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date: 18 August 2017

Japanese American Resettlement in Postwar America: The Los Angeles Experience

Summary and Keywords

Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere.

Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin.

Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.

Keywords: Japanese Americans, Japanese American resettlement, World War II, post–World War II, Los Angeles, War Relocation Authority, Federal Housing Authority

Nikkei Los Angeles: The Context of Mass Incarceration

For several generations, Los Angeles has been a major center of Japanese and Japanese American life, culture, and politics. In the midst of vast social, economic, and political upheavals in Meji Era Japan, and lured by the economic opportunities in U.S. West Coast agriculture, Japanese immigrants first began to settle in the greater Los Angeles area in the mid-1880s. Their migration took place within the dual contexts of the rapid expansion of agribusiness in the peripheral areas of Los Angeles as well as the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Although men comprised the initial cohort of immigrants, Japan’s imperialist agenda encouraged the settler migration of women and families and soon thereafter, the Nisei, or second generation was born.

In the face of various forms of state-sanctioned discrimination such as Alien Land Laws, as well as interpersonal racism, Japanese Americans in the greater Los Angeles region created networks for a bustling community. Although that community was anchored in the downtown enclave of Little Tokyo near various business districts and markets, Nikkei settlement stretched southward to Terminal Island, up to the San Fernando Valley in the north, and Pasadena in the east. Issei men and women forged institutions that included farmer’s associations, language schools, martial arts dojos, markets and small businesses, and a vibrant ethnic media that included the Rafu Shimpo, which is still published today. Devout immigrants facilitated the growth of a diverse religious landscape, as they founded various Buddhist (Jōdo Shinshū, Jōdo Shū, Nichiren, Shingon, and Zen), Shinto (Konko), Tenrikyo, Catholic, and Protestant (Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian) temples and churches. Women specifically created various fujinkai, or women’s clubs, in religious organizations that provided an important space for fellowship and community building. By the 1920s, the Nisei, through an eclectic network of clubs, dances, and other social spaces, began to fashion their own hybrid cultural identities that melded together the world of their immigrant parents as well as American mass culture.

This lively community, however, came crashing down after Japan’s Imperial Military bombed U.S. Navy installations at Pu’uloa (Pearl Harbor) in the Territory of Hawai’i on December 7, 1941. Long targeted as a racial Other through discriminatory laws or Orientalist stereotypes, the bombing of Pu’uloa crystallized long-simmering anti-Japanese prejudice across the nation, but particularly the West Coast. Within a day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation swept through Los Angeles detaining various Issei community leaders such as language school teachers, the officers of ethnic organizations, and Buddhist and Shinto priests. Government agencies including the Immigration and Naturalization Service commandeered erstwhile Civilian Conservation Corps camps in places such as Sunland-Tujunga or Griffith Park and transformed them into detention stations for so-called “enemy aliens” of Japanese, as well as German and Italian descent. Government agents subjected Japanese American families to contraband searches for anything that might be construed as subversive, such as a radio. Various individuals remember family members hastily destroying any item with a connection to Japan.

Following the initial roundups of Issei leaders, the federal government hastened the entire liquidation of Japanese and Japanese American communities across the West Coast under the banner of national security. After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which set into motion the exclusion of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast military zone, the government forcibly removed 120,000 individuals, the majority of whom were citizens.

The government claimed that the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was a matter of military necessity, a specious argument given that Japanese Americans in the Hawai’i were not imprisoned on the same mass scale as those in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Rather, a dangerous combination of wartime hysteria, deep-seated racism, and a failure of political leadership informed the decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans.1

While some families with enough financial or social capital were able to move to the Midwest or East Coast, the vast majority of Japanese Americans remained subject to the exclusion orders. These people, whether they were Issei, Nisei, or Kibei (Japan-educated Nisei), left behind their homes, businesses, possessions, and other assets as the military oversaw their “evacuation” to temporary processing centers and subsequent removal to desolate concentration camps in rural areas of California, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and Arkansas.

Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, abandoned their property or entrusted it to an assortment of neighbors, employees, attorneys, or others. Oftentimes, social institutions such as churches or temples served as storehouses for various possessions. Fortuitously, one of the ministers of the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, the Reverend Julius Goldwater, was a European American convert to Buddhism and during the war took great pains to safeguard the possessions of the temple’s sangha (congregation) and watch over their homes to ensure they were not sold.2

The center of Nikkei life in greater Los Angeles, Little Tokyo, underwent a curious transformation as scores of African Americans moved to the enclave in the absence of Japanese Americans. Renamed Bronzeville, the new community became an important destination or temporary stop for scores of African Americans who migrated from the South to participate in Los Angeles’s wartime defense industries or head to war in the Pacific Theater. As these new black migrants created a new space for themselves in Bronzeville, Japanese Americans imprisoned behind barbed wire wondered about their prospects of returning home.

