Footrace, community picnic
Seattle, Washington
Courtesy of Densho, the Mamiya Family Collection
Chapter 2 – Tension

In the decades before World War II, the Issei worked hard to build communities and raise families in West Coast cities. In West Coast cities Nihonmachi sprang up, serving the needs of Nikkei who understood they were not welcome in white neighborhoods. The Issei opened shops and small businesses; they built bathhouses, Japanese language schools, Buddhist and Christian churches. In skid row neighborhoods (impoverished urban zones), they operated restaurants, laundries, and hotels for Footrace, community picnicCaucasian customers. Skirting the alien land laws, families ran successful produce farms, dairies, and nurseries. The Nisei as a group did well academically and were approaching young adulthood, hopeful of fitting into American society more fully than their parents could. Kenjinkai organized community celebrations and provided financial assistance. By and large, while the Issei lived with tacit segregation and overt prejudice, they were doing well financially and supporting each other socially.

The very success of the Issei, however, inspired resentment and fear in the larger population. Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s spurred anxiety in the United States, and the mounting tensions between the two countries increased hostility toward people of Japanese heritage. Already stereotyped as a treacherous race, they were now associated in the popular press with a dangerous potential enemy. Anti-Japanese agitators accused the Nikkei in America of being a “secret army” for the Emperor.

The federal government produced intelligence reports on people who it considered could be “dangerous” in the event of war, including the Issei and Nisei.  After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, all people of Japanese descent—including the Nisei who were U.S. citizens—were met with suspicion and distrust. Within weeks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested over 2,000 Issei community leaders and took them to enemy alien internment camps.The government imposed harsh restrictions raids on homes and businesses, property confiscation, nightly curfew, travel bans, frozen bank accounts.  As newspapers printed false reports of espionage and sabotage by Nikkei living on the West Coast, a panicked public started demanding that the entire population be taken away.


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Family at a park(1920)
Seattle, Washington
Courtesy of Densho, the Murakami Family Collection"

Excerpt from Densho Archive

Sunday, December 7--how could I forget? Bad news, terrible. Bad things are going to happen now. This is the last straw. This is the worst thing that could happen to the Japanese community on top of all the prejudice and discrimination. We all knew that. I talked to myself walking home, I said, What more is going to happen? Monday, tomorrow, I'm going to school. Back to school what for? Now, with the war on, I anticipated, what else will go wrong? I felt the world fell apart. Well, I went back to school Monday morning as usual, walked into the library. The library is very quiet. I felt all the eyes were upon me. That's how self-conscious I was of my Japanese face. That was agonizing, because of this Pearl Harbor. I figured that's the end of our community. I thought, what's the use of going to school? There's no future, no opportunities. I think we all mutually understood the pain, the mental anguish we were going through. It was internalized. No, I didn't talk to my father and mother about what's going to happen. We understood that things are not going to be good for us. As we all know, it didn't turn out very well, did it?

Hiro Nishimura

Nisei student at University of Washington, Seattle, in December 1941