THE FAMILY OF Jitsuzo Nakata and his wife, Shima, of Bainbridge Island, was that immigrant story at the heart of the American dream legend: Arrive with not much to your name, work hard, work even harder, save, create a business, build a home, be part of the community, raise a family in the U.S. of A.
In 1942, Nakata was 67; his wife, 55. Farmers who had emigrated from Japan, they had spent most of their adult lives on the island.
Before and after World War II, the Nakata family enterprises would include a barbershop, laundry service and bathhouse; a strawberry farm; a butcher shop; and a grocery business. After the war, they pooled resources with high school friend Ed Loverich — such enduring ties were not unusual — to start the Town & Country Market in Winslow. There are now six in the Puget Sound area.
In 1942, the Nakatas had a son, Sgt. Momoichi “Mo” Nakata, serving in the U.S. Army’s famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers. His awards for bravery included the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. The latter award was for when Nakata, a radioman, injured his leg amid shelling in France, refused evacuation and dragged himself to continue broadcasting to help his buddies.
Yet here were his parents, on March 24, 1942, facing the notices that military police had nailed to buildings, telephone poles and other high-visibility spots on the island. They had six days to sell or lease their farms, store or sell their property, and find new homes for their pets.
THE NATION WAS reeling from the attack 3½ months earlier on Pearl Harbor. Emotions and fear of “saboteurs” made for a volatile combination that was soon reflected in discriminatory policies and racist media coverage. By Dec. 22, 1941, Life magazine, then one of America’s most-read magazines, ran a full page with two Asian faces, and a headline that contained a racist slur, for a racist story on how to supposedly tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese facial features.
That Tuesday in March, a one-page document titled Executive Order 9066 was being carried out by the U.S. Army. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the order authorized the forced removal of all people on the West Coast deemed a threat to national security. It didn’t specifically state that it was aimed at Japanese Americans, but that’s what it did.
Bainbridge Island was issued Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1.
Why was this island chosen as the first in the country for enforcing the order?
“Up and down the West Coast, there were all sorts of Japanese communities near naval and army bases,” says Clarence Moriwaki, past president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community. Why not, for example, he asks, choose Bremerton, where the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard was located?
Moriwaki says he thinks Bainbridge Island was a template for future forced removals. “I’ve been studying this for a long time. We had military bases around, and those soldiers could have easily come to the island. But the military chose a unit from New Jersey to travel across the country,” he says.
“Then they rounded up a relatively small population of Japanese Americans that were on the island, and the place was easy to curfew and quarantine. It was an island. Then they used three of the four modes of transportation (ferry, train and bus) in that forced removal. The only one they didn’t use was air travel. It was a unique opportunity to utilize their logistical ability.”
ON THE ISLAND, it meant the mass forced removal on March 30, 1942, of 227 Japanese Americans. Days earlier, more than four dozen other Japanese Americans had been arrested by the FBI; or had moved to Moses Lake, which was not in an exclusion zone; or were serving in the military, says Moriwaki. Two-thirds of those removed were U.S. citizens.
All those 227 could take with them was what they could physically carry; the order said items such as blankets; toiletries; clothing; and forks, spoons, knives and other utensils must be carried.
In future removals, pets eventually were allowed, perhaps to avoid scenes such as this: A Seattle Post-Intelligencer photo from that day showed a Husky dog, King, inside an Army truck with his Japanese American family. The dog had to be coaxed out. The caption from the Bainbridge Island Historical Society says that a neighbor agreed to care for King, but that the dog “refused to eat and starved to death.”
In the next six months, more than 110,000 Japanese American men, women and children were incarcerated in camps; 108 exclusion areas were designated nationwide, each containing about 1,000 Japanese Americans.
WHAT WERE THE thoughts of Jitsuzo Nakata, and his wife, Shima, as they posed for a photo that ran March 24, 1942, in The Seattle Times?
The couple was standing proudly before the front door to their Bainbridge Island home. Above them was a red, white and blue poster showing the American flag, with the capitalized words, “OUR SON IS SERVING IN THE UNITED STATES ARMY.”
“It’s good for the country, so we’ll move,” Jitsuzo said.
That March 24 issue of The Seattle Times also ran another photo of the Nakatas, this one showing Jitsuzo by a pickup truck, standing alongside a man holding paperwork.
It was a bill collector who had shown up.
The caption read, “Registration, evacuation and business problems of J. Nakata were complicated with the appearance of a bill collector, who said his company had instructed him to call on all Japanese on Bainbridge Island and ask that they clear up outstanding accounts. Nakata referred the collector to a son, John Nakata, popular Winslow butcher.”
That son, John, then 35, was himself arranging to lease and then sell his Eagle Harbor Market, and saying goodbye to his customers.
From John, there also was stoicism. He told The Seattle Times, “I was born and raised on Bainbridge Island, and I feel I am a 100 percent American citizen. I know that I, and others similarly situated, feel a great loyalty to this nation. We will protect our flag. Our flag is the United States flag.”
There is a Japanese term for how these men reacted, says Tom Ikeda, founder of Densho, the Seattle nonprofit that documents more than 900 digitized oral histories of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. It’s shikata ga nai, he says, which translates to, “It cannot be helped.”
Densho itself means “to pass on to future generations.” Ikeda, whose parents and grandparents were in camps, doesn’t want that history forgotten.
PHOTOS SHOW THE muddy road leading to the Eagledale Ferry Dock near Winslow that March 30 was clogged with charter buses, trucks, Army Jeeps and private vehicles with belongings strapped on top.