The Architecture of Return and Resettlement

In 1943 the War Relocation Authority (WRA) admitted there was no military need for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and the War Department soon thereafter sought to release “loyal” detainees. However, the camps remained open due to pressure from racist politicians and at the insistence of the Western Defense Command (WDC), led by General John De Witt who famously remarked, “A Jap’s a Jap. There is no way to determine their loyalty.”3 However, when De Witt stepped down from his post, replaced by General Delos Emmons, the former military governor of Hawai’i, the WDC along with the WRA allowed small numbers of Japanese Americans to leave the camps.

The first re-settlers included university students and agricultural workers who went to the Interior West, the Midwest, or the East Coast. California and the rest of the West Coast, however, remained off limits. The process to leave camp was often extensive: applicants had to provide evidence of their employment or university status to ensure they would not rely on public assistance. Further, they had to successfully pass the notorious “loyalty questionnaire”—which asked all Japanese and Japanese Americans if they would foreswear allegiance to Japan and fight for the United States—and sign an oath that they would not congregate with other Nikkei outside of camp. The slightest infraction on one’s record could halt the process. Overtime though, the migration of Japanese Americans to places beyond the West Coast helped establish small Nikkei populations in places such as the Twin Cities, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and even Seabrook, New Jersey, where Seabrook Farms eagerly recruited Japanese American workers for their vegetable cannery and packing plant. Overall, government authorities sought to disperse Japanese Americans to ideally diffuse racial tensions. According to Lane Hirabayashi, WRA director Dillon Myer “believed that if resettlers eschewed living in ‘Little Tokyos,’ they could assimilate into mainstream society more fully and be more accepted in and by members of the larger society.”4 Despite such aspirations, Japanese Americans sought to return to what was most familiar: the West Coast.

A series of events in the judicial and executive branches of the federal government in 1944 helped open the doors to the West Coast. At that time, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in Ex Parte Endo, that the government could not continue to detain a “decidedly loyal” citizen, the WDC decided to lift the exclusion orders that applied to the West Coast. After the presidential election of 1944 President Roosevelt revisited the possibility of closing the camps and on December 17, 1944 issued Public Proclamation Number 21, which rescinded the exclusion orders.

Soon thereafter, Japanese Americans began to return to Los Angeles.5 The initial cohort to return to Los Angeles included individuals or families with enough capital and resources to settle back into their homes or businesses. This group entrusted their property to scrupulous real estate agents, friends, neighbors, employees, or others who maintained their farms, homes, or businesses. This group was by far the minority. Therefore, another handful of Nikkei known as the “scouts” returned to the city to explore the racial climate, assess the possibilities of finding homes and employment, and report their findings back to those still in the concentration camps.6 Regardless of their financial resources, or lack thereof, Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles with a great sense of anxiety, fearful of what they might encounter.

The return to Los Angeles and the West Coast more generally was fraught with economic insecurity and lingering anti-Japanese prejudice. The Federal Reserve estimated Japanese Americans suffered losses upward of $400 million, a rather conservative number.7 Moreover, Japanese American–owned property was often defaced or destroyed during the war. As Japanese American families slowly made their way home, social scientist Charles Spaulding found that they “had difficulty returning to the rural areas, because the antagonisms seemed more virulent there and the land was being operated by others.”8 His observation, however, belied the racism Japanese Americans faced in the city’s urban areas as well as its new suburban neighborhoods. In October 1946, for example, two Nikkei-owned homes were completely razed due to arson in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Belvedere and Japanese Americans soon thereafter reported over thirty-five other instances of vandalism, gunfire, or other harassment.9

Furthermore, organizations such as the Native Sons of the Golden West or the Remember Pearl Harbor League continued to fan the flames of anti-Japanese hatred and preach exclusion. Despite overall support from a sympathetic student body, staff, and faculty, in the mid-1940s the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and others fought mightily to prevent Nisei Esther Takei from enrolling at Pasadena Junior College. Due to a concerted effort by a diverse group of supporters that ranged from churches to veterans to California Technological Institute scientist Linus Pauling, Takei eventually enrolled.10 Yet, the virulence with which her detractors fought to keep her out of the college spoke to the enduring prejudice that still existed. A “citizens’ group” in Orange County, located to the south of Los Angeles County went as far as to harass a white farmer who had rented the property of a Japanese American family during the war.

