A Pathetic Exodus

The Internment of the Japanese at Camp Harmony, Washington

by Jonathan Shipley

When the attack started, Sanzo Murakami and his wife Matsuyo were running the Higo variety store in Seattle's Japantown. They sold imported goods and foodstuffs in their store near the King Street Station and the railroads that rumbled from it, in the shadow of Seattle's monolithic Smith Tower, the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast. The Murakami family had no idea that Japanese forces, under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, were destroying an American naval fleet in the far-distant waters of Hawaii.

It was a Sunday morning, one like any other in Seattle. Cold and gray, as always. The Murakamis were behind the register, stocking shelves, talking shop, discussing the coming holidays with the fellow residents of Japantown, on South Jackson Street in a neighborhood where several thousand Japanese residents lived. It was their community within the bustle of Seattle. They called it home.

Word must have reached the Murakamis, and the rest of those living in Seattle's Japantown, quickly. They wouldn't realize, until it was upon them, that the war would just as quickly forcibly take them from their homes and send them to "assembly centers" and, later, internment camps for the duration of World War II.

One such place, "Camp Harmony," as it was called, was located in the nearby town of Puyallup. Officially called the Puyallup Assembly Center, it housed approximately 7,390 Americans of Japanese descent living in the state of Washington in the summer of 1942. They stayed there before being sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Twin Falls, Idaho. At Camp Harmony babies would be born, men and women would die, and life, a startlingly different one, would continue for Seattle's Japanese residents. They wouldn't return home – the Higo store was shuttered, as were many others – for several years. Life would never be the same for them, nor for Seattle and the country, again.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, declaring war against the Japanese. The speech was heard across the country. Everyone in Seattle within earshot of a radio heard the man speak. The speech was put across loudspeakers at Seattle's schools. It took twelve minutes before the U.S. House of Representatives voted for war – 388 for, 1 against.

Soon after Roosevelt's words were spoken, Washington state's governor, Arthur Langlie, issued a statement. "Your state government is prepared and ready to perform every defense task which has or will be assigned to it. The State of Washington is on the frontier of a great war. We do not know what trials we must go through or what sacrifices we will be called upon to make. We do know what is at stake. We know that our country, our liberties and our very homes are threatened. We are individually and as a nation called upon to make good our pledge of allegiance to flag and country."

For Sanzo Murakami, he was no longer a fellow Seattleite. He was looked upon as a potential enemy of the United States. Perhaps he was a spy. He was not to be trusted. He was of Japanese descent and the United States was formally at war with the Empire of Japan. Like Murakami, countless others became potential enemies. Men like attorney William Nimbu. Bank clerk Tejuri Umino. "Lefty" Ichihara, the owner of a fish tackle store. School children. Teacher Sachi Nakauchi. Ben Uyeno, University of Washington student. Marble champ Fumio Shibata. Supply officer "Tinky" Yoshida. Pharmacist Yoshio Hammamoto. Jazz musician Koichi Hayashi. Amelia Kito's baby.

After Roosevelt declared war, James Sakamoto, editor of Seattle's Japanese-American Courier newspaper, issued a statement as well. "There is a remote possibility," he wrote, "of our becoming the victim of public passion and hysteria. If this should occur, we will stand firm in our resolution that even if America may 'disown' us – we will never disown America." His statement continued, "It is easy for us to shout our patriotism and declare our loyalty. But we must do much more than mere lip service. Our biggest job, and the hardest, will be to go ahead, doing our work as diligently and efficiently as we can, to contribute to America's defense. This is a time of calm thinking and quick action."

Sakamoto was soon sent to Camp Harmony, then forced on to Idaho. After the war he couldn't afford to start his newspaper again. He lived on government assistance until he died in 1955 in an automobile accident.

Fear and suspicion quickly befell Seattle's Japanese residents. The night of the Pearl Harbor attack, Seattle police, noted the Seattle Star, "rounded up 51 Japanese aliens considered dangerous by the Federal Bureau of Investigation." Some of those placed into custody were members of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce. Seattle's mayor, William "Earl" Millikan issued the statement, "I also want to warn the Japanese that they must not congregate or make any utterance that could be used as grounds for reprisals." Seattle police chief Herbert Kimsey, announced on December 8th that Japantown would be patrolled heavily. Rear Admiral C.S. Freeman, commander of the 13th Naval District, stated "The immediate problem for the civilian population is to be on guard for possible sabotage." Those with tips, he noted, were to submit anything suspicious to district headquarters in the Exchange building in downtown Seattle.

Japan's Seattle residents were scared and nervous. Rumors spread that Japanese youth were getting attacked. Everyone was being eyed suspiciously. Families didn't want to walk the streets of Seattle. "I was going to take the children downtown to do some Christmas shopping," one Japanese American told the Seattle Star, "but I'm afraid it may not be safe."

Some weeks went by. The residents of Japantown, and any residents of Washington with Japanese ancestry, were harassed and spied on. Businesses suffered. Nervous, the Japanese didn't congregate for fear of reprisals. They didn't meet at the Higo store to talk, shop or laugh, swap stories or share tales.

On February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones. The order eventually cleared the way to relocate the Japanese to internment camps. In total, nationwide, 120,000 Japanese people would be interned. 62% were Nisei (American-born, second-generation Japanese Americans), or Sansei (third-generation Japanese Americans). The rest were Issei (Japanese immigrants and resident aliens). The order applied to anyone of "foreign enemy ancestry" but only 11,000 Germans and 3,000 Italians were ever interned. The order wasn't rescinded until February 19, 1976 by President Gerald Ford.

The first Japanese Exclusion Order appeared on a Seattle telephone pole on April 24, 1942. "INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY LIVING IN THE FOLLOWING AREA," it proclaimed. "All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated." However, the sign didn't go up before the nation's first forced removal had already begun in late March at nearby Bainbridge Island – a short ferry ride from Seattle. They were the first group to be removed in the United States, based, in part, on their close proximity to the Bremerton Navy Yard.

It was a tearful goodbye for the Japanese residents of Bainbridge Island. Quiet folk, they mainly tended the isle's rich bounty of strawberry fields. Their children attended the local schools. Military trucks traveled from house to house gathering up 275 people and whatever belongings they could carry. Families left pets behind. A Japanese wife was taken away, leaving her Filipino husband. What couldn't be carried was left at the community hall. The sheriff boarded up the windows and posted guards there so their belongings wouldn't be rifled through.

They had been given eight days’ warning before they were forced to leave. It was a somber procession at the Eagledale dock as they boarded the ferry to the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley in the desolation of California. Only half of them would return to Bainbridge Island, four years later. "It was a pathetic exodus," reported the Seattle Times at the time. "There were mothers with babies in arms, aged patriarchs with faltering steps, high school boys and girls, and some children, too young to realize the full import of the occasion." The Bainbridge Review also took note of the departure. "There were others...who mourned their departure. They included Caucasians who gathered at the Eagledale dock...and wept unashamed as their Japanese neighbors obediently boarded the ferry Keholoken for their last ride from the Island in a long time."

Seattle's exodus would happen soon after. At the end of April 1942 Seattle's Japanese community began being shipped off to Camp Harmony. They were given a week to put their houses in order. In her book Nesei Daughter, Monica Sone remembers, "Up to that moment we had hoped against hope that something or someone would intervene for us." No one did. "A thousand and one details must be attended to in this one week of grace," Sone continued. "Those seven days sputtered out like matches struck in the wind." They all had to find homes for their belongings during the war, or sell them - their businesses, their homes, their cars, everything. The newspaper classified ads at the time said as much. "Japanese evacuation necessitates immediate sale of 55-room brick hotel," read one. "1936 Desoto sedan. Attached overdrive, gas-saver transmission, new tires. Evacuation forces sale," read another. For the Murakami family's Higo variety store, they asked the other occupants of the building, Julius Blumenthal and Maurice Zimmer, to protect it while the Japanese family was interned. The men agreed to keep watch.

Within a week of the posters for the removal being placed, 2,500 Japanese Americans were already living at Camp Harmony. By the end of May, 7,000 were there. The once bustling streets of Japantown were now empty and quiet. The hotels vacant. The restaurants no longer filled with the smells of the kitchen and the clatter and din of community feasts. Japantown’s businesses were boarded up.

"Henry went to the Control Station to register the family," Sone wrote of her brother. "He came home with twenty tags, all numbered '10710.'...From then on, we were known as Family #10710."

Family #10710, and the rest, found themselves at Camp Harmony in Puyallup. Located on a fairgrounds, the shoddily- and quickly-built barracks stood under the grandstand. Other buildings within a racetrack. The Japanese were interned among barbed wire fences, tommy gun placements, and a giant roller coaster. A Ferris wheel was near the showers. In a report, dated April 2, 1942, written by a member of the Seattle Office of the American Friends Service Committee, Joseph Conrad wrote, "You can imagine how our hearts sank. One single little window for each family. The floors laid right on the ground. Mud everywhere...no plumbing facilities...C.P.S. barracks are palaces by comparison. And not healthy young men are to live here, but women and children: old men, old women, babies are kept in at race tracks and fairgrounds. And the Japanese aren't animals."

In a Japanese Evacuation Report in May, Conrad wrote that there was "no privacy, little human decency." More than 7,000 lived in makeshift barracks that were hastily thrown together. Divided into "apartments," each family had one room, approximately 18 by 20 feet in size. Furnishings were spartan – an army cot with a mattress filled with straw. Heat came from a small stove. Light came from a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. A view came through the one small window that looked out onto the wall of another barrack. There was no running water, no toilet, no shower. They had to walk across the muddy fairgrounds to get to communal bathrooms.

Meals were regimented. Lines were long. Fresh food, at the beginning, scarce. Ted Nakashima, in an article in the New Republic wrote, "We have absolutely no fresh meat, vegetables or butter since we came here. Mealtime queues extend for blocks, standing in a rainswept line, feet in the mud, waiting for scant portions of canned wieners and boiled potatoes." When rice came it was a reason to rejoice. In the camp newsletter dated July 18, 1942, "Center enthusiasm over gastronomic improvements resulting from the recently instituted Army rations were expected to reach to delirious heights, as Housing and Feeding Supervisor Clyde C. Randall announced the arrival of quantities of rice."

When they could, they still worked. Unskilled laborers received $8 a month – dishwashers, mess hall workers, cook helpers. Skilled laborers like nurses, cooks, and clerks received $12 a month. The professionals – dentists, engineers, physicians, and the like – received $16 a month.

Schools were formed. Under the direction of Education Officer Joanne Mori, classes were held twice daily. Classes like creative writing and short hand, public speaking and parliamentary law, English and handicrafts were well attended. Diplomas were handed out near the barracks. University of Washington students weren't allowed to receive their diplomas at the graduation ceremonies in Seattle either. There were services at the camp followed by a party.

Called "Little Tokyo" by Puyallup’s Caucasian residents, Camp Harmony’s citizens had given up everything. And yet life went on. Bands formed. Movies were shown. Dances were held. "The camp had a dance last night," reported the Seattle Times on May 6, 1942. "There was no orchestra but all the portable radios were set up in the mess hall and tuned to the same station."

Indeed, life moved forward as best as the Japanese were able to, amidst the wire, guns, and forced curfews. They were denied the right to assemble – clubs were forbidden. They were denied their religion – shinto was not to be practiced. They were denied speech – Japanese language materials were forbidden. They were denied privacy – police could enter any room without a warrant. "Several days ago," wrote Kenji Okuda in a letter, "an order came through banning phonograph records. What a denial of freedom; more irksome restrictions in a concentration camp!"

Attorney Clarence Arai planted a small victory garden of radishes, beets, Chinese lettuce, and onions. Yosh Uchida offered group singing classes. Miss Sachi Nakachi offered embroidery lessons for the girls. Kuzuo Kimura graduated as a member of the Society of Sixma Xi. Ben Uyeno became a member of Phi Sigma. Mary Toribara joined Pi Mu Epsilon.

In late May, the camp's first birth was a baby boy, to Amelia Kito. The father was absent, in an internment camp in Texas. One night "Arribo" Yanagimachi battled to a draw with Mits Mizuki in sumo wrestling. Kiyoshi Nagai married Shizuko Fukuniyo. They moved to the "honeymoon quarters" at the camp. A "Just Married" sign was posted outside their small room.

James Mineno was the camp's first death. Seventy-eight years old, Mineno had left Japan at the age of 11 as a mess boy aboard a ship. He was survived by five sons, four of them serving in the U.S. Army. Fumio Shibata and Yoichi Asaba walked off with championship crowns after a marble tourney. In Area D, pharmacist Yoshio Hanmarito got married. Horseshoe tourneys were held. Frank Yoshitake beat Art Sasaki in a ping-pong competition.

