Salem Online History This site is provided by Salem Public Library (Salem, Oregon).
space space
Brief History
Natural History
Timeline Search
Japanese Americans In Salem
On June 3, 1942, the Capitol Journal printed a photograph of a large gathering of Japanese-Americans, waving goodbye from the Salem railroad depot. As the paper described, “High Spirits and Cheery Farewells to their white American friends marked the departure from Salem last night of 244 American-born and alien Japanese of the Willamette valley area for their new homes in Tulelake, (Cal.) evacuation settlement for the duration of the war.” The Oregon Statesman described their destination: “At their new home, approximately 35 miles south of Klamath Falls, the erstwhile Willamette Valley folk will find federal housing units… together with the opportunity to turn their ingenuity as agriculturalists into ‘making the desert bloom’.”

These cheerful reports masked the true nature of the Japanese-Americans’ destination, as well as the reason for their removal from Salem. Tulelake was an isolated, dry lake bottom, where temperatures often reached 104 degrees. In their “federal housing units,” the Japanese were provided with metal cots and hay for mattresses. Reverend Hideo Hashimoto, former pastor of the Japanese Christian Church and teacher at the Salem Japanese language school, described Tulelake as similar to a P.O.W. camp. “If you’ve seen Stalag 17 or Hogan’s Heroes, it was just like that.”

Throughout the western U. S., Japanese were incarcerated from 1942 to 1946. Of the 4,000 removed from Oregon, only half returned to the state after the war. Only two, from Salem’s Japanese community of 250, returned to Salem immediately after being released from internment. They, and those who came back later, found a community that was irreparably changed. The thriving Japanese community that had existed for four decades was no more.

Japanese immigrants first came to the Northwest in the late 1880s, filling the gap when Chinese immigration was banned in 1882. One of the first Japanese to settle in Salem was Roy Fukuda, who arrived in 1905. “He came to make his fortune and go back, but he got a wife and stayed,” described his son, Frank Fukuda, who still lives in the Salem area. Fukuda settled near Lake Labish, northeast of Keizer, where he transformed the “beaver marshes” into profitable farmland. His success attracted other Japanese to the area. Eventually, there were close to 50 Japanese families farming small, 10 to 30 acre plots around Lake Labish. They also farmed in Keizer and Independence, and owned businesses in Salem. Many of these early settlers are now buried in the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, where headstones featuring Japanese characters and names such as Nishimura, Yoshida, and Furukawa differentiate them from the other memorials.

The Japanese formed a closely-knit community, centered in Lake Labish, and worked together to maintain their cultural traditions. One major community celebration was Japanese New Year, when they played traditional Japanese musical instruments and ate fish, lobster, and shushumi. Many families installed traditional hot tubs in their houses. Japanese language classes for their children—many of whom grew up speaking English better than Japanese—were held at the Ogura Hall on Lakeside Drive. In 1923 a group of Japanese Christians began meeting in the home of Suyekichi Watanabe; by 1936, they had purchased the Bretheren Hazelgreen Church, which became the Japanese Christian Church.

While they maintained a distinct cultural identity, the Japanese also embraced American culture. In the summers, they held picnics “as American as hot dogs and apple pie.” Some of the Issei, or immigrant Japanese, still practiced Buddhism, but they encouraged their children, the Nisei, to attend Christian Sunday school. “I’m Japanese,” one parent said. “Buddhism is a Japanese religion. But my children are American. Christianity is an American religion. My children should be Christian.”

The Nisei occupied a difficult place, caught between two cultures. Rev. Hashimoto remembered that most children were English speakers, and rebelled against attending Japanese language school. “They had no interest in things Japanese,” he said. “Ethnically, they were American. I know, I taught them.” Most Nisei attended public schools and graduated from Salem High School. They found acceptance at school; in the late 1930s, Taul Watanabe was elected student body president. Tatsuro “Tats” Yada was a football star at Salem High and then at Willamette University. The Issei were proud of their children’s achievements. Every year they held a graduation banquet at Tokio Sukiyaki House, at 222-1/2 Commercial Street N. in downtown Salem.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, everything changed. “You found out who your friends were,” said Henry Tanaka. While there was no outward violence in Salem, some Chinese-American residents felt the need to wear buttons announcing, “I’m Chinese,” fearing they would be mistaken for Japanese. Francis Tanaka, who had owned Tokio Sukiyaki for eight years and been the chef at the Marion Hotel for 18 years before that, saw his loyal customers trickle away in the months following Pearl Harbor. Vandals broke the restaurant’s neon sign, then its windows. It finally closed in February 1942. Other businesses, such as the Tsukamoto family’s Japanese hand Laundry, were forced to close by military law, which prohibited any Japanese-owned business to be located within 1-1/2 miles of water and power facilities.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, 2000 Japanese nationwide were rounded up and imprisoned. Roy Fukuda, who had farmed in Lake Labish since 1905, was one of them. Although he wan not a leader of any Japanese organization, the FBI apparently thought Fukuda was suspicious, and sent him to a detention center in Missoula, Montana.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9006, which authorized the “evacuation” of Japanese-Americans to barbed-wire internment camps. At first, only older Japanese were evacuated. Many young men, like George Takeyama, avoided internment by volunteering for the military, and served bravely in WWII. Others were later drafted out of the internment camps.

Finally, on June 1, 1942, the remaining 244 Japanese-Americans in the Salem area were taken to the Tulelake internment camp. “There was a feeling this shouldn’t happen, but you couldn’t say very much. In those days you just followed orders,” said Tats Yada.

Yada was one of the few Japanese who returned to farm at Lake Labish after the war. He discovered that his family’s home had burned to the ground. Tats and his wife Masako reclaimed their land and farmed there for many years. Other Japanese eventually returned to Salem; Tom and Georgette Yoshakai, who met at a dance in the Tulelake camp, raised their daughter in Salem and remain active members of the community. Alice Yoshakai became a respected schoolteacher; Yoshakai Elementary School was named in her honor. The school is located in northeast Salem, near the rich farmlands of Lake Labish where the Japanese community once thrived.

Written by Virginia Green

"Love of Land Survives WWII Camp." Statesman Journal, Apr. 19, 1996.

Mazano, Phil. "Salem's Japanese: How a Small Community Vanished." Statesman Journal, Feb. 15, 1981. pp. 1A, 14A.


Tsukamoto and Nakamura Laundry
Tsukamoto and Nakamura Laundry
in Salem, about 1919
[ View Image ]
Advertisement for the Tokio Sukiyaki House Resturant
[ View Image ]
Tulelake Internment Camp
Tulelake internment camp
[ View Image ]
Home | About | History Resources | SiteMap | Historic Photographs | Salem Public Library
Brief History Commerce © 2005-2006 Salem Public Library (Salem, OR) Culture Education Maps Natural History People Places Timeline Search Transportation