Return to California: Japanese Americans in the Post-War Golden State

This month, Densho Content Director Brian Niiya and Japanese American National Museum Collections Manager Kristen Hayashi will present two public lectures in California focusing on the experiences of Japanese Americans who returned there after being released from WWII incarceration. Join them on June 15 @ 2pm at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute or June 29 @ 2pm at the Japanese American National Museum. Here, Brian writes about the importance of returning to this under-documented moment in Japanese American history.

Japanese American women in Long Beach, September 7, 1947. Courtesy of the Nimura Family Collection.

In Japanese American studies, the immediate post-camp period tends to get neglected, whether in stories focusing on the wartime incarceration or on the whole of Japanese American history. You see this even in Densho’s own materials—in particular, in many of our interviews, where this period is often skipped over due to time constraints or to get to the redress movement or to parallels with current events. And yet, this period contains many fascinating stories and is crucial to understanding the state of Japanese American communities today and how we got here.

I’m also struck by how many Japanese Americans of a certain age—particularly those who were teenagers in camp and who often have fond memories of those years—will tell you that the period right after camp was more difficult for them than the incarceration itself. For these and other reasons, we decided to do an interview project that specifically focused on the immediate post-camp period.

Kumezo Hatchimoji at his home in Los Angeles, c. 1947-48. Courtesy of the Hatchimonji Collection.

In a first set of interviews completed over the last year and funded, in part, by grants from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, we looked at the return of Japanese Americans to California. At the recent Rohwer/Jerome Pilgrimage, I did a presentation based on those interviews highlighting those returning from the Arkansas camps. More or less equally divided between those from the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles, the Arkansas inmates returned to both rural and urban areas, and I highlighted video clips of former inmates talking about some of the key issues they faced upon their return.

In the two upcoming programs, I’ll be giving both an overview of the return to California as well as highlights of issues unique to the two locales featuring interviews with Japanese Americans from the South Bay in the Gardena JCI presentation (June 15) and those who returned to Little Tokyo in the JANM presentation (June 29). Kristen Hayashi, JANM’s collection manager, will also do a presentation based on her Ph.D dissertation research on the return of Japanese Americans to Los Angeles after camp.

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

[Header image: A group of incarcerees at Heart Mountain waves goodbye as bus leaves camp, July 26, 1944. Courtesy of the Okumoto Collection.]

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