The Japanese-Americans Survive Internment Camps, Leave Their Mark on Los Angeles

WHO ARE THE REAL ANGELINOS? (AN ONGOING SERIES)-It is time to present the Japanese-American influence on the Los Angeles community.  We in this country have had a long connection with those who represent this ethnicity—sometimes in a very positive way but for a long time the interaction has been clouded by misperceptions and distortions of history, let alone negative stereotyping that largely came out of the World War II experience. 

So, let’s dispel destructive perceptions and replace them with an enlightened picture of this community whose presence has been invaluable to the development and growth of Los Angeles at large. 

Going back to an earlier era, many American entrepreneurs established sugar cane plantations in Hawaii (then a territory) in the early 1800s.   At first these planters brought Chinese laborers to work the fields until they left for other kinds of jobs in other places.  Subsequently, men, women, and children from Japan were brought there with the promise of good jobs and reasonable working conditions.  

These laborers represented a wide variety of occupations, having experience as agricultural, railroad, and cannery workers.  Others were cooks, brewers, potters, printers, tailors, wood workers, and even a hairdresser but when they arrived, they were forced to work for $4 a month (50% of which was taken back by the planters themselves). Workers protested cruel and harsh conditions and breach of contract, essentially to no avail, so many returned to Japan. 

The Pacific Mail Company brought more Japanese to the Sacramento area, but when the enterprises for which they had been put to work failed, many of these Japanese workers found their way southward to the Los Angeles area or to Hawaii and became what is called the issei (first-generation Japanese-Americans).  They had been largely made up of contract workers and students. 

As was common practice among “American” workers, there soon arose a resentment toward these competitors and thus the Anti-Japanese Movement.  Schools were soon segregated and limits were put on immigration numbers.  For the most part between 1924 and 1952, no new Japanese immigrants were allowed into the country (except for “war brides”).  Continuing into the 1950s, there were countless instances of racial discrimination against this group. 

The Issei were confronted with numerous restrictive laws and thus were barred from many occupations, could not own land, and could not become U. S. citizens.  Because so many Issei were kept from office and factory work as well as other jobs, many began their own family-run businesses in hotels and restaurants or became small vegetable farmers (for which the grower, wholesaler, and retailer were Issei alone).  In fact, these Japanese-American farmers provided the majority of vegetables for the L.A County consumer. 

The community could “rely upon their tightly knit ethnic group for capital, labor, and businesses opportunities.”  People worked long hours and saved money for re-investing in their businesses and for providing higher education opportunities for their children. 

Yet there were unintended and perhaps unexpected consequences for their successes:  White backlash!  Unions kept this group out of membership because union members continued to worry over competition.  

When the Mexican and Japanese field laborers joined ranks in the early 1900s in and around Oxnard, California (led by Kozaburo Baba), the Japanese Mexican Labor Association was formed—the first farm workers union in California history (preceding the Cesar Chavez Movement of the mid-1960s).  Despite the righteousness of their goals, the AFL (very antagonistic to the Asian community in general) would not grant a charter to this chapter.  In some places, organized efforts to raise wages for the Japanese and Mexicans were met with arrest, jail, and conspiracy charges with a myriad of convictions that followed. 

In fact, our own Federal government helped perpetuate fears held by many white laborers and others in society—belief, for instance, that the Japanese labor movement in Hawaii was a plot to take over the territory.  Even the American military there considered the Issei presence as a military threat. 

A lot of yellow journalism perpetuated this lie and expanded upon it.  Japanese-Americans were often caricatured as apes and monkeys.  So with the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and even before), plans had already been set in motion to declare martial law, suspend habeas corpus, and restrict civil liberties for Japanese-Americans.  Farms and businesses were unceremoniously taken away (read Farewell to Manzanar) and the Issei and their children and grandchildren were taken to virtual concentration camps throughout the United States—Manzanar (which you can visit today and was but one of them) was placed in the harsh, unforgiving conditions of Owens Valley. 

I must share with you a wonderful poem written by former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird (one of my heroes) in honor of the Japanese-American World War II experience.  She poignantly put into words what so many internees felt then and what many survivors and their progeny continue to feel today.  She had the gift of expressing for others what they could not do for themselves.



by Rose Elizabeth Bird


A Day of Remembrance -- That’s why we are here,

Remember when justice was once ruled by fear?

Remember when freedom was clearly your right

Provided you proved that your skin was pure white?