The ferry Kehloken arrived at the dock at 11:03 a.m. A number of Bainbridge High kids had cut class to say goodbye to their friends.
In a remarkable news story, Seattle Times reporter Fielding Lemmon humanized what happened that day.
“It was a pathetic exodus,” wrote Lemmon. “There were mothers with babies in arms, aged patriarchs with faltering steps, high school boys and girls, and some children too young to realize the import of the occasion. The youngsters frolicked about, treating the evacuation as a happy excursion.” Lemmon also wrote that many soldiers assigned for this duty were crying.
An hour after boarding, the ferry arrived at Colman Dock in Seattle, where a special train awaited the families as they stepped off. It was a disorienting three-day train trip, as the window shades were drawn. Then it was transferring to a bus ride that ended at what then was called the Manzanar War Relocation Center, hastily built on 500 acres in the high desert of east-central California.
In 1942, for graduation ceremonies at Bainbridge High, there were 13 empty chairs for the Japanese American seniors sent to Manzanar.
Within months, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were crowded into 504 barracks there; eight people were forced to share a 20-by-25-foot room. Strong winds often blanketed the area with dust and sand. Meals consisted of Army rations.
The housing section, patrolled by military police, was surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers with search lights. Eventually, most of the Bainbridge Islanders were sent to Minidoka, an incarceration camp in southern Idaho.
THESE DAYS, THE Eagledale dock at Bainbridge Island is gone. Instead, in its place, is a cantilevered 45-foot deck that overlooks Eagle Harbor.
It is here, at a 5-acre park, that Lilly Kodama, 87, meets up to tell about this historic site. She still lives in the same Bainbridge Island home in which she was born. She still drives.
This historic site is the Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. Its motto is, “Nidoto Nai Yoni — Let It Not Happen Again.”
The park was dedicated in 2011 and is a serene place, with gracefully curving paths and native plants. Located where a road led to the old ferry dock, there now is a 276-foot cedar wall: 1 foot for each of the 276 Japanese Americans removed from the island. Each family has the names of all its members engraved on a wood board.
Kodama was 7 when boarding that ferry with her family. Her dad, Frank Kitamoto, had already been locked up in Missoula. In the family’s barn, the FBI had found dynamite for clearing land, and rifles for hunting.
Kodama says her dad was ready to move back to Japan; he had arrived in the United States with his mother as a baby in 1900, she says.
“He was so mad at a country that treated him this way,” she remembers. Kodama’s mother talked Kodama’s father out of it. “ ‘All our children were born here. We can’t go to Japan. We don’t know anything about Japan,’ ” Kodama says, recalling her mother’s words. “She was pleading with him. She said that was the first time she went against what he said.”
Kodama’s dad never voted for a Democrat after that because FDR’s signature had been on the executive order.
Kodama says she didn’t think of the forced removal as that. “I remember not sleeping that night because I was so excited about getting on the ferry to Seattle,” she says. “I had never been on a train before.”
She has only faint memories of life at the camp.
There was the desert climate, with extreme heat and extreme cold. There was playing at a creek and looking up at the tower and seeing a soldier with a gun. There was seeing someone dressed as Santa Claus at Christmas.
FOR THE JAPANESE AMERICANS from Bainbridge Island, their connections with their old homes remained strong through the war and the camps.
A young couple then in their early 30s, who in 1940 had purchased the island’s weekly paper, is given large credit for keeping those bonds alive. The 1,000-circulation Bainbridge Review was the heartbeat of the 5-by-10-mile “Gem of Puget Sound,” as the weekly touted on the masthead.
Milly and Walt Woodward were determined to not let their Japanese American neighbors be forgotten, and so they regularly printed dispatches from five correspondents from Manzanar that told of life at the camp.
Among them was Paul Ohtaki, a high school kid who, before the war, had been hired to do cleanup work at the weekly’s print shop. He graduated from high school in 1942 while at Manzanar and would end up serving with the Military Intelligence Service in the Pacific.
And he told of the everyday ordinary events: “Victor Takemoto, 15 years old, Rolling Bay, was recovering this week from chickenpox.”
One-hundred-fifty of the exiled Japanese Americans returned to Bainbridge Island, a 55% rate, considerably higher than for other exclusion areas.
As much as the bonds with the island existed, returning was hard.
In a 2007 oral history with the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, Junkoh Harui, who died in 2008 at age 75, told of the original Bainbridge Gardens business started by his family. The nursery also had a grocery store, and the family rented it out when the exclusion order came down. That paid for the property taxes.
But the nursery couldn’t be saved.
“Most of the inventory and the ornamentals … the beautiful fountains, etc. … they were all either pilfered or damaged beyond repair. It must have been really crushing to come back and see that. My dad … I do remember one thing after we came back: We were driving around the island … my dad would point out certain trees and he says, ‘You know, that was … used to be mine.’ ”
AGE IS TAKING its toll on the generation of Japanese Americans who would have been old enough to have memories of being incarcerated — those of Lilly Kodama’s age and older.
These days, the legacy of those years continues with someone like Kai Uyekawa, 19, who grew up on Bainbridge Island and now is studying film at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. For his college application, the assignment was to submit a silent three-minute video.
He made one of his dad, Keith Uyekawa, as he visited Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American Exclusion Memorial and placed an origami crane made out of a folded copy of the exclusion order, interspersed with news clips of the camps. Strings of the folded cranes are hung throughout the memorial wall.
“I think it was a chapter made out of fear and ignorance,” says Uyekawa.
A new generation of Japanese Americans is learning not to forget.