Oregon Experience

Oregon’s Japanese Americans: Beyond the wire

By Nadine Jelsing (OPB)
April 5, 2019 10 p.m.

Chances are if you live in Portland, you know — and have visited — Old Town.

But what you might not know is that right up to World War II, this part of the city was once home to a vibrant Japanese American community. A second Japantown also formed along Portland’s southwest waterfront.


By the early 1900s, Japanese American businessmen and farmers were also staking their futures in the Hood River Valley. The cleared forest land, planted strawberries and created orchards of apples and pears. The "Issei" – first-generation Japanese — were raising children who were American-born citizens.

Their success would help fuel anti-Japanese attitudes long before the start of WWII. The bombing of Pearl Harbor would intensely magnify the growing racial hatred.

Rumors of Japanese sabotage and spying permeated the entire West Coast — now considered vulnerable to attack by Imperial Japan. Japanese Americans, many of whom had lived in the United States for more than 40 years, were suddenly looked upon with suspicion and distrust.

They looked like the enemy and that was the difference.

Linda Tamura, professor of education emerita, Willamette University

Imagine your neighbors suddenly refusing to speak to you, refusing to sell groceries to you, refusing to provide you any services. Imagine your bank accounts being frozen. Imagine having to leave your home, your farms with only what you could carry.

For Japanese Americans, that was the terrible reality coupled with an uncertain future.

In February 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of all people of Japanese ancestry — regardless of citizenship — from the West Coast.

It was mass guilt based on race.

Peggy Nagae, attorney

Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to ten incarceration camps located in isolated parts of the country. Most from the Portland area boarded a train for Minidoka, located near Twin Falls, Idaho. Those from the Hood River Valley were transported to Tule Lake in northern California and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Families lived in rudimentary, uninsulated barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards — their civil rights denied.

Some Japanese Americans were able to leave the barbed wire camps to work in farm labor camps, helping alleviate the severe shortage of agricultural workers caused by the war. And many of the younger American born citizens volunteered for the U.S. Army — valiantly serving stateside and overseas.


The ultimate irony of them serving during WWII is that their families were incarcerated behind barbed wire and they volunteered to fight because they felt like they had to prove they were loyal citizens that were to be trusted – that they were really Americans.

Mari Watanabe, National Veterans Network Advisory Committee

Decades later camp survivors, their children and grandchildren would help fight for an official apology from the U.S. government — and win.

It's an American story. It's all of our story.

Chisao Hata, redress movement activist

In "Oregon's Japanese American," you’ll meet Japanese American pioneers and survivors of the camps — people who were forced to suddenly abandon homes, schools and businesses, then return from the war and start all over while intense prejudice prevailed.

Tsuboi Brothers Jewelry Store in Japantown

Tsuboi Brothers Jewelry Store in Japantown

Courtesy of Oregon Nikkei Endowment, Portland, OR

And you'll visit the National Historic Sites of Minidoka and Tule Lake and learn what life was like there during WWII with first-hand accounts from survivors, archival film and photographs.

Resources and Information


  • Linda Tamura, Nisei Soldiers Break their Silence, Coming Home to Hood River, University of Washington Press, 2012.
  • Tetsuden Kashima, Judgement Without Trial, Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II, University of Washington Press, 2003.
  • Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family, Oregon State University Press, 2008.
  • Personal Justice Denied, Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982, 1983. The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and University of Washington Press, 1997.
  • Tule Lake Unit, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument General Management Plan and Environmental Assessment, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, November 2016.
  • Lawson Fusao Inada, Drawing the Line, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1997.
  • Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp, Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1993.
  • Lawson Fusao Inada and Mary Worthington, In this Great Land of Freedom: The Japanese Pioneers of Oregon, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1993.
  • Oregon Nikkei Endowment, Touching the Stones, Tracing One Hundred Years of Japanese History, 1994
  • George Katagiri, Nihonmachi: Portland's Japantown Remembered, Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, Portland, OR, 2002.
  • Deena K. Nakata, The Gift, The Oregon Nikkei Story Retold, 1995.
  • Jan Jarboe Russell, The Train To Crystal City, Scribner, 2015.


  • Eiichiro Azuma, "A History of Oregon's Issei, 1880-1952," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 94, No. 4, The Japanese in Oregon (Winter 1993/1994), pp. 315-367.
  • Amy K. Buck, "Alien land laws: the curtailing of Japanese agricultural pursuits in Oregon," Portland State University, 1999.
  • Louis Fiset, "Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol 90, No. 3, (Summer 1999), pp. 123-139.
  • Daniel P. Johnson, "Anti-Japanese Legislation in Oregon, 1917-1923," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Summer 1996) pp. 176-210.
  • Lillian A. Pereyra, "The Catholic Church and Portland's Japanese: The Untimely St. Paul Miki School Project," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 94, No. 4, The Japanese in Oregon (Winter 1993-1994), pp. 399-434.
  • Barbara Yasui, "The Nikkei in Oregon, 1834-1940," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Sept. 1975), pp. 225-257.
  • Morgen Young, "Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Farm Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 114, No 3 (Fall 2013), pp. 360-364.
  • Zuigaku Kodachi, Jan Heikkala, Janet Cormack, "Portland Assembly Center: Diary of Saku Tomita," Oregon Historical Society, Vol 81, No. 2 (Summer 1980), pp. 149-171.
  • Japanese American Citizens League, A Troubling Legacy, Anti-Asian Sentiment in America, 2005.

Online Resources