Moreover, as erstwhile rural spots became popular suburbs, residents of towns such as Burbank mobilized petitions that called on the government to ban the Nikkei resettlement in their neighborhoods. This agitation blended both old pre-war racism as well as newer postwar anxieties that Japanese Americans would threaten property values. The text of the petition by Burbank residents read, for example, “It is unthinkable that any progressive group of educated people or government agencies should establish a slum even temporarily.”11 Indeed in a 1943 poll, the Los Angeles Times found that of 10,845 respondents, 91 percent wanted the wholesale exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.12

Local news media, such as the Los Angeles Examiner, and unscrupulous civic leaders compounded the precariousness of resettlement. For example, they circulated rumors that the return of Japanese Americans to Little Tokyo—which became an African American enclave known as Bronzeville during the war—would hasten an entire race war. To be sure interpersonal and larger racial tensions did occur during the transition. In one well-known instance, the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and the Providence Baptist Association, the African American church that occupied the temple during the war, briefly found themselves embroiled in a legal battle over the property. Despite this, the overall the prognostications of massive racial strife between African Americans and Nikkei never came to fruition. The brief operation of Pilgrim House, a social welfare agency, illustrated how many Little Tokyo constituents intentionally tried to cultivate cross-racial harmony. If anything, such rumors did more to burnish arguments in support of the exclusion of Japanese Americans than to reveal outright violence. In 1946 Ebony ran an article, for example, that described the transitions in Little Tokyo entitled “The Race War That Flopped” and spoke to a larger sentiment that the two groups found common ground as victims of racial oppression.13 However, the construction of Parker Center, the new headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department, cut away at Little Tokyo and accelerated the destruction of Bronzeville.14 Indeed, “Bronzeville ceased to exist,” according to historian Hillary Jenks, “less from disputes between African and Japanese Americans than as a result of racist spatial practices by a local state that continued to view property associated with either community as less valuable, and thus easier to manipulate than Anglo-occupied real estate.”15

Housing, Employment, and the Social World of Resettlement

In addition to the transitions that took place in Little Tokyo, housing was perhaps the most pressing issue for Nikkei as they resettled into or ventured for the first time to Los Angeles. Before the war, redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and other discriminatory practices circumscribed where Japanese Americans and other People of Color could live in the city. Within these spaces, they often lived in poor living conditions as well: a 1939 study by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles found that 28.6 percent of African Americans, 47.2 percent of Asian Americans, and 59.6 percent of Mexican Americans in the city lived in “substandard housing.”16 The large influx of defense workers, military personnel, and their families exacerbated an already precarious housing situation during and after the war.

Despite the lacuna of housing, Nikkei continued to return to Los Angeles in droves. Only two years after the end of the war, the Japanese American population in Los Angeles County swelled to 28,000 (where there had been 37,000 individuals before the war).17 Families with enough resources moved to multiethnic neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, which had a sizeable pre-war Nikkei community, North Broadway (near Chinatown), Jefferson Park, Crenshaw, or Watts, which laid the groundwork for postwar coalition building and civil rights activism in African Americans. Families with very little financial stability settled into cheap apartments in slum conditions in and around downtown. For example, the popular actor George Takei, who was only nine years old when his family returned to Los Angeles, recalled that his family settled in Skid Row after his father found a job as a dishwasher in Chinatown.18

Hostels provided temporary shelter for individuals and families who could not return to their pre-war homes or move into private housing. Christian and Buddhist churches, which served as storehouses for the possessions of Japanese Americans during the war, became some of the best-known hostels where residents could also receive assistance with tasks such as finding a job or applying for a driver’s license. Senshin Gakuin, a South Central Los Angeles Japanese language school affiliated with the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, became a hostel run by Rev. Goldwater and Nisei college student Arthur Takemoto.19 Just down the street from Senshin, a Methodist group also opened a hostel. In Boyle Heights, the Japanese Union Church operated the Evergreen Hostel. A Nisei woman who lived there after she returned from Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming recalled that it “was almost like camp in that all we had was a bed and a little stand where we kept our personal belongings, and it was more or less the honor system for everyone . . . There were some house rules about what time you had to be in by and things like that.”20 Hostels received no support from the WRA; residents paid a minimal daily fee (between $1 to $2) and assisted with the daily operations.

For particularly distressed Nikkei families and those who were the last to leave the concentration camps, especially those with small children, the impoverished, or the elderly, WRA oversaw the haphazard construction of temporary camps throughout Los Angeles County. In the years immediately after the government lifted the West Coast exclusion orders, the WRA built camps in locations that included Hawthorne, Santa Monica, El Segundo, Long Beach, Lomita, Sun Valley, and Burbank. Residents lived in trailers or old army barracks fashioned from wood and tarpaper. Nikkei re-settlers shared stories of substandard living conditions such as a lack of electricity or sanitary bathrooms and kitchens. Although the WRA and FPHA closed most of the camps by 1946, when the WRA ceased to exist, they kept the Burbank and Sun Valley camps open. The Burbank camp, filled with families and individuals with no resources and fearful of readjustment to mainstream society, stayed open until 1956, which indicates the extent of their hardships.

