Pre-WWII Seattle and the Japanese Community


In #RumorsFromShanghai, characters from Black, Chinese and Japanese backgrounds shape the protagonist's viewpoint and interests. These experiences provide him insights and skills that prove critical to his ability to thrive and evaluate risks he faces.


As previously mentioned, I'll be doing some posts about these groups and their situation in pre-WWII Seattle. Here I wrote about China-related contacts in the Pacific Northwest. Today I want to touch on the presence of Japanese and Japanese Americans in that period.


At the end of a week where horrific, dehumanizing violence occurred in Atlanta with six #AAPI victims, the degree to which 'otherness' seems to run through the Pacific Northwest history of Japanese-American experience is worth noticing.


Otherizing of the Japanese community in the pre-WWII period seems to take two primary forms: one is in the lack of visibility accorded Japanese and Japanese-American presence in records from that period. The Museum of History and Industry and University of Washington photo collections, as well as the Seattle Times archives contain ample references to, and images of, Chinese and Chinese Americans in Seattle. Searches for comparable images and references to Japanese turn up far fewer 'hits.'

The notable exception is, of course, the shameful WWII internment of Japanese and Japanese-American residents. For example, no Japanese students appear in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer photo of Bailey Gatzert School, even though they had a strong presence there. The Museum of History and Industry caption explains why: "Many of the students who attended Bailey Gatzert School in the 1920s and 1930s came from either Chinatown or Nihonmachi (Japan Town). The school lost about 45 percent of its student body when the federal government forcibly removed Japanese Americans to incarceration camps in 1942." (emphasis added). Prior to December 7, 1941, for many Seattleites the Japanese community was a non-story.


Second, when references to pre-1941 Japanese experience in Washington State exist, they often involve discussion of whether the Japanese Americans are really American or *actually* subject to the orders of the Japanese emperor, such as in this 1920 Seattle Daily Times article:


Asian Americans continue to warn of the extent to which to this day they are viewed as 'alien' or 'non-American,' so this phenomenon is by no means limited to Japanese Americans or the pre-WWII period. Nevertheless, in reviewing materials about Seattle's Japanese community from the early 1900s until 1941, the degree to which public references to them allude to a potential for divided loyalties is striking. Perhaps another post will explore why that was so...


In February 1921 a bill prohibiting non-white immigrants from owning land was introduced in the Washington State legislature, and a mere month later, the governor signed the Alien Land Bill into law. It prohibited non-white immigrants from owning land. As federal law already prohibited immigrants from Japan and China from becoming U.S. citizens, this statute effectively targeted immigrants from Asia. Given Japanese immigrants operated significant agricultural land holdings (for example, by 1920, they provided 75 percent of the vegetables consumed in King County), they bore the lion's share of the law's effects.

This news article from a few months before the adoption of Washington's alien land law reflects the ambivalence and hostility that white competitors harbored towards Japanese agricultural success, in both Washington and Oregon.

The statute's constitutionality was challenged, but using odious, bigoted language, in 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Washington's statute.


It was not until 1966 that Washington's Alien Land Law was finally repealed.


Seattle-born Monica Sone's memoir Nisei Daughter is a welcome antidote to the dehumanizing 'othering' present in so many reports and accounts of Japanese-American experience in pre-WWII Seattle. Sone, recounts with delightful detail what it was like growing up in the 1920s-1930s as a daughter of Japanese immigrants who operated a hotel near the Seattle waterfront.

In the days since the obscene violence in Atlanta on March 16, Asian-American writers have eloquently decried the objectification and dehumanization to which #AAPI people, and in particular, women, are subjected.


In the 'progressive' Pacific Northwest, it's easy to fall into a trap of complacency, imagining our community as welcoming diversity and valuing #AAPI community members, but the unfortunate truth is that in the Pacific Northwest, we too have a sordid past when it comes to treatment of Asian Americans, and tragically, that tendency remains all too real in present day Seattle.




Caption: Four Boy Scouts, Seattle, August 1935

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