, arrests continued to be made of such "troublemakers" as Buddhist priests, teachers, ministers, Japanese Association officers and newspaper correspondents. Charges were never proven against any of them, according to The Japanese and Japanese Americans in the Pajaro Valley by Eleanor Johnson and Opal Marshall. Other individuals were questioned by the FBI and kept under surveillance.

It was not long after that the first evacuations were announced. The first was minor, an order for all aliens to vacate a five-mile radius of the coast. This covered the area west of Highway 1, including Larkin Valley and the Roache District. It displaced some 23 Japanese families.

According to documents from the California Historical Resources Commission, written by Salinas resident Violet De Cristoforo, by late January 1942 newspapers were printing unsubstantiated stories about Japanese American spies and saboteurs. On Feb. 19, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the mass expulsion and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

By March 1942, many Japanese had left the Watsonville area voluntarily, creating a farm labor shortage. A committee of Watsonville Nisei even drove to Idaho to see about purchasing an apple orchard, in hopes of moving the entire Japanese community there. However, according to Sandy Lydon, the soil was rocky and poor, and their plan had to be abandoned.

Young Nisei men were also given the choice of being evacuated or joining the military, and many did sign up. Young women also volunteered for the Women's Army Corps and the U.S. Cadet Nursing Corps.

After March 25, restrictions were placed on the movements of Japanese in Watsonville, Gilroy, the Monterey Peninsula, Salinas and San Benito County. Between April and June, they were taken to the Salinas Assembly Center, located at the Salinas Rodeo grounds.

Posters were hung everywhere to give "Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry." The evacuees could take nothing with them except bedding and linens, toilet articles, clothing, utensils, plates, cups and unspecified "personal articles."

The Japanese Americans had to sell all they owned or leave it with someone they trusted. Kazuko Nakane writes that they had to sell their belongings for a fraction of what they were worth, in order to be ready for the evacuation. Just as when they emigrated from Japan, they could take only what they could carry.

More than 3,600 Japanese Americans were held at the Salinas Assembly Center until July 4. Twenty barrack buildings were constructed, measuring 20 by 100 feet. The camp was divided into blocks made up of 14 barracks each. Each block held about 800 people and had its own mess hall, laundry and recreation room. The rooms had no shades, curtains, shelves, closets or lockers, so most evacuees stored their belongings under their beds.

Despite the poor living conditions and general confusion of the time, the center residents quickly formed a wide variety of social activities. Several enterprising souls put together a camp newsletter, The Village Crier, to report on the happenings. Activities during this time included concerts by a glee club and an impromptu band, games of Go and Shogi, Buddhist meetings, softball games, bridge, art classes and talent shows, according to copies of The Village Crier, obtained from the Bancroft Library.

The tone of the writing is generally sunny, although in one early issue an editorial appeared, signed only by the initials G.T.: "We are 3,000 strong with physical features that are alike. Does that make us think or do the things identically as the next person? Surely, we have minds of our own."

The author also advised readers, "Belief and faith in the ultimate success that is our heritage will help us through this adjustment period. We are not lost. Be strong."

Such was the community spirit of the temporary camp that when relocation plans were announced, the residents held "Hello, Arizona!" parties, decorated with paintings of desert scenery.

Photo of the Watch Tower
A Watch Tower
Poston, Arizona, 1942

Ninety percent of the Salinas Assembly Center evacuees were sent to Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona; 1,222 of them were from Santa Cruz County. The Watsonville-area Japanese were split between Poston Camps I and II, according to Lydon.

In Nakano's book, one woman remembers her arrival at Poston Camp: "We arrived in the middle of a dust storm ... There were times when the electricity went off and we had no water." Evacuees found these "resettlement communities" surrounded with barbed wire and guarded by military police.

Accommodations were primitive, to say the least, and arrangements were especially hard on the very young, the very old and the ill. Most parents and caregivers had to carry several buckets of water to their living quarters each day.

Sleeping, eating, bathing and using the toilet was a group experience in the camps. The lack of privacy was particularly difficult for Japanese women. People waited in lines to eat, get shots and to get jobs.

Photo of men making Matresses
Men Making Matresses Out of Hay
Poston, Arizona, 1942

Accommodations were similiar to the temporary camps, modeled on Army barracks. Although the rooms were bare and bleak, the residents did what they could to become comfortable. Women ordered material from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue to make curtains, and the men scrounged lumber from wherever they could to make furniture.

As time passed, evacuees made a wide variety of items and even created gardens in the desert landscape. Ichiro Yamaguchi remembers, "In Camp II they had a crafts fair which was very interesting. I saw all the nice things and was amazed. People had the time to do these things. They had no place to go."

The long-time farmers even managed to raise crops and raise animals, which helped supplement camp meals, according to Nakano. The government only allotted about 40 cents per meal. At the beginning, the food was generally abysmal, cooked by inexpert hands and made from whatever was cheapest to buy. One woman said in Nakano's book, "At one time we were served liver for several weeks, until we went on strike." But by the end of 1943, the camps produced 85 percent of the vegetables the evacuees consumed.

There were also a variety of leisure activities at the camps, especially for the children. Scout troops were organized, as well as dances, concerts and all sorts of athletics. There were also schools for the youngsters, although the quality of education was uneven, due to the lack of proper materials and teachers.

Not surprisingly, tensions often ran high. Rumors were always flying. Yamaguchi wrote, "I don't know how many times I heard that the Golden Gate Bridge fell down, that the Japanese (from Japan) came and bombed it."

Photo of Group at Poston
Group of Internees at Poston, Arizona
Sometime between 1942--1946

Evacuees could also work, both inside and outside the camp. Inside, they did a variety of jobs, although the most they could be paid was $19 a day. They could also hire themselves outside the camp for farm labor. College-age students were also allowed to leave to pursue their educations.

Some did leave the camps and resettle in the interior of the United States. One survey quoted in Marshall and Johnson's book found that only 33.4 percent of the Watsonville Japanese had returned by 1946. Some, such as the Shikuma and Sakata families, went to Colorado and Oregon to farm.

However, many chose not to leave. This was partially due to the questionnaire that had to be signed prior to leaving the camp, which became known as the "Yes-Yes-No-No" form, which asked about the person's loyalty to the United States.

Those who answered the loyalty questions with "No" were sent to Tule Lake, the maximum security center, which also served as a prison for those Japanese who had failed to register for the draft. The loyalty questions proved horribly divisive for many Japanese families, according to Nakano.

In the spring of 1944, Executive Order 9066 was rescinded, and the loyal Japanese were finally allowed to go home. By the end of 1945, the camps had closed. But for the Issei and Nisei, there was no closing the door on the pain and bitterness they felt for the wasted years in camp.

Some Japanese did repatriate and move back to Japan. Even so, most chose to stay in the United States and to remake their lives there. By 1949, more than 57,000 had returned to the West Coast.

Continue with Chapter 4-- A Time to Reflect: 1945 to Present [1992]


This chapter is from a booklet titled, Nihon Bunka = Japanese Culture; one hundred years in the Pajaro Valley. It was published by the Pajaro Valley Arts Council in conjunction with the Council's 1992 exhibition of the same name. The text is published on the Library's Web site with the permission of the Council. Photographs are courtesy of Bill Tao.

Copyright 1992. Pajaro Valley Arts Council.


View similarly tagged articles:

agriculture, immigrants, internment camps, Japanese Americans, Pajaro Valley

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