In a reflection on the state of resettlement for Japanese Americans forced from the WRA/FPHA camps, one Nisei journalist opined, “The failure of the government to provide for the return of these people in peacetime in the same efficient, clockwork manner in which they were torn from their homes is an indictment of a nation.”21 His words certainly resonated with harried Japanese Americans, particularly as the government’s apathy grew. A pithy WRA pamphlet entitled When You Leave the Relocation Center encapsulated that view as it instructed Nikkei that “No government or private agency . . . can relieve you of the major responsibilities that every person must assume for himself and for members of his family . . . The decision to relocate rests with you and you must accept the initiative in adjusting yourself into the community where you plan to reside.”22

Even when Nikkei could find a place to live, employment remained an obstacle in the early resettlement years. Often armed with little personal finances and/or unable to return to their pre-war farms or businesses, many Nikkei experienced downward economic mobility. Both the civil service and private sectors largely barred Japanese Americans from their ranks after the war. Furthermore, Japanese Americans, along with previously employed African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women of all races, were shut out of the region’s lucrative defense industry: when the war ended the factories turned jobs over to white male veterans. To remedy this, Japanese Americans took on a variety of jobs. Nikkei created a new ethnic niche in gardening and estimates suggest that after the war one out of every four gardeners was a Japanese American.23 Meanwhile Japanese American nursery workers reestablished their pre-war Flower Market in Montebello in the autumn of 1946.24 By 1955 Nikkei gardeners created the Southern California Gardener’s Federation to support their industry and provide a co-op for members. Those who lived in the slowly diminishing agricultural parts of greater Los Angeles worked as farm laborers. Meanwhile, others found employment in domestic labor or service work, often hired by other Asian Americans. In her study of gender in the history of Nisei Los Angeles, Valerie Matsumoto found that “within the ethnic community, women found work in beauty salons, one of the avenues for female entrepreneurship and employment before the war.”25 Nisei women became employed in the garment industry. In response to anti–Japanese American discrimination, some individuals used aliases in an attempt to get hired.26

Furthermore, Japanese Americans reestablished or created entirely new social networks during the resettlement period. According to one social scientist who observed the Nikkei community in the late 1940s, “resettled Japanese Americans have developed an increased feeling of ‘social belonging’ to the community as a whole. This is particularly true of urban districts and in connection with political and social activities.”27 The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which was formed by Nisei businessmen in 1929, was Japanese America’s best known organization before and during the war and played a decisive role in the community’s wartime history. Its leaders urged cooperation with the government and military service, which angered many Japanese Americans who felt unjustly persecuted. Despite this enmity, as the largest organization of its kind, JACL chapters across the nation and throughout Los Angeles “reactivated,” to use the organization’s parlance. At a local level, JACL chapters, that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles to Little Tokyo to Pasadena, sponsored social activities for the Nisei and their families as well as political advocacy, as outlined below. In addition to the JACL, athletic and social clubs that had once flourished before the war, resumed their activities.28

Changing Race Relations and New Settlement Patterns in the 1950s and 1960s

In the midst of these various hardships, race relations began to realign in Los Angeles, driven by the Cold War and the growth of homeowner politics. Although reviled upon their initial return, various global and local factors that took place within a shifting framework of white privilege, helped shift the patterns of settlement and integration for Japanese Americans.

First, organizations such as the JACL and Nisei veterans groups embarked on a public relations campaign to arrest and reverse patterns of anti-Japanese prejudice. Specifically, they highlighted the wartime valor of the all–Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team as a means to claim various forms of social citizenship and belonging. This appeal to wartime service fell into a larger civil rights strategy deployed by several veterans of color, which emphasized wartime sacrifice to challenge domestic racism. Such activism helped veterans and other Japanese Americans slowly gain entry into occupations such as teaching, the civil service, and the corporate world. While Nikkei veterans (like other Japanese Americans and People of Color) continued to face examples of housing discrimination, the JACL readily defended them in court and used such cases to expose the hypocrisy of American democracy.

Due in part to this rearticulation of race and the place of Japanese Americans in U.S. society, groups such as the JACL led the different forms of political advocacy that assisted the immigrant Issei generation, particularly in California. The JACL helped spearhead the campaign against Proposition 15 in 1946, a nativist statewide ballot measure that would have enshrined old Alien Land Laws (from 1913 and 1920) into the Constitution of California. The courts also upheld the constitutionality of Issei land purchased in the names of Nisei children and then lifted the ban against Issei commercial fishing along the coast. One of JACL’s crowning achievements was the passage of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act that granted citizenship to the Issei. A less well known, but just as politically active group, the Nisei Progressives, however, critiqued that legislation for its exclusionary immigration provisions against anyone deemed “subversive.”

