From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

October 2006 - Stories from the Inland Empire: Spokane, Washington

In March 2006, Densho embarked on an ambitious project to capture the stories of Spokane, Washington's Japanese American community. Over the next four months, Densho staff members Tom Ikeda, Dana Hoshide and Megan Asaka traveled to Spokane to conduct life history interviews with Japanese Americans, including those born and raised in Spokane ("old-timers") and those who came during and after World War II ("newcomers"). What unfolded over the many hours of interviewing was a fascinating look into one of the few Japanese American communities in the West that did not experience mass removal and incarceration during World War II. Funded by a grant from the State of Washington, Densho collected these invaluable stories with the goal of making available to the public this important, yet little-known chapter in American history.

The development of Spokane's Japanese American community began with the railroad, which became the largest employer of the issei (Japanese immigrants) during the early twentieth century. Labor camps sprang up on the outskirts of town to house the railroad workers, often in abandoned boxcars and other rudimentary conditions. Japanese workers, mostly single men, created communities in these labor camps, which included Japanese-style bathhouses and cookhouses.

Spokane had become a commercial and transportation hub for the surrounding mining, agricultural and lumber industries by the early twentieth century. Japanese immigrants opened hotels, laundries, restaurants, barbershops and pool halls in the center of town to serve this new group of transient workers. Hotels remained the most important Japanese American enterprise through World War II.

By 1930, Spokane's Japanese American community grew to approximately 400 people, with American-born nisei comprising almost half of the population. Housing segregation restricted Japanese Americans to a few square blocks in downtown Spokane, although living and working in close proximity provided a rich social and cultural foundation for the Japanese immigrants and their children. Japanese Language School, church groups and sports allowed the nisei to participate in organized activities, while Trent Alley, which ran through the heart of Japantown, provided a space for informal social interaction.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked U.S. military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, the U.S. declared war with Japan. Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents started going door to door, arresting issei who were considered to be prominent in the community. In Spokane, a group of issei men were arrested during a wedding reception at the Desert Hotel on the evening of December 7th. The FBI barricaded all the guests in one room for hours as they searched the building. Rumors, confusion and fear quickly spread throughout Spokane's small Japanese American community.

In the following months, restrictions against Spokane's Japanese American residents grew more and more severe. People of Japanese ancestry were banned from entering certain areas thought to be vulnerable to sabotage, such as post offices and airfields. The city imposed a curfew, confining Japanese Americans to their homes during the night. "I am Chinese" badges began appearing in the neighborhood, worn by Chinese Americans fearful of being mistaken for Japanese. Issei business owners lost clientele and a group of Great Northern Railroad workers were fired because of their proximity to the railroad tracks.

On March 2nd, 1942, General John DeWitt announced the creation of military zones, which would split Washington, Oregon, California and parts of Arizona into two sections. The approximately 110,000 Japanese American residents in the western portions of each state were to be "evacuated," while people in the eastern areas, which included Spokane, would stay. However, as the government went ahead with plans of mass removal and incarceration, Japanese Americans in Spokane became increasingly fearful that they would be included in the exclusion orders. As Japanese Americans from the coast began to trickle into the city during the short-lived "voluntary evacuation" period, they were not always welcomed with open arms.

Over the next three years, Spokane became a destination for Japanese Americans trying to leave the camps. Some nisei arrived through work sponsorships, while others came to attend college. Although there was some initial tension between the "newcomers" and "old-timers," the two communities soon became intertwined through social activities, school, work and marriage. When the majority of the camps officially closed in the fall of 1945, many families - with nothing to go back to in their home towns - resettled in Spokane. These families were forced to start over from scratch, facing job discrimination and housing segregation that continued to plague the city. By 1950, Spokane's Japanese American community reached over 1,000 residents, more than tripling since 1940. The close-knit community that had existed before the war transformed dramatically.

In Spokane, the issei were instrumental in bringing the Japanese American community together in the aftermath of World War II. Their community institutions and cultural traditions became integral in healing the pain and turmoil of the war years. Many of their creations, such as the Highland Park Methodist Church and the annual Sukiyaki Dinner, remain cornerstones of the present community. Yet, with the issei gone and the nisei population growing smaller and smaller each year, Japanese Americans are now grappling with the future of the community and how to continue the unique legacy they have inherited.

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