First Arrivals and Their Labors
Establishing Communities
Resisting Discrimination
Japanese American Associations and Culture
Japanese Americans and World War II
Recovering Community and Remembering History in the Postwar Era


First Arrivals and Their Labors

Japanese immigrants first came to the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s, when federal legislation that excluded further Chinese immigration created demands for new immigrant labor. Railroads in particular recruited Issei –or first generation immigrants--from Hawaii and Japan. Thousands of Japanese workers helped construct the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Oregon Short Line and other railroads in the Columbia River Basin. By 1907, the Japanese comprised about 40 percent of Oregon’s total railroad labor force. These workers commanded higher wages from railroad companies as the sugar beet industry began competing for their labor.

Japanese in larger cities like Portland provided rooming houses, restaurants, stores, social contacts, and employment services that helped new immigrants get established in the region. Shintaro Takaki came to Portland to sell Japanese goods to Chinese merchants and by 1889 had started a restaurant in the city. Takaki soon became a labor contractor and helped make Portland a center for distributing immigrant workers to fish canneries, farms, sawmills, and railroads throughout the Pacific Northwest. The city’s Japanese immigrants established Buddhist and Methodist churches and other associations that nurtured their cultural as well as economic life.

As new irrigation projects expanded sugar beet production in the West during the early 1900s, employers such as the Utah and Idaho Company actively recruited the Issei to work farms in the Snake River Valley, often trading seasonal labor with railroads. Hajimu “Henry” Fujii worked in a Seattle restaurant, in sugar beet fields near Billings, and for a railroad in Missoula before joining a sugar beet crew near Emmett, Idaho. At the end of the beet season he was hired on with a railroad crew near Nampa. In 1908, he formed a partnership with his brother and a friend to lease an 80-acre farm near Emmett.
Soon Japanese immigrants spread throughout the Northwest to provide farm labor, hoping to eventually own their own farms. Like many Americans, many Issei saw independent farming as the way to move up the economic ladder. Most came from farming backgrounds in Japan. Often unable to purchase land because of discrimination, many Issei eventually found land to lease to gain more autonomy over their labor. For example, Toji Fujimoto came to Idaho in the early 1900s to work as a beet laborer for the Utah and Idaho Sugar Company. He saved his wages to rent 180 acres to grow his own beets, and his father, brothers, and picture bride soon joined him. Similar migrations to Idaho increased the Japanese population in the state to over 1,500 by 1920.

Establishing Communities

Japanese American settlements began to grow in other rural communities of the Columbia River Basin. After working on a fishing boat in Alaska, as a cook in a Spokane hotel, and harvesting hops and fruit in the Yakima Valley, Kameichi Ono became part of a growing Japanese American community in the Valley, where almost a thousand immigrants found they could work and lease irrigated Reservation lands. In 1902, sixteen-year-old Masuo Yasui landed in Seattle, worked for a railroad gang in Montana and then entered domestic service for a Portland family. He later became a labor contractor and a leader in the city’s Japanese community. Excited by the natural beauty and farming possibilities in nearby Hood River, Yasui wrote to his brother Renichi Fujimoto requesting help to establish a store and settlement in the Columbia River town. By 1910, the valley’s Japanese population had grown to 468, almost 6 percent of Hood River residents, where they struggled to clear stump land and develop prosperous orchards and vegetable farms.

Like the Yasuis, other entrepreneurs found business opportunities in the Columbia River Basin. Max and Itano Hosoda ran the City Day Cleaning and Hand Laundry in Emmett, Idaho, from 1914 to 1920.

Despite the Issei’s hard work in the early twentieth century, envy and racial discrimination led to increasing anti-Japanese attitudes on the West Coast, much as the sentiment had developed against perceived Chinese competition. Residents of Mountain Home, Nampa, and Caldwell, Idaho drove out Japanese workers, and white mobs near Coeur d’Alene and in Portland threatened Japanese railroad workers. Tensions led to the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan that effectively limited after 1908 the numbers of laborers that could emigrate from Japan. Instead, the two governments allowed wives and brides to join earlier male immigrants in the United States, changing the character of the immigrant community.

Many Issei women were disappointed with their new homes, far from families and friends, which often required enduring discrimination and hard work to survive. Teiko Tomita’s family arranged a marriage with Masakazu Tomita, a farmer near Wapato. In 1921 she arrived with her new husband in Washington and found that their primitive cabin had neither electricity nor water, to which she had been accustomed in Japan. Henry Fujii had saved enough money to return to Japan to marry and brought his new wife to Idaho. Fumiko Mayeda Fujii encountered a crude cabin on the Emmett, Idaho farm that her new husband leased, which she had to share with his partner and family. She had to learn a range of new skills, including baking bread, sewing, and speaking English. Linda Tamura found in oral history interviews with Hood River Issei that immigrant women, who hoped for adventure and prosperity, were often disappointed with American food, their dirty and uncomfortable surroundings, and their much older husbands. They were overwhelmed with loneliness as well as strenuous physical labor.

