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Taken: Oregon Japanese Arrested by the FBI During World War II - Part 1


Imagine that you are sixteen years old. It is a Sunday evening, and you are relaxing with your family after dinner. Suddenly, there is a knock at the front door. Two FBI agents are standing erect, demanding to see your father. They take him into custody before you have a chance to alert your mother, who happens to be taking a bath and so is unaware of your father’s arrest. Confused, you ask the FBI agents when you can expect to see your father again. They tell you they do not know; they only need to ask a few questions of him. This seems reasonable; he has never committed any crime and so should have no charges against him. By the time your mother has finished her bath, your father has been whisked off into the night by the mysterious FBI agents, without a suitcase or the medication that he needs to stay healthy. You have no idea where he is being taken. The location is a modest apartment in Portland, Oregon. The date is December 7, 1941.

A few days later you find out that your father is being held behind bars at the Multnomah County Jail. You go to visit him. He tells you to take care of yourself, and cautions that the two of you may never meet again. As much as you hope that he is wrong, it will turn out that his prediction was all too true. Years later, he will be released to the Minidoka Relocation Center to be with your family, but by that point you will have already moved to Milwaukee to work and save money for college. He will die from poor health before you have a chance to return to the camp. Thus, on top of the experience of being uprooted from your home, being forced to live in horse stables, being isolated in a desert, and moving to a completely foreign part of the country, you will never see your father alive again.

The wholesale internment during World War II of over 110,000 Japanese Americans, foreign-born and American citizens alike, is a topic that is familiar to most Americans in the modern day. However, what fewer people know is that prior to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which permitted the evacuation of these Japanese Americans away from the West Coast of the United States, a small group of Japanese Americans had already been imprisoned away from their families for months.

Starting in the evening of December 7, 1941, the FBI began rounding up select Japanese who were deemed to be a threat to United States security. Held without explanation or due cause, most of these men had committed no crime save for serving as leaders in their communities, and in some cases, even working tirelessly to promote favorable relations between the Caucasian majorities and the Japanese minorities in their communities. They were rewarded with suspicion, unfounded accusations, and years of undignified treatment at the hands of a war-frenzied government. Many of these men had spent most of their lives in the United States, and even as their country of residence was mistreating them so harshly, they still considered it to be their home.

My research this summer sought to learn some of the human stories behind these unjust actions by the United States government. For example, how were families’ views and experiences in internment affected by the FBI arrests? How were the general public’s views of Japanese Americans and internment affected by the FBI arrests? What is the continuing effect and significance of these arrests today? For many of the families that were affected by the FBI arrests, being without their fathers and husbands for so long took a toll on all members of the family, causing them to harbor bitterness and resentment toward the United States. These arrests also seem to have been significant as propaganda stunts, leading the general public to view the Japanese Americans as threatening to national security and decidedly un-American.

Community Site

Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed the face of the Japanese American community in Portland, Oregon forever, Portland’s downtown area was home to a bustling and thriving Japantown. Several city blocks were occupied by Japanese-owned hotels, laundries, restaurants, and shops. Like a bitter wind, the events of World War II snuffed out the life of the Japanese community, causing Japantown to disappear practically overnight. Families were evacuated from their homes in downtown Portland, and many of them would not return at the war’s end.

Today, many of these same city blocks are very visibly home to Portland’s Chinatown, but whispers of the past still remain. The historic Merchant Hotel Building, which once housed a Japanese laundry and bathhouse, is now home to the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, a non-profit Japanese American history museum and hub for Japanese American historical research and cultural sharing. The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center opened to the public in 1998 and adopted the following mission statement to guide and direct its activities:

The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center will serve as a focal point for the preservation and sharing of the history and culture of the Japanese American community. The center will be a venue for cultural and research activities and an invaluable resource for the exploration of the experiences of Japanese Americans and their role in Oregon’s multicultural community. One of the most important chapters in the Japanese American experience is the forced internment of over 110,000 persons of Japanese descent during the Second World War. This fuels our commitment to the preservation of civil rights for all Americans.

In addition to its permanent exhibit which familiarizes visitors with the total Japanese American experience in Oregon, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center has space to house temporary exhibits, topics of which have ranged from Japanese classical dance to manga (Japanese comics) and the Japanese American baseball culture.

An exhibit currently in the works and set to open on December 7, 2010 is tentatively entitled “Taken: Oregon Japanese Arrested by the FBI During World War II.” This exhibit will aim to tell the little-known stories of those who were arrested and imprisoned separately from their families. It will be a means of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center’s mother organization, by recognizing the contributions of the pioneering Japanese who made their homes in Oregon. Preparing for this exhibit was the focus of my activities this summer at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.


By the time I started work this summer, some background research had already been completed on the project, but many of the efforts were disorganized and undocumented. My tasks included helping to organize the materials that were already in our possession, and making progress in such a way that could be understood by subsequent contributors to the project. Lists of many of the men who were arrested from Oregon had already been obtained from camp records and other sources, so my first task was to help perform research on these men to determine as much information as I could about them. For example, I looked at census and other data to try to determine their dates of immigration to the United States, their occupations, and their affiliations with different community organizations.

Most importantly, however, I performed genealogical research to try to determine the names and contact information of any living relatives who could potentially be contacted for further information or even interviews. As these lists became more and more complete, I also read as many sources as I could find about the Japanese American internment, the FBI arrests, and the camps that the arrested men were taken to. I kept track of my sources on an annotated bibliography.

When we had obtained contact information for a relatively large number of arrestees’ relatives, I created a database of the information we had found about these family member contacts. These contacts fell into two categories: some had already been contacted by the FBI exhibit committee and had been asked to fill out a questionnaire about their family member’s FBI arrest experience, while some had not previously been contacted by the FBI committee. I helped to develop two different letters to be targeted at these two separate groups of family member contacts. The letter to the first group acknowledged the family member’s past participation in the project and expressed an interest in meeting with the family member for an in-depth interview. The letter to the second group introduced the project, asked the family member to fill out and return the initial questionnaire that the first group had already completed, and also expressed an interest in meeting with the family member for an in-depth interview.

After the letters were sent, we received many responses. Some responses simply said that our contact would be unable to help with the project, as they were not familiar with their family member’s experience. Some of the letters were returned due to invalid addresses. However, some contacts responded quite enthusiastically about the project, happy that this history was finally being acknowledged after being ignored for so long. They volunteered to help with the exhibit by being interviewed or by providing other materials to the exhibit committee.

By the time my summer experience was completed, I was able to take part in oral history interviews with four of these contacts: three in-person interviews at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and one interview over the phone with a contact in Illinois. However, the value of the work performed this summer is that it set the project in motion in a sustainable manner, such that the volunteers on the FBI exhibit committee are still receiving responses from contacts and scheduling more interviews.

The other two summer interns and I worked with Professor Linda Angst from the Lewis and Clark College Department of Anthropology. She has taken part in many oral history interview projects, teaches methodology in some of her classes, and is a volunteer on the FBI committee at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. Together, we developed a list of questions to be asked of all interviewees. We wanted to obtain information on a uniform set of topics from all of our interviewees, but we welcomed the interviewees to speak more about any topic on which they were particularly knowledgeable or passionate.

Part 2 >>

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Taken: FBI

December 8, 2010 – May 29, 2011
at Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center

This exhibit brings to light the experiences of the families of 118 individuals in the Portland area and 17,477 in the western states taken into custody by the local authorities, then imprisoned by the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice directly following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

For more information >>

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© 2010 Jill Yuzuriha

intern oregon Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center portland World War II