Indeed, all of these changes took place within the political landscape of the Cold War, and while ostensibly positive, court decisions, new legislation, and changes in cultural attitudes were not the complete result of moral altruism. In the shadow of political realignments in Asia as U.S. foreign policymakers scrambled to assemble solid American allies, the federal government, civic leaders, and others sought to reiterate America’s place as a model of democracy. These imperatives played out in the battlefield of housing and employment where white attitudes toward Asian Americans gradually changed. “With Japan remade as America’s junior partner,” according to Scott Kurashige, “whites no longer saw industrious Nisei engineers as a threat to national security but rather as contributors to American global hegemony.”29 As historian Charlotte Brooks has pointed out, whites began to see Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans less as “alien neighbors” and more as “foreign friends.” In other words, while mainstream society may not have been able to completely interpret Asians as Americans, begrudging acceptance, particularly through housing integration, represented the promise of American ideology. Furthermore, white homeowners, realtors, and developers interpreted Japanese Americans as less of a threat to property values than African Americans. This “racial triangulation” would shape the legacy of resettlement and race relations for several years to come.

Nevertheless, aside from the cultural changes in attitudes toward Asian Americans, either in relation to Asian nation-states or to African Americans, various structural forces shaped the contours of Nikkei settlement in greater Los Angeles. One of the most important domestic legal decisions during this time period was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948. The justices struck down the constitutionality of racially restrictive covenants in housing. To be sure, discriminatory lending practices continued to restrict Nikkei (as well as black and Mexican American) integration so, for example, places such as much of the San Fernando Valley remained off limits until the 1960s.

In addition to federal legal changes that facilitated housing integration, such as Shelley v. Kraemer, several local issues related to Southern California’s housing markets also shaped Nikkei suburbanization. Due to the lacuna of housing for the mass migration of employees in greater Los Angeles’s military-industrial complex (whether they were rank-and-file factory workers or middle managers or highly educated researchers), developers quickly subdivided plots of land to create the vast suburban sprawl that quickly defined postwar Los Angeles. These spaces were generally off limits to People of Color, including Japanese Americans. Thus, the earliest types of Nikkei housing integration took place within multiethnic spaces, those neighborhoods that had traditionally welcomed Mexican Americans, blacks, and Asian Americans before World War II. As such, Japanese Americans were able to settle alongside Latinos in East Los Angeles or Pacoima and with African Americans in Crenshaw.

Whereas savvy developers catered to upwardly mobile African Americans and built subdivisions, such as the Joe Louis Homes, for that community, Japanese Americans had realtors such as Kazuo K. Inouye. Inouye, a fierce Boyle Heights–born Nisei veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, established Kashu Realty in the primarily black neighborhood of Crenshaw in 1947. He worked to aggressively sell homes in Crenshaw to both African American and Japanese American buyers, and helped block bust large portions of the neighborhood. During the 1950s and 1960s, Crenshaw became home to a large Nikkei community that boasted a variety of businesses such as restaurants, groceries, and other services. Meanwhile, Nisei professionals such as doctors and dentists also opened their practices in the neighborhood.30

Beyond Crenshaw other modest suburban Nikkei enclaves grew throughout the Southland as Japanese Americans experienced greater upward mobility as they took on middle-class positions as teachers, physicians, or engineers, working in the region’s sprawling and lucrative military industrial complex. Vibrant neighborhoods grew in areas that had once been home to working-class or agricultural Nikkei communities before World War II, including, but not limited to, the Gardena Valley in the South Bay, Sawtelle in West Los Angeles, and Pacoima in the East San Fernando Valley. By the 1970s, Kazuo Inouye established other branches of Kashu Realty and helped facilitate the growth of Nikkei, Chinese American, black, and Mexican American settlement in the San Gabriel Valley, located east of downtown Los Angeles. Owing to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the legal support of organizations such as the JACL, and changing views of the Nisei (relative to African Americans), some Japanese Americans were able to move to generally white areas without incident by the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the community did not simply assimilate into the fabric of mainstream society.

As the locus of community leadership shifted to the Nisei, the Japanese American community engaged in a concerted campaign to build new institutions or structures for organizations that had existed even before the war. With attention to the Nisei baby boom that began in the camps, community leaders oversaw the building of a large federation of Japanese American Community Centers, with member organizations located from Pasadena to Little Tokyo to West Covina. These centers hosted athletics leagues, language schools, chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Japanese American Citizens League, and other assorted cultural activities from taiko drumming to ikebana (flower arranging). Even as the concentration of Japanese Americans in various neighborhoods became more diffuse, due to greater opportunities for mobility, particularly after the 1960s and 1970s, their institutions remained strong centers of social networks and cultural bonding. For example, even though the northeast San Fernando Valley is now overwhelmingly a Latino region, it is still home to two Nikkei community centers, two Japanese language schools, two Jōdo Shinshū temples and a Christian church with roots that go back to the pre-war Issei. As the Issei began to age, Japanese American communities in Gardena, Little Tokyo, East Los Angeles, and Pacoima also built Nikkei-oriented retirement homes.

