The recent history of Bellevue is familiar to many. Long a "bedroom community" to Seattle, the largest city on the Eastside grew and...
“Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community”
by David A. Neiwert
Palgrave Macmillan, 280 pp., $29.95
The recent history of Bellevue is familiar to many. Long a “bedroom community” to Seattle, the largest city on the Eastside grew and prospered in the 1980s with the building of shiny high-rise office buildings downtown and the continued appeal of its elite shopping mall, Bellevue Square.
Much less well known is the remarkable story David Neiwert tells about the rise and fall of Bellevue’s Japanese-American community in his superb new book, “Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community.”
As the contrasting title and subtitle indicate, this story is not without its moments of happiness, but it doesn’t have a happy ending. Neiwert began his research in the early 1990s, when he wrote a series of articles on Bellevue Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) for the Bellevue Journal-American.
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“Strawberry Days” refers to brighter times in the 1920s and 1930s, when Nikkei “truck farmers” grew an abundance of produce, including big, juicy, famous strawberries. Started in 1925, the Strawberry Festival in Bellevue annually drew thousands of people. Individual Japanese farmers fared well and thrived when they banded together as the Bellevue Vegetable Growers Association. Bellevue produce was shipped across the nation.
David A. Neiwert
The author of “Strawberry Days” will read at the following locations:
7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com)
7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s Panama Hotel Cafe, 605 ½ S. Main St., sponsored by Kinokuniya Book Store (206-587-2477)
7:30 p.m. Friday at Seattle’s Ravenna Third Place (206-525-2347 or www.ravennathirdplace.com)
7:30 p.m. July 19 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com)
This was no overnight success. Earlier in the century, Japanese immigrants, among the first settlers of the Bellevue area, did the arduous and often dangerous work of removing immense tree stumps left behind from the logging of old-growth firs. Along with the challenges of clearing the land and intensive farming, the Nikkei faced an often-hostile white community.
One of Bellevue’s leading citizens, Miller Freeman, the developer of Bellevue Square, was a chief adversary. In a 1919 essay in the Seattle Star newspaper, Freeman bluntly asserted, “I am for a white man’s Pacific coast.” Freeman and a host of other anti-Japanese agitators on the West Coast were relentless in their attacks and largely successful. The Immigration Act of 1924 cut off immigration from Japan. Washington state’s 1921 Alien Land Law forbade the sale of land to Japanese and other Asians.
Even so, into the 1940s, the Nikkei community was just beginning to feel comfortable, with successful livelihoods and growing families. And then came Pearl Harbor.
Neiwert details the start of the war and its devastating aftermath for the Nikkei community, culminating in their forced removal and incarceration. The author pulls no punches: “It destroyed the livelihoods and careers of thousands of citizens, based on an unconstitutional mass presumption of guilt. It humiliated a whole population of largely loyal and patriotic citizens by identifying them with the national enemy. … It uprooted families, destroyed their close-knit structures, and laid waste to whole communities like the one in Bellevue.”
Mixing in personal stories, he includes long sections on the decisions of military and government leaders that led to the incarceration and provides numerous examples of politicians and media spouting racist hate talk.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, and three months later officials posted “evacuation” orders in Nikkei neighborhoods. Because they could take only what they could carry, families had to make hasty arrangements to store or get rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of property, farm equipment and personal belongings. On May 20, 1942, Bellevue’s 60 Nikkei families, 300 individuals, got on a train in Kirkland, ending up in a “relocation center” in Tule Lake in northern California, the largest of 10 inland concentration camps.
The government allowed Nikkei to leave the camps and return to the West Coast in 1945. Some chose to move east; those who returned often found their homes vandalized and belongings stolen. They faced a vocal and virulent reception from the usual anti-Japanese crowd, although the support of other neighbors and the undeniable bravery and sacrifice of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team turned the tide of public opinion. Most Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) went to college and left farming for other professions.
Bellevue as they knew it was forever changed. Ninety percent of Bellevue’s farmers were gone after the war, Neiwert reports, and the strawberry festival, canceled after 1941, finally resumed in 1987 but with scant acknowledgement of Japanese-American contributions.
Neiwert frets, in an afterword, about his being an outsider without the cultural sensitivity to properly approach his interview subjects. He needn’t have worried. His portrayals are rich and insightful, and the quotations have the authentic ring of oral history. Although Bellevue has no significant memorial to the pioneering and (literally) groundbreaking achievements of Japanese Americans, “Strawberry Days” serves as a fitting paean to their efforts and as important historical testimony.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle”