VOX POPULI: A Japanese Internment ‘Refusal’?




(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on November 23, 2010)


This was originally addressed to the 50 or so Nikkei from Los Angeles,  Japanese American Korean War Veterans Association members and spouses, prior to Labor Day to dedicate Miyamura High School at Gallup, N.M.

Were you surprised by the Historic Spot downtown on the Gallup City Map and Guide listed as “Japanese Internment Refusal”? I was.

Gallup-born Nisei EASILY explained it was where city officials were asked by the FBI that Japanese families be interned. And they REFUSED.

The Western Defense Command’s Gen. John DeWitt’s jurisdiction then covered California, the western half of Oregon and Washington, Alaska and the southern section of Arizona, but not New Mexico.

Japanese Americans in New Mexico did experience anti-Japanese discrimination, but were spared by the traditionally tolerant communities and officials in the state.

In fact, I found out after coming home from the celebration that two Nisei students were elected senior class presidents at Gallup High School during the war.

This was the time (April ’42) of the Bataan Death March, which included surrendered Americans in defeat (many from New Mexico) being beaten, tortured and forced to march 65 miles northward from the peninsula to a prison camp at San Fernando. Of some 78,000, many died before they got there. About 2,000 escaped from Bataan to Corregidor, according to the Oxford Companion in World War II [1995].

This trek to Gallup to celebrate the dedication of Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura High School certainly got me to recall other Japanese Americans who have contributed to New Mexico:

a) Hortculturalist Roy M. Nakayama of Las Cruces turned, as a result of his research, chili pepper into a cash crop;

b) Seattle relocatee Ruth Hashimoto, who founded the Sister Cities movement in New Mexico in the ’60s;

c) Seattle architect-woodworker George Nakashima, who designed the Monastery of Christ in the Desert at Abiqui, a locale near Taos graphically featured in Michael Haederle’s account in the Los Angeles Sunday Times, Nov. 7, 2010, A22;

d) Photographer Frank Uyeda (his father Tazu was probably the first Issei businessman in the state at Gallup), who played football at Purdue University.

Nikkei in New Mexico especially recognize and revere three men who aided the Japanese community and defended them while Nikkei were being expelled from their homes in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

(1) Mayor Carroll Gunderson of Grants, N.M., told his workers on Dec. 8, 1941, to treat the community’s Japanese population with dignity and respect. Through his efforts, Japanese farmers in the Grants-Milan area (about 60 miles east of Gallup) were supplied with food, meat, fuel and fertilizer.

(2) Hugh Woodward of Albuquerque helped the many Japanese Americans who were forced to leave California at the onset of war and needed places to stay and employment in New Mexico. Woodward Hall at the University of New Mexico is named after him for his philanthropic endeavors.

(3) Deputy U.S. Marshal Ernest Salazar prevented the expulsion of Japanese out of Albuquerque after one Clyde Tingley had advocated that they be expelled. The local Japanese sought Salazar’s assistance and due to his intervention, they were able to remain in Albuquerque.

Thanks to New Mexico JACL’s resource for much of the above, but a paper at the Japanese American National Museum by Andrew Russell on the same subject notes one community in New Mexico, Clovis (217 miles east of Albuquerque at the Texas border), was the only city to formally move and isolate Japanese families (number unknown) to an abandoned CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp.

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In closing, here’s a bit of Issei history. They came in the 1900-1910 era to work in the coal mines and railroads in Gallup and Raton, or as domestics in Albuquerque.

In Mesilla, south of Las Cruces, Issei share-croppers from southern Colorado were persuaded around 1930 to undertake farming there. They first had to build their homes, “a roof over their head in the forlorn area without basic services,” as Kuniji Tashiro spoke with Masakazu Iwata, author of Planted in Good Soil, a History of the Issei in U.S. Agriculture [1992]. Their first crop was cantaloupe.

Pioneer Kaichiro Nakayama toiled in the Dona Ana Valley north of Las Cruces (50 miles north of El Paso) when it was nothing more than sagebrush. He experimented with sugar beets and a variety of vegetables in the ’20s on leased land. In 1924, New Mexico passed the California-style Alien Land Law that affected less than 300 Japanese in the state.

Nakayama, a Russo-Japanese War veteran, came to America in 1907 and settled in western Nebraska to raise sugar beets and cattle. In 1917, because of the intolerable winters in western Nebraska, he decided to move to southern Texas. At El Paso, Mrs. Nakayama suddenly became ill. Three months later, she was well enough to travel.

Instead, they stayed in New Mexico and joined the Japanese farmers in the Las Cruces area, where Nakayama annually raised up to 300 acres of pink-meated melons for American shippers. In the ’30s, he quit melons for vegetable greens and shipped them by trucks to El Paso and other markets.

Japanese farmers pioneered vegetable production from the ’30s. As cited above, Roy Nakayama, with a doctorate from Iowa State in agricultural science, became a professor in horticulture at New Mexico State in Las Cruces and after 15 years developed the 12-inch-long chili pepper (Nu-Mex, Big Jim, Sandia) into a leading cash crop for New Mexico. Chili peppers then were no bigger than four inches long.

Until the Japanese came to Mesilla to farm, there were no agricultural areas of merit in New Mexico, historian Iwata observed. “The Issei ventured into what were literally unpleasant, hot desert environments and dauntlessly undertook the difficult task of converting acreage of no small dimension from the standpoint of their own expertise into high-yielding croplands. Hard work seemed to be second nature to them.”

For Nisei veterans to remember, Issei pioneer Kihichi Ebina came to America in 1912, served in World War I and settled in Albuquerque in 1939 to farm.


1 Comment

  1. Let me just give a sigh of relief that this article was about refusing to lock up people, not refusing to accept that the camps existed!

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