Imagine a horse stall with no light or heat,

No home, no possessions, no shoes on your feet.

Imagine the cold Utah Desert at night,

No charges, no hearing, just Government’s might.


In General DeWitt’s world, “A Jap was a Jap,”

So thousands were sent to 10 dots on the map,

Like Tule Lake, Manzanar, Topaz, Jerome,

Where freedom was forfeit and prison their home.


What happens to hope when your country betrays you?

What happens to dreams, is this how it repays you?

Within lies the strength to stand up to despair,

In our sense of self-worth and belief in what’s fair.


The difference between an ideal and a right,

Depends upon someone to fight the good fight,

Depends upon someone to strive ‘til they win,

So what happened before will not happen again.


It took 40 years to secure reparations

For Fred Korematsu and two generations,

But striving together, the young and the old

Achieved something more than a tale finally told.


Together, they went to the courts of this land,

To call on our conscience to come to the stand,

To peacefully gain an admission of error,

And wrest dignity from the camps’ reign of terror.


A Day of Remembrance that burns like an ember.

Can it happen again?  Yes -- unless we remember.


Fred T. Korematsu refused to be sent to the infamous internment camps. For that, he was arrested and convicted of crimes against the government.  Even the U. S. Supreme Court at the time upheld that ruling.  It was not until 1983 that his case was reheard and overturned.  “It was a pivotal moment in civil rights history.”  Throughout his life, he was a civil rights activist and for his work, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Recently, Fred Koresmatsu Day became law in California—the first such commemoration named after an Asian-American in this country.  For his ongoing, devoted diligence and selfless work, Rose Bird memorialized him in her poem. 

Despite everything, the Japanese-Americans did not become vengeful (though they had every reason to be).  They strove to become a genuine part of the “American” community.  As a way of overcoming the antagonisms and overt hatreds that carried over after World War II, most Japanese-Americans chose to amalgamate their Japanese traditions with the “newer” American culture.  Today, every area of employment—from the professions to blue collar workers, from scientists and doctors to lawyers and politicians, from artists and musicians to writers—is represented by contemporary Japanese-Americans: 

In politics we see names like former U. S. Senators Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui of California.  S. I Hayakawa is a former president of San Francisco State University and later became a U. S. Senator from California as well.  Judge Lance Ito is a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge and is considered a prominent jurist. 

Photographer Toyo Myatake documented life in Manzanar (while he and his family were interned there.  Sessue Hayakawa won an Academy Award playing the unforgettable role of Colonel Saito in The Bridge over the River KwaiHiroshima is a well-loved Sansei pop music group.  Makoto Iwamatsu is the founding artistic director of the East West Players, located in Los Angeles (Nobu McCarthyis filling that role now).  Pat Morita (photo) is famous for his roles in The Karate Kid 

Los Angeles painter, Keisho Okayama, draws simple, figurative pieces which, excitingly, are subject to a variety of interpretations.  He states, “What interests me is whether an image feels real or not. . . .  It must have some sort of internal life.”  The Japanese-born artist, Mari Inukai, shows her work in the Alhambra area.  Her pieces remind me of the Keane paintings which were very popular in the latter part of the 20th century—children with large eyes, looking poignantly at the viewer.  Many of Inukai’s works are reminiscent of the new animé style of art.  Speaking of her art, she has said, “Similar to the concept of yin and yang, [my] work is manifested through relationships of love and hate, past and future, needs and wants.” 

Harry Kitano is a sociology professor at UCLA.  James Hattori (of CBS) and Ken Kashiwahara (of ABC) are both renowned journalists.  Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (interned as a child in Manzanar) along with her husband, James D. Houston, wrote an historical-fiction account of her experiences in the camp and of her search for her self along with the assimilation quandaries that faced her after the war reached its conclusion. 

Very important are the efforts of Makio Murayama to research sickle cell anemia (a disease known mostly among those in the Black community); he received both the Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Achievement Award and an award from the Association for Sickle Cell Anemia. 

In sports we have been delighted by the athletic prowess of John Chang, champion of the French Open in tennis;  Kristi Yamaguchi, figure-skating gold medalist; Hideo Nomo, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

When we think of the Japanese influence in Los Angeles, we cannot help but also be reminded of Little Tokyo whichwas declared an historic district by the Department of the Interior as recently as 1995—a much smaller area than it was decades ago.  This district, dating back to the 1880s, represents an historic, cultural, and civic center for Japanese-Americans across Southern California as well as an attraction for visitors far and near.  It has survived any number of crises since its inception. 

