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.

Incalculable Losses: Japanese American Financial Damages

Vandalized Japanese American property, denshopd-i37-00283.
"I got a thousand dollars for things that I lost, but that is such a small amount for the loss that I had, because I lost everything."
   -- Peggie Nishimura Bain

In these times of economic woes, we stop to reflect on how much better Japanese Americans would fare in a recession if their families had not suffered such severe economic losses during World War II. While former detainees succeeded remarkably well at gaining financial security, despite the years of setbacks, stories in Densho's archives raise example after example of potential fortunes lost. Prosperous malls, condos, and suburban developments stand on land once farmed by Japanese Americans. Densho narrators ruefully remind us of how the property changed hands.

Interviewees share myriad experiences of financial losses their immigrant parents suffered during the rushed selling of the "evacuation" period. By now the accounts of storing or destroying valued family possessions rather than selling them for pennies are sadly familiar. A typical story is told by Fumiko Uyeda Groves of Seattle, whose family hoped to safeguard their belongings in a church basement but discovered them gone after the war. Fumiko recalls, "I think it was the WRA [War Relocation Authority] that offered to find someone to rent the house, and there was a family that rented it. And they were paying for, I think about four or five months and that was it." The checks simply stopped coming.

Shigeki Uno's parents ran a successful dairy serving Seattle before the war. Needing to arrange for management of the business, Shigeki reclaimed their accounting records, which had been seized when her Issei parents' assets were frozen after Pearl Harbor. She found a tenant who would provide income, and joined her husband at the crude Puyallup "assembly center," where she cared for her newborn infant. Shigeki thought she had been fortunate in settling the family's affairs, but like other Japanese Americans, they couldn't tend to business while confined at a distance.

Alpine Dairy said they could take over the whole plant, trucks and everything. He said he would. But when we were in camp, I got a letter from him saying that he had to close up the place, because the government did not allow him to increase his business….Closed everything at a loss, which we never recovered from, really. Then I got a letter from our attorney -- our attorney took care of everything -- said, "There's a good buyer, a refugee from Europe, who's got cash and would like to buy your building, building and land. But for $10,000."

Not only did income from investments at home dry up, but incarcerated Nikkei could not earn enough to pay for more than modest personal items, purchased at the canteen or ordered from catalogues. To run the facilities in the camps, the WRA offered detainees jobs as field workers, cooks, clerks, teachers, and doctors. Prisoners labored alongside better paid, more comfortably housed government employees. Because political pressure ensured that detainees' wages could never exceed the base pay of a soldier, the War Relocation Authority set monthly wages at $12 for unskilled labor, $16 for skilled labor, and $19 for professional employees. At that scale of pay, meeting mortgage payments and taxes on property left behind was all but impossible. Thousands of farms and businesses up and down the coast went under or were taken over by others. No one can accurately estimate the total financial loss Japanese Americans incurred at the time, or how it affected their future worth.1

While living in the camps, detainees were deprived of freedom, but their basic necessities were supplied. Dire need for income set in upon their release, especially for those moving to new and strange locations at the authorities' urging. The WRA and volunteer groups set up regional centers to help find jobs and housing for Japanese Americans granted "indefinite leave." Camp newspapers like The Minidoka Irrigator announced that the WRA would also offer "cash grants" to people who could prove they had insufficient funds to relocate. Even in 1940s dollars, the amount was surprisingly small, leaving aside that people were needy because the government had taken away their means of livelihood. The maximum was coach fare, $3 a day during the trip, and "to meet initial living expenses" $50 for the wage earner and $25 for up to two dependents.

In 1948, encouraged by President Harry Truman, Congress passed the Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act, which permitted people to request compensation for real property lost because of the expulsion. No attempt was made to atone for lost earnings or any other injury. The legislation fell drastically short of fair restitution. To address over 23,000 claims totaling $131 million, Congress appropriated only $38 million. One can imagine how difficult it was to document the existence and value of prewar goods and property years after the upheaval of the forced removal. Displaced and financially strapped Japanese Americans needed immediate relief after the camps closed, but their claims were reviewed painstakingly slowly. The last payment was made in 1965.2

Densho interviewees recall receiving a fraction of their claims. Peggie Nishimura Bain, whose family lost their farm in Des Moines, Washington, shares her memories:

I keep dreaming about that place all the time, because I figure that was our home. And I always felt that we should have been able to come back to it. Of course, the government did give compensation, a small amount. You could put in a claim for what you lost during the war. I think, if I remember correctly, I got a thousand dollars for things that I lost, but that is such a small amount for the loss that I had, because I lost everything. I left my things with my neighbors, left all the good things, and, 'course, they were all gone when I came back. And they said, "Well, I guess it got stolen or something. We don't know what happened to it." That's the case of many, many other cases that left things in care of other people or their neighbors or something, and they don't know what happened to it.

Those who retained their property and returned to it after the war were lucky if the tenants and caretakers they entrusted had maintained fields, buildings, animals, and machinery. Sad stories abound of Japanese Americans being shocked at the sight of ransacked houses and weed-choked lots. Junkoh Harui, whose father had built a thriving nursery and general store on Bainbridge Island, Washington, tells how they found the property ruined from neglect and pilfering. Junkoh recalls the only time his father showed any sadness as they picked up the pieces:

There was only one occasion which this came out. One time, he took me along on a planting job, and he was pointing out several trees in people's yards and said, "You know, those are mine." And so, I'm sure the hurt was there…. I'm sure he was crushed when he saw all the years that he had put in to build the Bainbridge Gardens up, totally devastated. I mean, it must have been real traumatic for him. But you know, he never expressed that-- at least not to me. I guess the positive effect of trying to rebuild was his goal, and apparently he put the past behind him.

Another story of Issei resilience--and shrewdness--comes from Dave Tatsuno of San Francisco. When asked what it was like to start over in a changed neighborhood, he replied:

Well, the town was black. The blacks had moved into the Japantowns, so it was all black. Nighttime, noise until midnight and all that. But the people, the blacks, were very friendly to us, and other people like, I went to the wholesalers, oh, they were glad to see me. They were all nice, all very nice. They all felt sorry that the whole thing happened. So I found very little bitterness…Then I decided to reopen my San Francisco store, and… you know, we couldn't find a location, 'cause we had a store on the corner which was leased, and someone else was in there. We had a three-story residence next door, and somebody said, "Dave, why don't you jack the whole house up and put a store inside?" I said, "Can you do that?" An Issei carpenter, Mr. Honda, he says, "Oh, you can do that." "How much will it cost?" "About two thousand dollars." At that time, it cost us six thousand, but we lived upstairs while the house was being lifted. And so we reopened the store on July the 15th of 1946.

1. For details of economic losses by industry, see Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1982-83; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), pp. 117-33.

2. Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), p. 89.

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