The Legacy of Resettlement

Lest these gains suggest that the resettlement period was a linear process from deprivation to success, it is important to acknowledge the deep psychological imprint on Japanese Americans. Although many Nikkei did eventually enjoy opportunities for upward mobility by the 1960s, sociologist Tetsuden Kashima cautions “An analysis of this period will show that a smooth ‘transition’ image is accurate only if one overlooks the many problems and pitfalls suffered by this group.”31 While the experiences of property loss and racist violence may have been documented, Kashima states that Japanese Americans also had to endure a type of “social amnesia.” While the camp experience traumatized individuals, this “social amnesia” represented “a group phenomenon in which attempts are made to suppress feelings and memories of particular moments or extended time periods.” The weight of this silence and collective “hazukashi,” or shame, shaped community discourse.

Thus, the complex afterlives of the wartime and resettlement experiences were often manifested in conflicts between the Nisei and their third generation, or Sansei, children. As filmmaker Janice Tanaka captured in her 1999 documentary, When You’re Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment, the outward successes of the Japanese American community—entry into the suburbs, acceptance to prestigious schools, or professional occupations a far cry from the pre-war farms—masked the struggles that took place in Nikkei homes.

Unable to mentally process the camp experience and return to mainstream society, many Nisei refused to speak about their wartime years. Often, many turned to alcohol to ease the pain. Meanwhile, the Sansei grew up often with no knowledge of what happened to their parents or grandparents, and were met with silence when they would ask. They grew up with stifling pressure, both from mainstream society and parents traumatized by war, to fit in at any cost. As a result, many Los Angeles Sansei battled with substance abuse, participation in gang violence, and prison incarceration. Swept up in the frenetic landscape of racial activism around the black and Chicana/o Power Movements in the city in the late 1960s, many Sansei activists formed organizations such as Yellow Brotherhood (in Crenshaw) and Storefront (in West Los Angeles) to abate drug abuse by fellow Sansei as they returned from prison. More generally, these activists helped foment a radical “Asian American” identity that forged political ties with other Third World people. The shared histories of housing discrimination that led to black and Nikkei or Mexican American and Nikkei settlements after World War II helped contribute to this new political movement and moment.

Taken together, the history of Japanese American resettlement in Los Angeles and elsewhere was a complex affair structured around race and the traumas of war. In retrospect, that history is an important chapter that provides a corrective to specious narratives that uphold Nikkei as “model minorities.” This account, popularized by social scientists, journalists, and sometimes Japanese Americans themselves in the midst of the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s, suggested that through cultural values of perseverance, Nikkei pulled themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps after the tragedies of World War II to (allegedly) enjoy high educational rates, economic upward mobility, and acceptance into the mainstream. As critics have long noted, even going back to the days of the Sansei solidarity with Black Power, this myth did more to blunt the calls for racial and economic justice by other People of Color, than to benefit Japanese Americans themselves. “The superficial compliment paid to Japanese Americans for successfully integrating into the American mainstream,” according to Scott Kurashige, “would be used to cast a deeper aspersion on the much larger and still growing numbers of African Americans living increasingly isolated and impoverished in places like South Central Los Angeles. If in the eyes of many whites, moderate measures had solved the ‘Japanese problem,’ there was scant legitimacy to black demands for greater state and civil action.”32 Therefore, the history of resettlement illustrates the political and economic complexities that Japanese Americans faced.

Discussion of the Literature

Charles Spaulding’s “Housing Problems of Minority Groups in Los Angeles” (1946)Elmer Smith’s “Resettlement of Japanese Americans” (1949)Leonard Broom and Ruther Reimer’s Removal and Return: The Socio-Economic Effects of the War on Japanese Americans (1949)

The literature on Japanese American resettlement in general has undergone significant changes since the 1960s. It has been bound up in ideological battles over the place of Japanese Americans in the United States’ racial order in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement. The first scholars and government social scientists to write about the experiences of Japanese Americans after their camp experiences captured the demographics and economics of resettlement. They provided important snapshots into issues such as the dearth of housing that Nikkei endured and early instances of racism the returnees faced. Instructive texts include , which focuses specifically on the city, as well as multi-sited studies such as the War Agency Liquidation Unit’s People in Motion: The Postwar Adjustment of the Evacuated Japanese Americans (1947) and .33 provides some data on the economic losses and subsequent difficulties Nikkei endured.34 Thus, these studies tended to view Japanese Americans as statistics and focus on individual instances of racism.

