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May 22, 2012 > History: Japanese American Evacuation

History: Japanese American Evacuation

Photos By Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California, Berkeley

Frank and Niyo Tsuji were probably the first permanent Japanese settlers in the Tri-City area. They emigrated from Hiroshima in 1891 and worked on John Bunting's Sycamore Farm on Thornton Avenue. Their daughter, Kimiyo, born in 1903, was the first Japanese-American born here.

Many of the Japanese immigrants were farmers. The Alien Land Laws prevented them from owning land, so they worked as seasonal farm hands or as sharecroppers. They labored diligently and waited patiently for the day when their American-born children would be 21 years old and gain the right to own land.

Some Japanese-Americans worked on the railroads, in the salt ponds, and a few owned their own business. The Matsumoto family opened a grocery store in Alvarado in 1917, and the Nakamura family began their store in Centerville in 1926. Frank Fujimoto had a bicycle shop in Irvington; and there were other shop operators.

More Japanese came. They were not deeply involved in the community, so they organized their own social activities. They held Buddhist services in their homes. The Japanese-American Citizens League was formed in 1934 to provide welfare services, arrange social events, promote American citizenship and encourage language study. They started an annual oratorical award at the high school. Children usually did well in the public school, and then attended private Japanese language school on Saturdays.

Life was busy and peaceful for the Japanese-Americans in the Thirties. Their American names seldom appeared in the local news. They were recognized as industrious, cooperative citizens.

Pearl Harbor changed everything. Fear, anger, hysteria and racism swept the country. Alameda County became part of Military Area #1. Proclamations and orders were issued by the Western Defense Command that changed the lives of every local person of Japanese ancestry. Travel was restricted and a curfew established. Guns, cameras and short wave radios were taken. Farmers were told to prepare for possible evacuation but to keep on faming as a sign of their loyalty.

All were told to dispose of their property and arrange with a bank to handle their accounts. They sold some of their possessions, often at low prices, and stored whenever possible. Those who owned homes, arranged for neighbors to care for them. A few who had garages put their cars on blocks. The Nakamura Grocery Store was listed for sale. Alvarado residents helped the Matsumoto family close up their business.

Friends of the Japanese-Americans were very supportive, but strangers were suspicious and sometimes hostile. Some residents who sympathized with the plight of their Japanese American friends were afraid to voice their feelings. A reporter noted that they were innocent victims of this situation. They had done nothing to provoke any hatred or hostility.

Military police swarmed over Washington Township Sunday, May 3, 1942 posting an order that all Japanese were to be evacuated by 12 o'clock Saturday, May 9. Anyone found after that time would be arrested.

Washington High provided special graduation exercises for 15 Japanese-American students on Wednesday. Vernon Ickisaka gave a farewell address.

Japanese American people prepared to leave in the midst of confusion and sadness. The Tsuji's had lived and farmed here 50 years. Kimiyo Tsuji, born in the area nearly 40 years ago, had worked here for 25 years. The family packed their suitcases and met the evacuation buses on Walton Avenue in Centerville.

The Sekigahama family had farmed for Tony Lewis for many years. They had five children under the age of 12 and Kimiyo was six months pregnant.

No one really understood what was going to happen and it was impossible to explain to children where they were going. They crammed everybody's clothes into suitcases, and friends drove them to the bus.

May 9, 1942 the weather was pleasant, but the scene was not. Children cried and parents fretted. Some local residents came to say goodbye to their friends boarding the buses. A few people brought sandwiches. The buses chugged away with the last of over 600 people evacuated from our area to Tanforan Center. For the first time in 50 years, there were no people of Japanese ancestry in Washington Township.

The Washington News recorded the event in four lines at the bottom of the first page. "All Japanese residents and Citizens of Washington Township left at 10:00 this morning for their evacuation headquarters."

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