January 18, 2012

One of the articles I’ve been working on for the Densho Encyclopedia on and off is a piece on the terroristic incidents that greeted the first Nisei to return to the West Coast in the early months of 1945. I had remembered reading a bit about houses being burned down, shots fired, and the like and wanted to have a short piece on that mostly forgotten topic. In looking at the secondary literature, I was surprised to find that very few authors did more than touch on this subject. The book that devotes the most space to this topic, Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis’s The Great Betrayal, was published over forty years ago and is itself largely forgotten. (Girdner and Loftis’s book was published in 1969, the same year as much more famous books by Bill Hosokawa and Harry Kitano.) Many subsequent books cite the stories told in The Great Betrayal.

Since the JACL has been putting digitized back issues of the Pacific Citizen online, I decided to take a look at the PC through 1945 to see how they covered these incidents. It was quite an eye-opener. A little context: Despite growing support for the allowing “loyal” Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast among various parts of the federal government, this allowance was withheld for many months due to opposition from other sectors of the federal government and to the Roosevelt administration’s desire to table this politically unpopular issue until after the November 1944 elections. Literally hours after that election, plans were in place to open up the West Coast to Japanese Americans by the beginning of January of 1945. To say that there was opposition to the return of the Nikkei to the West Coast is an understatement.

One would think that the removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast would have quelled anti-Japanese sentiment for a while, and perhaps it did for a little while. But by 1943, there was renewed agitation, driven by a variety of factors including reports of unrest at some of the camps as well as the supposed “coddling” of the Nikkei, continuing reports of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia, and economic interests on the coast that were benefitting from the absence of Japanese Americans, among many other factors. By 1943, seemingly dozens of new anti-Japanese organizations had sprung up to join the old ones and they competed with each other to put out more outrageous resolutions proposing to not allow Japanese Americans back to the coast, to strip Nisei of their citizenship, to deport all Issei, and so forth, with the apparent support of leading politicians and much of the population. So it wasn’t a big surprise when one of the first families to return after the West Coast was officially opened up, the Dois of Placer County, California, saw the attempted dynamiting and burning of their packing shed as well as shots fired on their property, all while two of the Doi brothers were serving in the U.S. Army. Four locals were caught soon thereafter and were put on trial for arson and “attempted dynamiting.” One of the men subsequently confessed and implicated the others.

Despite there being little doubt about their guilt, their defense attorney chose not to present any evidence of their innocence, instead using a white supremacy defense replete with references to the Japanese American disloyalty and the Bataan Death March, as if to say, “can you blame these people for their actions”? The jury agreed: after two hours of deliberations, all were acquitted. Meanwhile, one incident after another took place. Three shotgun blasts into a Fowler home on February 10, another in Fresno on February 16, a home burned down in Selma. Shots fired into homes in Visalia and Lancaster on February 26, the Buddhist Temple in Delano burned down in February 27 followed by the Delano Japanese school going up in flames on March 11. A home outside of San Jose is set on fire on the night of March 6; when the family rushes outside to put out the fire, they are fired upon by a passing car. There is a surreal element to the PC during this time. Each seemingly contains just two types of stories: stories about the exploits of the 442nd in Europe, replete with heroism and tragedy and stories about these terrorist incidents, with details about bullets missing sleeping children by inches and how many of the victimized are returning Nisei war veterans.

It’s hard to imagine what was going through the minds of those planning on returning to the West Coast or those considering it. Would you want to return to this? By the summer, a couple of things had started to happen. Aside from the Doi case, arrests had been almost non-existent. To their credit, most state and federal officials—including some who had led the call for mass removal—decried the violence and called on local officials to step up their investigations. California Attorney General Robert Kenney went so far as to send a state “special agent” to the central valley to “assist” local law enforcement in their investigations and offered a monetary reward (put up by the ACLU) for any arrest and conviction of perpetrators. In the summer, a spate of newspaper editorials from around the country decried the violence, nearly all of them citing the parallels with Nazi Germany and making some version of the “is this what we are fighting for?” argument. Some local groups in the affected communities went out of their way to assist returning Nikkei.

By June, a couple of arrests had been made in other cases, and in the fall, the Doi defendants were back on trial on federal charges. By the end of 1945, these terror incidents had dwindled—though did not stop entirely—and the attention of the vernacular press turned elsewhere. Though a small footnote to the larger story of forced removal and incarceration, the story of these terroristic incidents is instructive. It is a story of how rhetoric, if left unchecked, can quickly turn to violence that is largely sanctioned by the community. It is also a story of how quickly that violence and much of the negative sentiment can be counteracted by decisive governmental action, which raises the question of what might have happened if the government had taken such action in early 1942 instead of mid-1945.

It is also a reminder of what Japanese Americans faced after camp in 1945, even as the war was coming to an end. Amazingly, it appears that no Japanese Americans were killed or seriously injured in the dozens of incidents that took place in 1945. (There are accounts in the PC of Chinese and Filipino Americans who were beaten up and a Chinese American stabbed by war workers after being mistaken for being “Japanese.” There were also a couple of Nikkei who were murdered in robbery cases that didn’t have obvious racial overtones.) But it’s hard to imagine that this “welcome” back to the coast didn’t leave scars of a different kind on those who experienced it.