By the 1960s, scholarship on the resettlement period took a different turn. In a conservative response to the Civil Rights Movement, journalists and other observers began to craft a narrative of Japanese Americans as a “model minority.” Pieces such as “Success Story: Japanese American Style” (1966) by sociologist William Peterson glossed over the racism, poverty, and other deprivations that Japanese Americans faced immediately after World War II to point to their economic successes and integration into the larger fabric of American society.35 Furthermore, this argument became a weaponized narrative used to quell critiques against structural inequality and calls for racial and economic justice by other People of Color. The arc of scholarship such as Peterson’s article positioned Japanese Americans as the racial foil to African Americans’ alleged “ghetto culture,” a concept popularized in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965).36

The concerted Third World activism of the 1960s led to the birth of Ethnic Studies. Guided by intertwined commitments to social justice and foregrounding the long buried histories of People of Color, Ethnic Studies, including Asian American Studies, sought to retell the past from the bottom up. By the 1970s, the growth of Asian American Studies coincided with the on-the-ground movement to secure redress and reparations and scholars began to produce important works on the wartime incarceration, yet few looked specifically at resettlement. Tetsuden Kashima’s “Japanese American Internees Return, 1945–1955: Readjustment and Social Amnesia” is an important exception, however, and helped shaped future studies.37 Even by 2000, Valerie Matsumoto remarked, “how Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and communities after World War II is a vastly understudied subject.”38

Lane Hirabayashi and Kenichiro Shimada’s analysis of WRA photographs in Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens (2011)Greg Robinson’s collection of essays on the geography, politics, and identities of the resettlers, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (2012)Matsumoto’s City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 (2014)Charlotte Brooks’s Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (2009)

However, in the past few years, three new books that draw on an array of unpublished sources, ethnic media, oral histories, and government documents have painstakingly recreated the world of the resettlers. They include ; ; and , a study of gender and social networks that were forged before the war and survived after.39 provides the best overview of Japanese Americans and housing politics in Cold War California.40

Meanwhile, the general maturation of historical writing about Japanese Americans and other People of Color helped shape new comparative race studies of the urban west. The growth of multiethnic histories of Los Angeles and California at midcentury provide additional windows into the resettlement period, especially in regards to racial formation in a multiethnic setting. Hillary Jenks’s article, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” provides an important account of how resettlement took place within the contexts of black migration to Los Angeles as well as state power.41 Scott Kurashige’s The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans and the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (2008) is the best example, joined with Mark Brilliant’s The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (2010), among others.42

Primary Sources


The most comprehensive source for information on resettlement from the postwar period itself is the Japanese American ethnic press, including the Rafu Shimpo. The Japanese American Citizen’s League’s national newspaper, the Pacific Citizen provides some of the most detailed accounts of the travails of returnees, instances of vandalism, and life in the resettlement camps. Both papers are available at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo, while the Rafu Shimpo is available on microfilm in various university libraries such as UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library. The African American press in Los Angeles, such as the California Eagle and the Los Angeles Sentinel, mindful of midcentury race politics that went beyond black and white also covered Japanese American resettlement in Little Tokyo/Bronzeville and beyond. The Eagle is available on microfilm at UCLA and the Sentinel is available through ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Archival Collections

One of the most extensive archival collections that houses materials on the wartime and postwar experiences of Japanese Americans is UCLA’s Japanese American Research Project. This expansive holding primarily includes the private papers of individuals as well as the records of the Japanese American Citizens League. Additional information on the JACL is available at the Japanese American National Library in San Francisco. Harry Honda, the previous editor of the Pacific Citizen left behind an extensive collection at JANM in Los Angeles that includes both clippings from his paper as well as other assorted articles, government documents, and ephemera.

Oral Histories and Digital Repositories

Oral histories have provided the best source to paint a fully textured portrait of the resettlement period. The popular anthology series Nanka Nikkei Voices, published by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, includes one collection that profiles several brief memoirs and recollections about the resettlement experience. In the late 1990s, JANM spearheaded the REgenerations Oral History Project, which focused on the resettlement of Japanese Americans in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Jose. The full text is available online through the University of California’s Digital Library’s Calisphere website. WRA photographs of the resettlement are also available at Calisphere. Discover Nikkei and Densho also hold comprehensive databases of visual and aural resources that range from government documents to photography to oral history interviews. Densho has a particularly rich trove of sources that captures how the federal government framed resettlement and the responsibilities of Japanese Americans upon their return.

