The Japanese Incarceration: A Moral Catastrophe

Prior to the second world war, Stockton was home to one of the largest Japanese communities in the United States. As late as 1924, Japanese language newspapers identified Stocktonas the site of the largest Japanese community in the country – with over 5,000 Japanese immigrants and their families living in and around the city. Stockton’s Japanese Quarter, centered or Nihonmachi was located in the West End and centered on Market and El Dorado. Wealthy Japanese businessmen, such as George Shima and the Tanaka Brothers circumvested racist state and federal property laws, such as California’s 1913 Alien Land Law, to become Stockton’s wealthiest industrialists, and even financed the construction of the Hotel Stockton.

George Shima, standing on the right, with a Japanese diplomat and a man believed to be a professor at Stanford University, circa 1920. George Shima was the wealthiest Japanese man in America, and was considered a hero to the global Japanese community. His businesses were headquartered in Stockton. (Courtesy of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.)

The community dwindled in the 1930s, but remained a strong center of Japanese culture in America until Executive Order 9066. On February 19, 1942, at the urging of the Department of War and anti-immigrant groups, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced relocation and incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in America.

The internment began with raids of prominent Japanese households by FBI officers, which in Stockton first took place on February 20 and 21, 1942. From the Stockton Daily Evening Record, February 21, 1942.

In Stockton and San Joaquin County, Japanese communities were forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods and relocate to the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, beginning on May 10, 1942. Barracks were constructed near the racetrack, and 4,271 people moved in by May 21. The camp remained in operation through October 7, 1942, as families were gradually processed and relocated to Rohwer, Arkansas. The only building left standing from the camp is the original Assembly Center Hospital, now used as a warehouse. Inmates of the camp organized their own government, newspaper, and educational program, with Stewart Kaneda as Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Hajime Kanagawa overseeing the hospital, and Barry Saiki as the Editor of the El Joaquin newspaper. Ken Hasegawa was the head librarian.

An article from May 14, 1942 showcasing the internment in Stockton and the surrounding area.

A photo of an unidentified evacuee viewing a sign at the entrance to the Stockton Assembly Center, from May 1942.
A close up of the original plans for the Stockton Assembly Center, developed by the Department of War. (Courtesy of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum)

The vast majority of the Stockton community was relocated to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Desha County, Arkansas. Rohwer was approximately 50% comprised of Stocktonian and Lodian Japanese residents, and 50% comprised of Los Angeles residents. Over 10,000 residents would call Rohwer home during the war. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) would subject the internees to “loyalty questionnaires,” and there were few amenities. The community was organized as it had at Stockton, and sports leagues, schools, libraries, and social events took place. Some students were eventually permitted to study at Eastern colleges, and others enlisted in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which would serve heroically in the European Theater.

Flooded conditions at Rohwer concentration camp, Arkansas, c. 1943. (Courtesy of Densho, the Kuroishi Family Collection.)

In the aftermath of the war, much of the Japanese community from Stockton and San Joaquin County returned to the region. The returning community faced considerable financial hardship, as many had lost considerable personal property and those living in the countryside had their houses looted during the war. The California Alien Land Laws were still in effect, and many were unable to buy land. Those who had rented homes had been forced to sell off their personal possessions at a great loss. Similarly, predatory land speculators bought considerable amounts of land for pennies on the dollar from the few trapped Japanese farmers who had owned land – they were forced to sell their holdings quickly. A brief assessment of County of San Joaquin assessment records shows the scale of financial loss during the internment: prior to WWII, the Japanese community owned or rented approximately 180,000 acres of land in San Joaquin County. That number diminished to approximately 14,000 in 1946.

An article in The Stockton Daily Evening Record, February 20, 1942. Japanese households were robbed often in the timeframe between Executive Order 9066 having been issued and their arrival at relocation centers.

The Stockton Japanese American Citizens League, the oldest in the country, worked with other chapters to launch a campaign for redress in 1978. By February 24, 1983, the Presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued their Personal Justice Denied report, condemning the internment as racist and unnecessary. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 would go further to provide $20,000 to each living former internee.

The Japanese incarceration dramatically altered the history of Stockton both as a moral catastrophe that devastated an innocent community, but also by dramatically altering the demographics of the city. In 1940, nearly 14% of the city’s population was Japanese, with a large Japanese middle class being a critical piece of the city’s professional community. Agriculture in the surrounding countryside was heavily populated with Japanese businesses. The incarceration would permanently change that dynamic. Farmers such as the Shimas and Tanakas would never recover their land, and while many Japanese families returned and settled in Stockton or Lodi, the population of the community never recovered. The incarceration was a great injustice for the Japanese community.

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1 Comment

  1. Sad, sad story that needs to be told and retold.

    One of the displaced was George Akimoto, I have negatives of the work he made while studying at Stockton Junior College, 1941-1942z.

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