The Pacific Northwest for the last couple of generations has been renown for being a political hub, progressive in nature and seemingly characterized by a consciousness of past injustices. An ethos Western Washington embodies.
With street signs, roads and rivers named after the once prominent tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the residents of Washington are bound to a rich regional history. One that remains ever present as a subtle reminder of an unjust history.
The little town of Wapato, which translates roughly to a wild potato (by the Native Americans), is the inspiration to visit a local farmer named Lon Inaba and his family-run farm in the heart of the Yakima Valley. Inaba is a grower that has been supplying Bellingham for years.
The Inaba family began farming the Yakima Valley over a century ago in 1907, when Lon’s grandfather Shukichi and his brother Tomoji migrated as Japanese laborers to the Yakima Indian Reservation.
“When my grandpa first started [farming], he started with hay, potatoes and wheat like everyone else,” Inaba said.
But in many ways it wasn’t just like everyone else, for at the time his grandfather was not legally allowed to own the land that he worked. Immigration laws built off the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented Asian immigrants from immigrating in large numbers to the United States, and Washington land laws excluded Asians from the legal right to obtain their own land. As a legal alien, Shukichi and his brother cleared sagebrush from three 40-acre parcels of land leased from the Yakima Indian tribe.
The two brothers were among the first generation of Japanese pioneers to settle in the Valley, searching for a new place to start their family’s new life.
The brother dug some of the first irrigation canals in the Yakima Valley with horse-drawn scrapers. They were among the first that laid the groundwork that transformed the valley into a fertile agricultural hub of Washington; without these canals, the land would have remained unproductive.
The Yakima Indian reservation, through a loophole created by the 1887 Dawes Act (later revised as the 1906 Burke Act), allowed the Native Americans to lease and later sell their allocation of land to Japanese migrants. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the issei (first-generation Japanese) would clear the land of sagebrush to get it ready for agricultural use. It is said that the Japanese were responsible for clearing 20,000 acres of sagebrush on the reservation, Inaba said.
“When the Japanese came to the valley it was not even called Wapato. It was called Simcoe Landing,” he said.
But by the early 1920s, the Japanese population had swelled to over 1000 migrants, holding the largest population of Japanese in Washington outside Seattle and Tacoma. With the influx of Japanese, community organizations sprouted up in Japantown, baseball leagues, churches, judo dojos and community centers.
By 1920, the two brothers had come across some success leasing their own land, ownership of a new car and the second fastest hitch in the valley.
Inaba recalled that, after the tightening of land laws in 1923, his family was forced to change the types of crops they grew just to survive, switching from traditional bulk crops like corn, wheat and potatoes to cost-efficient mizumono crops.
“1923 changed the laws to prohibit Japanese aliens to rent land. My Grandfather lost everything, and so he had to start over as a sharecropper,” he said.
Inaba wasn’t sure if the family’s Caucasian friends or native landowners cared about enforcing the new restrictions on Japanese leasing, having built relationships working alongside the Japanese farmers. Nonetheless, the Inaba family was allowed to farm and become sharecroppers on over 40 acres.
Naturalization for non-Caucasians was still banned. The issei had no path to citizenship, so the land would be signed to their children’s names.
“It was common practice for the children, when they reached an appropriate age, to sign for the land,” Inaba said.
The children were citizens by birthright. This was one way of ensuring the next generation’s future and their continued assimilation into American culture.
But following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war on Japan, the Japanese quickly fell out of favor with the American public. Again there was a sense of uncertainty among the Japanese community on what was going to happen next.
In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to relocate persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, moving over 120,000 people into makeshift relocation centers.
“At the time of the internment there was only one high school in Bellingham, Bellingham High School, and there were a small number of Japanese Americans who ended up having to leave school to go in the camps,” said Leonard.
“The Executive Order was supposed to relocate people from the border, [which] was supposed to be the crest of the Cascade Range. In the valley, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Granges lobbied to move the border from the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River, and they were successful. And that’s why my family, my dad’s family was evacuated,” Inaba said.
The decision to extend the border was under fierce debate, leaving the community in a state of confusion on what was going to happen during the heart of growing season.
