Saturday, July 16, 2005


By David A. Neiwert

Palgrave MacMillan, $29.95, 280 pages, illus.


Growing up in the 1950s in a suburb of Atlanta “coloreds only” and “whites only” signs on water fountains and public toilets were fairly common. It never occurred to me that white people might have similar feelings toward “Orientals” until we moved to Bellevue, Wash., a suburb of Seattle in 1962. I remember my parents bewilderment at the openly hostile neighborhood reaction when a Japanese family tried to buy a house in our Mockingbird Hill development.

Riding our bicycles on Bellevue streets, walking to school, swimming in nearby Lake Sammamish, Bellevue was a white and middle-class. We knew nothing of the history, that Bellevue was a small farming suburb hewn from the wilderness, stumps removed, fields made workable and then planted by Japanese immigrants in the early 1900s. And after Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was one of many West Coast cities depopulated of Japanese by government order, a forced evacuation that sent hundreds of Bellevue Japanese to internment camps — ultimately clearing the way for white suburbia.

“Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community” by David A. Neiwert fills in that history. Mr. Neiwert, a Seattle-based reporter who won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000, spent more than 10 years digging through newspaper archives and interviewing dozens of Japanese Americans who grew up in Bellevue, working the small truck farms that provided lettuce, tomatoes, snap beans and strawberries to farm stalls in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Bellevue was famous for its strawberries, grown almost exclusively by Japanese farmers. Until the internment it held a yearly strawberry festival, drawing thousands of people from around Puget Sound. There is no trace of that left today.

In profiling one Japanese American community, “Strawberry Days” puts a human face on the wrenching internment memorial — a crane entangled in barbed-wire — just below Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. The Japanese came to the United States in the late 1800s, first to work in Hawaii’s sugar fields and later to the Pacific Northwest to work in the logging, fishing and railroad industries. They were excluded from becoming naturalized citizens and from owning land by the 1790 Immigration Act, but they came anyway — 24,000 in 1900, as compared to 400,000 immigrants of European descent. Over the years, there were various “Yellow Peril” anti-Japanese movements, making the familiar anti-immigration arguments — they will not assimilate; they don’t speak English; they breed “with alarming rapidity;” they are taking jobs from white Americans.

The anti-Japanese organizations considered the Japanese in America to be loyal to Japan and here only to establish a beachhead for their emperor to invade. The racist rhetoric led to a number of anti-Japanese laws in the early 1920s, which novelist Pearl Buck credited with creating a backlash in Japan against the United States — killing the nascent democracy movement there and ultimately leading to World War II.

Despite the hostility in some quarters, the Japanese American families quietly scratched out the American dream, moving from tenant farmer shacks to something resembling stability and prosperity. They bought homes, farm land, refrigerators and trucks. They married and had children, who because they had been born on U.S. soil, were American citizens. They played baseball and graduated from Bellevue High School.

It all came crashing to an end on December 7, 1941, that “Day of Infamy.” Anti-Japanese politicians and military officials had long been arguing that the Japanese could not be understood, let alone trusted, that they were a threat to national security and should be removed from the West Coast. Evidence against one family amounted to nothing more than drawings of the Panama Canal, which the children had done for an elementary school assignment. U.S. officials said the crayon drawings were a clever disguise for plans to attack the canal.

While there were spy rings of Japanese diplomats in various Japanese embassies and some limited activity on Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor, government investigators never found a single act of sabotage or spying attributed to a Japanese American on the West Coast following the attack.

May 20, 1942 was the day they came for the Bellevue Japanese — 60 families in all. Ultimately 117,000 individuals were put in internment camps, including 72,000 American citizens, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. From there many Japanese-American boys joined the military or were drafted, fighting and bleeding and dying, proving their loyalty time and again. By the end of the war, 731 had died and 3,713 were wounded in action. The Japanese-American 442nd was the most decorated for its size, of any U.S. unit in the war — earning 18,000 medals. By the time they came home, to “No Japs Allowed” signs, the internment camps were closing, but the once close knit Japanese-American communities were bust, never to be re-established.

Mr. Neiwert makes a case against internment then, and racial profiling now, arguing that an innocent group of people were victimized by racism and scapgoating in response to the sneak attack. He has a spare and direct style of writing that does not go for the easy emotional buttons, allowing the story unfold in its own quiet manner. But the book is more than bygone history and it deserves a wide readership, especially post-September 11. America’s response in 1941 to a racially different group of citizens, has echoes in policing Muslim communities in Detroit, Abu Ghraib prison, the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. It is important to consider the past, and not repeat its mistakes. “Strawberry Days” is a thoughtful contribution to that discussion.

Tom Carter is a reporter on the foreign desk of The Washington Times.

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