Although they may have initially come to the United States to save money and return to Japan, the birth of their children persuaded many Issei to remain in their adopted country and strengthen their communities. By the 1920s, the numbers of Japanese American families had grown significantly, and a high percentage had moved from migratory work to own businesses or farms.

Resisting Discrimination

Post-World War I nativist activists, including the Hood River Anti-Alien Association, pressured states to pass laws prohibiting Japanese immigrants from leasing or owning land. At the federal level, the National Origins Act of 1924 limited European immigration and essentially excluded any further Japanese immigration.

The Columbia River Basin Issei fought discriminatory actions and legislation through public appeals and the courts, insisting on their status as hard-working, loyal Americans. Although Japanese immigrants leased less than 8 percent of Yakima Indian Reservation acreage, many whites in Yakima claimed that Issei were “crowding out” other farmers. Through the 1920s, Japanese Americans in the Yakima Valley defended their right to reside there as they disputed their characterization as “menace” in the Yakima Herald, reminding the community of their important economic role in clearing farmland. They also purchased World War I bonds and embraced local Americanization and English-language efforts. Hood River Japanese refuted charges hurled at them by the Anti-Alien Association and American Legion and demonstrated their commitment to the valley by improving the appearance of their homes and promising to limit further immigration to the area. The Japanese Farmers’ Association contributed over a thousand dollars to the Oregon Japanese Association’s efforts to halt the anti-Japanese legislation. In 1925, after a mob of seventy-five in Toledo, Oregon forcibly evicted thirty-five Japanese working at Pacific Spruce Corporation, five of the workers sued some of their assailants. A 1926 Oregon jury awarded damages to the Japanese.

The Issei also sought to retain their rightful place in communities by circumventing discriminatory state laws that banned their owning or leasing land. Some immigrant residents sub-leased land from American citizens and others registered lands in the names of their Nisei children, who were American citizens because of birth. Nonetheless, the land laws and immigration restrictions effectively halted the growth of Japanese American farming in the Northwest. Other discriminatory legislation prompted a 30 percent decline in Oregon’s Japanese population by 1928.

Idaho’s Issei successfully fought anti-Japanese legislation for a number of years through the lobbying efforts of the 150-member Japanese Association of Western Idaho, the sugar industry, and churches. Japanese Americans considered their efforts somewhat successful; while restrictive legislation finally passed in 1923 prohibiting land ownership, it allowed renewable leases, making Idaho the only state in the West where Issei could lease land.

Japanese American Associations and Culture

While struggling for a place in American society, the Issei sought to retain ties to Japan, foster ethnic traditions, and teach their American-born children those cultural traditions. Denied American citizenship because of their “race,” they formed chapters of the Japanese Association of America to maintain official links with Japan, to fight discriminatory legislation, and to provide mutual aid and social activities for its members. Yakima Valley Issei raised funds to construct an Association building in Wapato and dedicated it in 1920. Japanese Americans erected a Community Hall in Hood River and established a Japanese Methodist church in Odell. Christian and Buddhist congregations flourished, as did a number of Japanese schools in the region. For example, in the 1920s the Wapato Language School, which met in the Japanese Association building, had about 200 students. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) ethnologist found the Yakima Japanese American community preserving traditional celebrations after three decades in Washington. For example, on New Year’s Day, families visited one another, eating special dishes of rice cakes, herring eggs, and carrots. Families observed Girls’ Day on March 3, when girls placed their dolls on display in the home, and Boys’ Day on May 5, when carp, symbolizing happiness and strength, were represented in kites and prepared in a special dish.


Baseball teams brought together Issei and Nisei generations and Japanese American communities scattered throughout the Northwest. The Wapato Nippons won their first league pennant in 1934, receiving praise from the local press and white fans. Many of the team’s star players received their early training by playing on their integrated high school team, helping Wapato High win regional championships in the 1920s. The annual Japanese Northwest Fourth of July Baseball Tournament attracted thousands from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Japanese Americans sought to educate their neighbors and to ease discrimination by promoting Japanese heritage, trade, and friendship. The Japan Society of Portland and the Portland Japanese Women’s Society sponsored numerous cultural and diplomatic events. Each year the Wapato Language school held a special event for the larger community in which it showcased Japanese dance, music, and ceremony. In response to a friendship project initiated by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, the Japanese Committee on International Friendship Among Children formed and sent Japanese doll messengers to all of the states before Christmas 1927. “Miss Nara” was displayed in store windows throughout Idaho before being donated to the Idaho State Historical Society for safekeeping.

This friendship doll and her accessories were removed from storage at the Idaho State Historical Society in 1993 and sent to Japan for restoration. The restored doll, along with a new doll sent by Governor Kakimoto of Nara Prefecture, arrived in 1994.

The Nisei hoped to realize their immigrant parents’ dreams to find success in the United States through American citizenship and its benefits. Beginning in the 1920s, intent on promoting Americanization as well as pursuing their civil rights, they formed Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) chapters in many Northwest communities. The Yakima Valley JACL sent representatives to the first national JACL convention held in Seattle in August 1930.

