Stolen land and the story of Japanese-American farms

Today, little remains of the 10 internment camps used to hold over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War under Executive Order 9066, one of President Roosevelt’s most terrible acts. Their history has been scrubbed away, and many schools say little to nothing about them — depending on where people went to school and when, many people in the United States aren’t aware of the camps at all, or don’t understand the full extent of the politics behind them and what Japanese-Americans lost. In stark contrast, Germany maintains the Holocaust in the public eye, reflecting on its own sobering past. While the camps of Europe were quite different in terms of scale and nature from those in the US, it’s telling that this country has been so eager to erase any evidence of wrongdoing, presenting itself as a place filled with wholesome GI’s and hardworking Rosies. It’s all part of the mythology of good versus evil, pure versus soiled, that the US likes to maintain in its narrative of the Second World War.

The history of Japanese and Chinese Americans is a dark one. Exclusionary immigration policy, quotas, and racist bans on marriage and property ownership overshadowed the experiences of many immigrants to the United States, who came to the country to escape poverty and social problems and found themselves in a hostile environment. Along the West Coast of the United States, a lively Chinese and Japanese population arose despite these barriers — and continues to exist today — but Japanese-Americans faced a devastating setback in the Second World War when President Roosevelt ordered them detained for the duration of the war on the grounds that they posed a national security risk.

Prior to the order, many Japanese-American families eked out a living farming, and accounted for a large percentage of farm incomes and production across California, Oregon, and Washington. Their work fed a nation, and they invested in farming equipment as well as long-term projects like orchards that would take years of careful maintenance and care to begin producing. With Executive Order 9066, all that was taken away — the government confiscated vast amounts of Japanese-American property, all in the name of homeland defense.

Under the law, Japanese-Americans were not allowed to own real estate. Instead, they worked as tenant farmers. Some simply lost their land rights altogether, while others attempted to transfer them for the duration of the war, relying on the honesty of caretakers to return the land when they were released. In many cases, profiteers took advantage of abandoned Japanese farms to benefit from decades of work, and the people who held Japanese-American farms, homes, and businesses sometimes did so in bad faith, refusing to cede control after the war. Meanwhile, physical property was looted, as people were only allowed to take limited belongings with them into the camps, and even if they sold physical property, the proceeds weren’t necessarily safe in the country that viewed everyone of Japanese descent as the enemy, no matter how many generations had been in the United States.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the removal of Japanese-American farmers caused real problems for the food supply in the United States, especially in the West. The country overall faced a serious labour shortage, with so many working-aged men deployed overseas or working on other aspects of the war effort, and many women employed in munitions factories and other military installations to support the war. All of these people needed feeding, but the people skilled at food production and able to dedicate labor to growing crops were locked away in grim, isolated camps characterised by crowded conditions, limited access to health care, and, of course, poor food supplies.

The detention of an entire sector of the mainland population had not just huge material consequences for a nation in urgent need of labourers as well as soldiers, but also cultural consequences — it created an atmosphere void of a rich, complex community that had contributed immeasurably before the war despite the fact that it faced considerable social oppression and constant discrimination codified directly into the law. Astoundingly, despite this treatment, some interned men went on to serve the US military and government agencies via ‘loyalty oaths’ offered as the war drew to a close and the US realised it couldn’t be choosy about who fought for it — mistreated and abused even before the war, Japanese-Americans still felt committed to the wellbeing of the nation that spat upon them, and they continued to be even after the war, when they were released into a landscape that still viewed them extremely prejudicially.

Today, when we look at the distribution of ownership of farmland across the West Coast, race plays a role in who owns what and where, with a few notable Japanese families boasting generations of family farming, but the Japanese farming community in general largely absent. That’s a direct consequence of the war and its aftermath, which drove former internees into new lines of work because they had nothing left to return to, had been stripped of their property and identity in a war driven by propaganda, fear, and hatred.

The fate of Japanese-American land during the Second World War reflects the fact that a single moment in history can have a huge effect on the future for an entire class of people, that just one iteration of systemic prejudice can ripple through generations. The camps are unknown or unimaginable to many white Americans, but their legacy lingers all around us, haunting our very food supply, though it does so in eerie silence.

Image: Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial, Joe Mabel, Flickr