Photo Essay: Japanese Americans Return to the West Coast After WWII Incarceration

The exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast during WWII came to an official end on January 2, 1945. By the end of the year, nine of the ten War Relocation Authority concentration camps had been shut down — although Japanese American “renunciants” and Japanese Latin Americans slated for deportation to Japan remained imprisoned even after the war’s end. On the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Japanese American incarceration, we take a look back at some of the images from this moment in history.

By 1945, many Japanese Americans, particularly college- and working-age Nisei, had already left the camps to “resettle” in Midwest and East Coast hubs, which meant that the majority of those who remained were elders and families with young children for whom another forced move was a significant hardship. Incarcerees were ordered to leave and given just $25 and a one-way ticket home — but many had nothing to come back to.

Original WRA caption: “Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Reversing the scenes of nearly three years ago when ttrian after train brought more than 11,000 evacuees from the West Coast. Heart Mountain residents now are bidding goodbye to friends and neighbors as they return to their homes or depart for new homes and work throughout the nation. This scene taken at a recent departure shows the largest group date to be taken away from their wartime home. Four to six coaches have been leaving the Heart Mountain Center weekly for Billings, Montana, where they connect with the mainliners both east and west.” July 1945. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Original WRA caption: “Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Shown here is a young miss, dressed in her Sunday best, waiting with the family possessions while her mother makes final arrangements for boarding the train. Scenes at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad depot, Granada, Colorado, as 170 evacuees from the Amache Center entrain for their former homes in California, October 6, 1945. Four special coaches and one Pullman, reserved for the aged, invalids and mothers with small infants, were provided for the returnees.” Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Japanese Americans arrive by truck from Amache to board trains for California or other sections of the country, October 1945. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Japanese Americans being inspected upon leaving Gila River concentration camp, September 1945. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
“Farewell leaving Manzanar to L.A.” August 1945. Photo courtesy of Manzanar National Historic Site and the Rosie Maruki Kakuuchi Collection.
Original caption: “Mrs. Hideo Kanow, mother of four sons in the Army in Italy, all of whom are entitled to wear the Purple Heart, bids farewell to one of her friends before she returns to Los Angeles on the special train of July 26.” Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
The Ishikawa family preparing to depart from Tule Lake, January 23, 1945. Photo by Jack Iwata, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
A family on board a Greyhound bus waiting to leave Gila River concentration camp for California. Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Original caption: ” Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Children guard the family possessions while awaiting the arrival of the train which will carry them from Granada to their former homes on the west coast.” October 1945. Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Original caption: ” Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Tables, benches, chairs, etc., made from scrap lumber by the evacuees themselves to make a more homelike atmosphere in the otherwise bare, barracks apartments, were left behind when the center closed, some of which are shown outside the buildings. Even this dog, which has spent many a happy hour playing with the children in the center, has a deserted and forlorn look as though he too realizes the end of his time, as well as that of the center, has come. Hundreds of dogs and cats had, of necessity, to be left behind to be killed as a humane measure.” Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Original caption: “Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado. Not all the center residents will return to their former homes. Many have found permanent ‘relocation’ in the sandy soil on which the tar paper barracks were hurriedly erected.” October 1945. Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Most returned to the West Coast without serious incident, but well-publicized discriminatory and terrorist actions greeted many returnees. Against this backdrop, Japanese Americans struggled to find housing and employment, and many turned to overcrowded hostels and government-run trailer parks as a last resort.

Children outside Seattle’s Japanese Language School, which served as a hostel for returning families after WWII. Photo courtesy of the Ohashi Collection.
Original caption: “Returning Japanese American internees Masashi Sakatani and his children unpacking in Army barracks in Burbank, Calif., 1945.” Photo courtesy of UCLA, Charles E. Young Research Library, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives.
A former incarceree at the Evergreen Hostel in East Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the American Friends Service Committee.
Returning Japanese Americans at a trailer camp in Los Angeles, California. Photo courtesy of UCLA, Charles E. Young Research Library, Los Angeles Daily News Negatives.
Original caption: ” Unpacking again: Returned evacuees find temporary living quarters at the Winona Housing Project in Burbank, California in trailer homes until they are able to secure homes in or around Los Angeles.” November 1945. Photo by Tom Parker, courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

The extreme hardships of the immediate return to the West Coast eased for many over the next decade. By 1950, the Nikkei population on the West Coast was well over 80% of what it had been before the war, and before long Japanese Americans came to be seen as a “model minority” — although that image ignored the many, particularly Issei, who never recovered, as well as long-term cultural losses and psychological effects. As Brian Niiya writes in the Densho Encyclopedia, “Incarceration had not killed Japanese American communities—and Japanese American identity—but it had changed it in ways that wouldn’t be understood for many years.”

Adapted from Brian Niiya’s Densho Encyclopedia article “Return to the West Coast.” Read more: http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Return%20to%20West%20Coast/

[Header photo: Original caption: “Last of the residents of the Amache Relocation Center board the train at Granada for the journey to the west coast or to new homes elsewhere in the country.” Photo by Hikaru Iwasaki, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Single Comment
    • 15/01/2020 at 20:56

    A very poignant photographic memory of a bittersweet late stage in this tragic episode of American history.

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