Japanese Americans and World War II

Despite their attempts to prove their “Americanness,” both Nisei and Issei were targeted in the anti-Japanese hysteria that swept the country with the onset of World War II. West Coast agricultural interests, which had long sought to undercut Japanese immigrants’ success in farming through state exclusion laws, pressured the national government and local media to remove Japanese Americans because of their ostensible threat to national security. The military and federal government initially called for Japanese Americans to voluntarily relocate to the interior, but politicians such as Governor Chase Clark of Idaho vigorously opposed such a plan. Clark blocked California Japanese families from purchasing land in Idaho, and actively discouraged others from relocating. Yet Idaho would soon become “home” for 10,000 West Coast Japanese Americans removed from their real homes and sent to its Minidoka internment camp.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered the removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast to ten inland concentration camps located in isolated areas in seven states. Those removed were first incarcerated in “Assembly Centers,” including the Portland livestock pavilion. The Minidoka camp, located north of Twin Falls near Hunt, opened in August 1942 and housed 10,000 Issei and Nisei internees, mostly from western Washington and Oregon. Yakima Valley Japanese Americans were interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and Hood River Japanese were sent to Tule Lake in northern California. Japanese Americans living in Idaho, eastern Oregon, and in Washington east of the Columbia River escaped incarceration. Some 256 Issei from all parts of the West and even Peru were interned at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) facility near Kooskia, Idaho. The Japanese internees helped construct the major highway that links Lewiston, Idaho, to Lolo, Montana.
Two-thirds of those interned were American citizens. A number of courageous Nisei, including Minoru Yasui of Hood River, challenged the constitutionality of the curfew and evacuation and were imprisoned for their challenges. Other Nisei demonstrated their courage by joining the service. The famous 442nd Regimental Combat team, made up entirely of Japanese Americans, became the war’s most decorated unit.
Despite their illegitimate persecution and the harsh, cramped, unsanitary conditions of the camps, residents tried to reconstruct their lives behind barbed-wire fences and guard towers. At Minidoka, people grew flowers in the dry soil, formed musical groups, published a newspaper, played on sports teams, developed crafts, and seized opportunities to leave their confinement. In late 1943 some Minidoka residents obtained work releases to help on area farms or to move elsewhere in the United States.

Some parts of the Columbia River Basin welcomed the internees. Japanese American labor became critical to the sugar beet industry during the war, when tens of thousands of former internees worked Utah and Idaho Sugar Company holdings. Under the leadership of Ontario mayor Elmo Smith, the southeastern Oregon farming community invited internees to help fill service and farm jobs. By the end of the war, one thousand Japanese Americans had settled in the Ontario area, giving Malheur County the largest percentage of Japanese Americans in Oregon.

Recovering Community and Remembering History in the Postwar Era

The war represented a turning point for Japanese American communities. As a result of their internment, Japanese Americans lost homes, jobs, businesses, friends, and savings. Many Issei and Nisei never returned to the Columbia River Basin. The town of Hood River made it clear that it did not welcome former Japanese American residents, and greeted them with signs such as “No Jap Trade Wanted,” petitions, and removing from the town’s memorial board the names of Nisei soldiers who served in the war. Many of the released Nisei sought jobs and education in the East or in California; others made their homes in larger cities in the Northwest, such as Seattle, Spokane, and Portland, or in farm communities in the Snake River Valley of southeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho.

Seichi & Chiyeko Hayashida Interview

The mass incarceration represented one of the most serious violations of civil liberties in American history. No Japanese Americans committed any act of espionage or sabotage, and none were ever charged with a crime. The government suppressed its own evidence that there was no military necessity for incarcerating Japanese Americans. Racial prejudice, pressures from the army, and West Coast economic interests inspired the government’s actions.

In the years following the war, Japanese Americans worked successfully to remove state discriminatory legislation and to restore full citizenship and land ownership rights. The 1952 passage of the Walter-McCarran Act allowed Japanese immigrants to become naturalized citizens of the United States. In the 1970s, Japanese Americans and their supporters began a decades-long redress movement that ultimately pressured Congress and the President to formally apologize and provide monetary compensation to the surviving internees in 1988. The road to redress also helped heal the rifts within the Japanese American community, between those who resisted the draft, to protest the government's civil rights violations, and those who tried to silence this history for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic.

In the postwar period communities formed anew, revived older institutions, acknowledged the past in public ways, and embraced Japanese American cultural traditions. Buddhists from southwest Idaho and southeastern Oregon established a temple in Ontario in 1947 and built a new one in 1957. The Oregon Nikkei Endowment dedicated a memorial garden and historical plaza in Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park in 1990. In 1991, the Snake River chapter of the JACL raised funds to launch a $10 million cultural center in Ontario to honor those relocated or interned. Scholars and activists initiated the Densho (meaning to leave a legacy) Project in Seattle in 1996 to create oral histories with Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and to provide digital documentary resources to educate the public and promote democratic principles. The Sansei, or third-generation Japanese Americans, played an important role in commemorating the history of the Issei and Nisei experience and in reviving Japanese cultural arts. Taiko drumming groups, for example, first formed in the mid-1970s, became even more popular in the 1990s, attracting non-Japanese Americans as well as Sansei.

-Laurie Mercier




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