Further Reading

Bloom, Leonard, and Ruth Riemer. Removal and Return. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949.Find this resource:

Brooks, Charlotte. Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Hirabayahi, Lane Ryo, with Kenichiro Shimada. Japanese American Resettlement Through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943–1945. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California. Nanka Nikkei Voices: Resettlement Years, 1945–1955. Torrance: Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, 1998.Find this resource:

Japanese American National Museum. REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era. Los Angeles Region: Volume II. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000.Find this resource:

Kashima, Tetsuden. “Japanese American Internees Return, 1945 to 1955: Readjustment and Social Amnesia.” Phylon 41.2 (June 1980): 107–115.Find this resource:

Kurashige, Scott. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Matsumoto, Valerie. City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) The Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens found that the forced removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans was the result of wartime hysteria, deep-seated racial prejudice, and a failure of political leadership. See Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens, Personal Justice Denied Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

(2.) Elaine Woo, “Rev. Julius Goldwater; Convert to Buddhism Aided WWII Internees,” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2011. Rev. Goldwater’s well-known cousin was Senator Barry Goldwater.

(3.) Brian Niiya, “Introduction,” Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, Nanka Nikkei Voices: Resettlement Years, 1945–1955 (Torrance, CA: Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California, 1998).

(4.) Lane Hirabayashi with Kenichiro Shimada, Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens: Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943–1945 (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2009), 4.

(5.) Lon Kurashige, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934–1990 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002); and Valerie Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(6.) Brian Niiya, “Return to West CoastDensho Encyclopedia. March 3, 2015, accessed online on May 11, 2015.

(7.) Tetsuden Kashima, “Japanese American Internees Return, 1945 to 1955: Readjustment and Social Amnesia,” Phylon 41.2 (June 1980): 110.

(8.) Charles B. Spaulding, “Housing Problems of Minority Groups in Los Angeles County,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 248 (November 1946): 225.

(9.) Pacific Citizen, October 6, 1946.

(10.) Matsumoto, City Girls, 177.

(11.) Pacific Citizen, November 3, 1945, 2.

(12.) Niiya, “Return to the West Coast.”

(13.) “The Race War That Flopped,” Ebony (July 1946): 3–9.

(14.) Hillary Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly 93.2 (Summer 2011): 201–235.

(15.) Ibid., 232.

(16.) Spaulding, “Housing Problems of Minority Groups in Los Angeles County,” 220–221.

(17.) Greg Robinson, After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 60.

(18.) George Takei, interviewed by Terry Gross, “From ‘Star Trek’ To LGBT Spokesman, What It Takes ‘To Be Takei’Fresh Air, National Public Radio, July 28, 2014, accessed online on May 11, 2015.

(19.) Rev. Goldwater was a descendant of German Jewish immigrants who converted to Buddhism. During World War II he oversaw the possessions of Japanese American Buddhists held at the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, “Senshin Buddhist Temple History” n.d., accessed online on May 11, 2015; and Reverend Arthur Takemoto, interviewed by James V. Gatewood in REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communites, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era (Los Angeles Region: Volume II. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000).

(20.) Quoted in Matsumoto, City Girls, 187.

(21.) Pacific Citizen, May 25, 1946, 5.

(22.) When You Leave the Relocation Center (War Relocation Authority, n.d.), accessed online on May 11, 2015.

(23.) Corina Knoll, “Japanese Gardener One of the Last of a Disappearing Breed,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2012; and Naomi Hirahara, A Scent of Flowers: The History of the Southern California Flower Market, 1912–2004 (Pasadena, CA: Midori Books, 2004).

(24.) Hirahara, Scent of Flowers, 24

(25.) Matsumoto, City Girls, 192.

(27.) Elmer Smith, “Resettlement of Japanese Americans,” Far Eastern Survey 18.10 (May 1949): 118.

(28.) Matsumoto, City Girls.

(29.) Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans and the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 250, 252.

(30.) Ibid., 245.

(31.) Kashima, “Japanese American Internees Return, 1945 to 1955,” 108.

(32.) Kurashige, “Crenshaw and the Rise of Multiethnic Los Angeles,” Afro-Hispanic Review 27.1 (Spring 2008): 51.

(33.) Spaulding, “Housing Problems of Minority Groups in Los Angeles County”; U.S. Department of the Interior, War Agency Liquidation Unit (formerly the War Relocation Authority), People in Motion: The Postwar Adjustment of the Evacuated Japanese Americans (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947); and Smith, “Resettlement of Japanese Americans.”

(34.) Leonard Bloom and Ruth Riemer, Removal and Return (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1949).

(35.) William Petersen, “Success Story: Japanese American Style,” New York Times Magazine, January 6, 1966.

(36.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1965).

(37.) Kashima, “Japanese American Internees Return, 1945 to 1955.”

(38.) Valerie Matsumoto, “Los Angeles: Postwar Snapshots,” REgenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000), xxix.

(39.) Hirabayashi with Shimada, Resettlement Through the Lens; Robinson, After Camp; and Matsumoto, City Girls.

(40.) Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(41.) Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles.”

(42.) Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race; and Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).