VOX POPULI: Fletcher Bowron — Not in His Name

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By STEVE NAGANO

Few Los Angeles Japanese Americans know of Mayor Fletcher Bowron (1887-1968), fewer of us know of Fletcher Bowron Square, adjacent to City Hall, and probably fewer of us know of his role in our lives.

I had seen photos of the Nisei Week Court smiling with the mayor at City Hall, but an **L.A. Times** article (May 20, 1943) with this headline — “Bowron Hopes Jap-Americans Never Return to Los Angeles” — caused me to flippantly remark, “We gotta change that name!”

Across the country statues are coming down, buildings and airports are renamed, flags are being redesigned, products are dropping images and names, processes are being questioned, and budgets are being reassessed. People are seeking to correct the wrongs of the past for a more just and fairer society. We are learning histories that will change how we go forward.

Within this momentum, I propose that we seek to remove Fletcher Bowron Square from city property and rename the square (located on Temple Street between Los Angeles and Main streets). Our imprisonment during WWII stemmed from the same systems that rationalized stealing the land from and committing genocide (ethnic cleansing) against the indigenous people and instituting a system of enslavement, which to many, continues today. It is from the same system that took property from our Issei, shattered dreams of our Nisei, stripped their dignity, aspirations and self-respect, and continues to afflict our community today.

Fletcher Bowron, mayor of Los Angeles from 1938-1953, presided over the city with the largest population of Japanese in America, close to 60,000 (his number), and was a major force in shaping public opinion and government action in the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In fact, Bowron met with Gen. John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command on the morning DeWitt decided to move Japanese American from the Pacific Coast.

Bowron observed that his statements “may have been the last straw…and certainly it was an added consideration.”

Through his weekly radio broadcasts on KECA, he shaped public opinion and influenced government policies. The quotes below are from his broadcasts. (Thanks to Martha Nakagawa for the transcripts of the broadcasts.)

All city employees of “Japanese parentage” were forced to take a leave of abence because “some of the employees of Japanese blood were in positions where they could secure valuable information which, if passed on to the enemy, could be most effectively used in an attack upon Los Angeles.”

“Right here in our own city are those who may spring to action at an appointed time in accordance with a prearranged plan wherein each of our little Japanese friends will know his part…”

“I advocate the securing of land by the federal government in locations removed at least several hundred miles from the coast … where they may be put to work … Because they are nonassimilable … because of the marked difference in appearance between Japanese and Caucasians, because of the generations of training and philosophy that make them Japanese and nothing else … set the Japanese apart as a race, regardless of how many generations may have been born in America.”

On President Lincoln’s birthday, Bowron said, “…there isn’t a shadow of a doubt but that Lincoln …would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm.”

On how to deal with American citizens: “…we cannot deny them the rights and privileges and immunities of American citizenship … I suggest a congressional Act classifying all persons … who are also citizens of nations at war with the United States … not entitled to citizenship.”

“When the war is over, it is hoped that we will not have again a large concentration of the Japanese population in Los Angeles. By that time some legal method may be worked out to deprive the native-born Japanese of citizenship … The Japanese can never be assimilated … they will never be a part of us. They are a race apart … here in America … we want the word ‘American’ to stand for something that we honor and respect … the Japanese can never be Americans in the true sense.”

At a banquet honoring Nisei veterans in 1946, Bowron apologized: “I have been convinced … the Nisei have been true. And they have come through the ordeal in such a way as to have earned the respect and confidence of their fellow Americans.”

Despite Bowron’s belated enlightenment, his role in the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII and his racist portrayal of a community “who intends to be most useful to the cause of the Mikado” must not be honored with a park or a square named after him.

His racist characterizations of Japanese and Japanese Americans who are “waiting for the signal,” “nonassimilable,” “a race apart,” and “can never be Americans in the true sense,” and his advocacy of a constitutional amendment to strip Americans of their citizenship are manifold reasons to rename the square! He is the perfect example of why the Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated — race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.

Let’s join together to change the name! Sakura? Peace? Tongva? City of Angels? Any of these would be a welcomed change to its present name.

Resources

Bowron radio broadcast on KECA, various dates, Fletcher Bowron Papers, Henry Huntington Library

Densho, “Fletcher Bowron” by Martha Nakagawa, http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Fletcher_Bowr”on/

Hoffman, Abraham, “The Conscience of a Public Official: Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron and Japanese Removal,” Southern California Quarterly, 2010

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The author is a resident of Little Tokyo and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in Vox Populi do not necessarily reflect those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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