Camp Harmony was only temporary, but it was their home. They made the most of it, even though there was very little to be had. "I hate to be leaving Seattle," a student wrote to his teacher on his departure to the camp, "for I'll not see my friends, my teachers, nor my school but there is nothing I or anyone can do about it." Another forlorn student wrote simply to the teacher, "I am an American." In a letter an adult wrote, "Our children are Americans yet they are being kicked around like dogs – by Americans."

The residents knew Camp Harmony was temporary. Rumors about where they were to go next started before they had even arrived in Puyallup. They initially thought they would be shuttled off to Tule Lake in California. Their fellow Washingtonians, those from Bainbridge Island, were already 200 miles east of Los Angeles at the Manzanar Reception Center. But they would not go to California. By early August some of the residents of Camp Harmony were sent to Minidoka in southeastern Idaho. For them, it was a 27-hour train ride behind closed blinds to an unknown location. Within a month, Camp Harmony was empty. Western Washington's Japanese population was living in another hastily constructed prison camp.

"We have learned many lessons the hard way during our stay at Camp Harmony," wrote James Sakamoto in an editorial in the final "souvenir" edition of the Camp Harmony Newsletter. "Let us profit by them as we face the difficulties that are bound to develop when we reach our new home at the Minidoka Project in Idaho." He continued, "What we have or have not accomplished is not so much the question as it is in the lesson we have or have not gained from the suffering in an unenviable circumstance forced upon us by the present global war. These are, indeed, times that try men's souls, and the test of courage in accepting the challenge lies within ourselves."

Operating from 1942 to 1945, more than 9,000 lived in Minidoka for the remainder of World War II. Now a National Historic Site, internees included composer Paul Chihara, Medal of Honor winner William Nakumura, civil rights pioneer Takuji Yamashita, and writer Mitsuye Yamada. It became, in essence, its own city, complete with newspapers, churches, a library, schools, a hospital, and more.

It wasn't until January 1945 that Seattleites could return home. Home was no longer there. It had changed, and so had they. Doug Chin remarked that the evacuation "resulted in financial disaster, torment, hardships for virtually every family." Shiegeko Uno said, "After the war, Japantown was no longer there."

Sanzo and Matsuyo Murakami, the owners of the Higo variety store in Seattle's Japantown, stayed at Minidoka until they were allowed to go back home to Seattle. The two men who had promised to keep watch, Julius Blumenthal and Maurice Zimmer, had kept their word. They had paid the bills and sent updates about Seattle and the store. Finally, on January 22, 1945, the Murakami family stood in front of their old store again. The windows were intact. The merchandise that they had stocked years before remained untouched.

Within a week, Sanzo Murakami, the patriarch of the family, died of a heart attack in the store's back office. The family continued with the store anyway, grieving Sanzo's sudden death – so soon after tasting freedom again. They reopened the store and it once again became a place to share news, to buy cookware and china, to reminisce and to dream. The business stayed within the family until 2003 when it closed. The closure wouldn't last long. It was reopened in 2004 as the Kobo at Higo store, and has kept some artifacts of the Murakami family store and Japantown as a whole – fans, antique cracker canisters, sandals.

In 1983 a memorial sculpture by George Tsotakawa was erected at the Puyallup fairgrounds, amidst the Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. Five years later, following the findings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens, President Ronald Reagan gave an official apology for America's actions towards the Japanese during the war. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act soon after, authorizing the payment of $20,000 to each Japanese American incarcerated.

On Bainbridge Island, at the end of Taylor Street, a memorial marker sits. There, at the former site of the Eagledale dock, it reminds all that pass what happened there. Its inscription concludes, "They were the first of 120,000 Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed from their homes and experience three years of unconstitutional internment. Not all were interned. Some were drafted into the military, some were unjustly imprisoned, and some moved away – but all were forbidden to remain.

"We dedicate this site to honor those that suffered and to cherish the friends and community who stood by them and welcomed them home."




Jonathan Shipley lives with his young daughter in Seattle. His work has been published in various publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and Fine Books & Collections Magazine. He most recently wrote about the short-lived West Coast Negro League of the 1940s for Columbia Magazine.

Articles in this Issue

From the Editors
Altorf, by Alan Huffman
I Came in Through the Bathroom Window, by Stephanie Hartka
Ode To a Perpetually Packed Suitcase, by Brandi Dawn Henderson
Adventures in House-sitting, by Christopher J. Miles
The Paranormal History of Merchant's House, by Dan Sturges
A Pathetic Exodus, by Jonathan Shipley
Before I Die, by Candy Chang

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