The first business there, known to be founded by a Japanese seaman named Kame, was a restaurant located on Los Angeles Street near First.  Many of the first settlers in the area were Japanese bachelors who later brought brides from their homeland through arranged contracts.  What followed was the construction of Christian churches, Buddhist temples, hospitals, restaurants, clothing stores, community organizations, and so forth—a way to make the area an inviting place to call home. 

During World War II, when the Japanese-Americans were forced to live in internment camps, many Negroes/Colored people (terms at the time) moved into the abandoned dwellings and other structures in Little Tokyo (known as Bronzeville as a result—check out my article on the Black influence on Los Angeles).  After the war, however, upon the return of the camp occupants, the “blacks” moved out to make room for the former inhabitants. 

What the returnees found, however, was that many of their structures (historic and otherwise) had been demolished.  A police station was where an entire block of Japanese-American edifices had been.  Despite this unsettling reality, Little Tokyo (over succeeding years) witnessed a succession of developments—Little Tokyo Towers, residences for senior citizens, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC—the largest Asian-American cultural center of its kind in the United States), the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC).  There also occurred the renovation of the vaunted Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple under the coordination of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).  The Union Church became the Union Center for the Arts which houses the East West Players, the LA Artcore and Visual Communications 

The JACCC presents performances by local, national, and international artists.  The Aratani Theatre offers such events as the Grand Kabuki of Japan, the Bunraku National Puppet Theater, and the annual New Year celebration, Kotohajime. 

Other cultural schools offer lessons in calligraphy, folk dancing, origami, and flower arranging.  There are a multitude of family-oriented programs (open to all) whose goal is “dedicated to bringing multi-ethnic, multi-generational audiences together to establish a deeper understanding of Japanese and Japanese-American arts and culture.”  

Interestingly enough, the Mexican cholo culture has in recent years filtered into styles both for Japanese-Americans and for the youthful back in the Japanese homeland.  Thus, we are witnesses to how fashion crosses cultural lines just as so many other traditions do. 

In an effort to hold onto and spread Japanese traditions, much time is spent observing summer and winter festivals. 


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Obon honors ancestors through dancing festivals, food booths, games, shopping, and other forms of entertainment.  The event is held at dusk near Little Tokyo Buddhist temples. 

The Tanabata Festival is awesome with its vibrantly colored hand-made kazari (ornaments). 

Nisei (second generation) Week celebrates the height of the summer celebrations.  There are colorful festivals, capped off with a grand parade.  This parade features hundreds of dancers (from a variety of Japanese-American dance schools) dressed in lavishly designed kimono costumes. Onlookers are invited to join in.  The festivities conclude with “whimsical small-scale Nebuta floats made of elaborately decorated Japanese paper and lights whose origins come from Aomori, Japan.”  The week concludes with the Taiko Festival and Closing Ceremony which is highlighted with wonderful Ondo street dancing and taiko drum groups. 


The Western-style New Year is observed by Japanese-Americans.  It is a time for debts to be paid and quarrels to be settled.  Many attend Shinto shrines where, just inside the red tori gate, they receive blessings and purificationFurthermore, offerings are placed throughout the home, each depicting one or all of the seven gods of good luck and symbolizing harmony and happiness from generation to generation.  Another lovely tradition that accompanies the New Year is the visits by friends, neighbors, and relatives from one home to the next.  One can often hear the cheerful, enthusiastic sound of jubilation emanating from these homes with Banzai! meaning “10,000 years” (a custom begun around 200 B. C.) 

It would certainly be worth our while to take part in such festivities when we can, especially for family outings.  

Getting to know other cultures and traditions (better than we know them now) will, undoubtedly, make us better persons.  In keeping with this thought, increased interaction with our Japanese-American neighbors cannot help but be a worthwhile and rewarding attainment! 

For more information 

  • Nisei Week:  213-687-7183
  • Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple:  213-680-9130
  • Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple:  213-626-4200
  • Tanabata Festival:  213-613-1911
  • The Japan Foundation:  323-761-7510
  • Japanese Institute of Sawtelle:  310-479-2477



(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written A Quick-and=Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition, Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.  This piece is part of an ongoing CityWatch series … Who Are The Real Angelinos … exploring the myriad peoples and cultures that define Los Angeles. )






Vol 12 Issue 80

Pub: Oct 3, 2014