“[My grandparents] were encouraged to keep planting even though they weren’t sure whether they were going to be evacuated or not. So they actually planted and had everything ready for harvest, and within two days of when they left the guy harvested the first crop of beans off of their farm,” Inaba said. The Inaba family didn’t see any the crop harvested and had to abandon many of their possessions.
“They lost everything,” Inaba said. “They had like, 10 days to dispose of everything they owned, and they could carry only what they could carry on their backs to the camps. They didn’t really get anything out of the farm and they pretty much walked away.”
Close to 1,000 people from the Wapato area were relocated to a holding facility in Portland, Oregon, before taking a long train ride 1,000 miles to the camp, Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
“So many of the stories match up, so you know that they have to be true,” Inaba said. “Some neighbors would take care of the farm for them [while they were in camp]. My grandparents weren’t so lucky, but there were some [who did].”
The town of Wapato looks a lot different today than it did before the war. Following the war, many of the Japanese returning from camp settled in new areas looking for a new start. Inaba recalled that his mother moved to Chicago following the war to attend business school and become an accountant. But a significant segment of Heart Mountain’s population were farmers, and Heart Mountain was an agricultural camp.
“There were quite a few places, a few small towns up and down the West Coast where families decided not to come back,“ explained historian and Western Washington University professor Kevin Leonard. “In part, the reason there has been so little attention to Japanese Americans in Whatcom County is [apparently why] no one came back after the camps or very, very few people.”
“[But there were families living in] Treasure Valley, Idaho, eastern Oregon and Idaho Valley. A lot of people from the Wapato area who didn’t come back to Wapato settled in the Treasure Valley,” Inaba said. “People in the Treasure Valley were very accepting of the Japanese, very appreciative of the Japanese more so than here, where pretty much their neighbors got them kicked out.”
There were areas of Washington that benefited from the internment of Japanese Americans. In essence, it eliminated competition in agriculture, Leonard explained. In some instances, successful Japanese immigrant farmers were targeted.
“Bainbridge is noteworthy because of the fact there were people, effectively white people, on Bainbridge who rejected to the incarceration publically. Most other places in the West, there wasn’t much of an opposition movement,“ Leonard said. Some towns and communities simply had too few Nikkei for any sort of effective protest to internment. Nikkei is a term used to describe Japanese immigrants and their descendents.
Despite sentiment that the Japanese would not return, the Inaba family came back to the Yakima Valley following interment. Inaba explained that his family decided to return after the war because that’s what they knew. And until the war and prior to the 1923 Alien Land Law, they were quite successful farmers, even if the expectation from many of the residents in Wapato was that they would not return.
“There a lot of contrast. You have your friends out there, and then you have a lot of people out there expecting Japanese to not return,” Inaba said. “In reality it was a terrible injustice.”
“When they returned, they had their car stored at a place called Matson Motor. The proprietor was Tom Matson. He said, ‘what did you Japs come back here for?’ The car was all beat up and they were definitely not treated warmly,” Inaba recalled. “In contrast to that they went to the local seed company, whose proprietor was Wilbur Logan. His father owned the local seed company and he (grandfather) had been a customer.”
Outside the major Japanese communities of Seattle, Tacoma and Yakima, approximately 100 Nikkei represented the entire population for Skagit, Whatcom and the San Juan Island counties.
“’Take what you can and take what you want’. He actually gave them keys to a car, ‘You need this truck more than I do,’ he said. We still have that truck,” Inaba said. Old and rusted, the Dodge remains a clear testament to hardships of its previous owner.
“One of the things you see as a result of the internment is growth of Japanese American communities in places like Seattle, L.A. and even to some extent San Francisco becoming larger. Because the families that had previously lived out in the rural area end up moving to large cities,” Leonard said.
“It’s something I want to share, just because it was a very important thing for my dad, for people to understand the stories and to really understand what happened to those guys. Because they were citizens, and my dad was in [high school government] class and he raises his hand [and said] ‘didn’t we just take US history? Aren’t we citizens?’” Inaba laughs. “You know, you kind of wonder how could the teacher could stand up and preach to you like that. “