THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The astonishing history of Japanese Americans in Louisiana (pt. 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series.

The Second World War hit Louisiana’s Japanese population hard. On Dec. 8, the Japanese consulate closed its doors and its Japanese alien employees were incarcerated. Japanese shrimp boats were grounded, and the Hinata art store in New Orleans closed its doors. The Hinata daughters, anticipating dismissal from their public school teaching posts, voluntarily offered their resignations to the city school board, but their resignations were refused and they were granted certificates of commendation.

World War II brought Nikkei from all over the Americas into Louisiana. First, a group of Issei men, largely from Hawai‘i, who had been arrested and incarcerated after Pearl Harbor were shipped to Louisiana, and up to 1,200 were held during 1942-43 at Camp Livingston, near Alexandria. Meanwhile, New Orleans served as the post of debarkation for more than 2,000 ethnic Japanese from Peru and other Latin American countries who were kidnapped from their home countries during 1942 as part of a deal with the U.S. State Department, and shipped for mass incarceration in the United States. Then in mid-1943, Japanese American soldiers from the 100th Infantry Battalion were detailed for training at Camp Livingston. Masses of Nisei trainees visited nearby Alexandria, where the Kohara family put them up, establishing a virtual USO in their house.

In early 1944 the War Relocation Authority (WRA) opened an area relocation office in New Orleans. Few of the inmates paroled from camp had resettled in the Deep South, where land was cheap and well irrigated and where there was room for development. Government officials saw an opportunity for successful resettlement. They found a strong local booster in Roku (Dairoku) Sugahara. Sugahara was a Nisei businessman who had migrated with his wife to New Orleans. WRA officials proceeded to lead groups of Issei and Nisei farmers on tours of Louisiana and to propose resettlement.

In the last days of 1944, the Southern Area WRA office put together a several-page English-language “letter” designed to attract Japanese American farmers to Louisiana (it was produced together with a second pamphlet, addressed to both Issei and Nisei, regarding resettlement in Texas). The Louisiana letter provided information on climate and ways of acquiring land. It included a letter to “Japanese evacuee brethren,” produced under the signature of Masami Hata, an Issei resettler identified as working as a gardener in Baton Rouge. Roku Sugahara extolled New Orleans as a “melting pot of many races” where understanding and tolerance reigned. Left ostentatiously off the list of “races” enjoying such tolerance and understanding were the African Americans who formed about 30 percent of the city, as well as Native Americans.

In the end, despite all of the WRA’s efforts, only a few farmers actually migrated to Louisiana. In early 1945, notably, Kozo Hattori took over a chicken farm in St. Bernard Parish, just outside the city, hired three other inmates as workers, and made daily deliveries of produce to New Orleans. Yet WRA officials were frustrated by the lack of a more significant response, and opined that the reluctance of inmates to resettle in Louisiana was a product of exaggerated fear of prejudice. Ironically, those fears would soon appear less than exaggerated, for despite the WRA’s almost total failure to encourage Japanese American resettlement in the area, rumors quickly spread that the government was engaging in a plot to use government loans to “colonize” Japanese people in the area.

In February 1945, a police jury in Jefferson Parish, near New Orleans, voted on a resolution formally opposing any such settlement, and called on farmers and real estate agents not to lease or sell land to Japanese of whatever citizenship. Leander Perez, a New Orleans lawyer (and outspoken segregationist) who was district attorney and political boss of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Under his leadership, in May 1945 the two parishes adopted ordinances barring anyone of the “Japanese race” from owning land within their borders. In the face of such hostility the WRA was forced to curtail its project.

Yet almost no sooner than the anti-Japanese American movement raised its head, the tensions dissipated. Despite the (largely symbolic) anti-Japanese ordinances, an estimated 190 Japanese Americans resettled in Louisiana during 1945-46, working in the shrimp industry, greenhouses, or as chick sexers, although many ultimately left. James Imahara, a Nisei farmer, opened up a landscaping and green house business near Baton Rouge, and ultimately became a millionaire. New Orleans housed resettlers with a variety of occupations. Kyokuzo Tomoda, an Issei from Stockton, Calif., moved to town with two daughters, and started up the K.T. Manufacturing Co., a business selling roach powder and bug repellent. Another Stockton Issei, Testsuo Ijuin, opened a sandwich and coffee shop on Tulane Avenue near the Charity Hospital, but died suddenly only a month later, following which his wife Kiyo and three daughters took the shop over and ran it for several years. Yamato Kikuchi, who came from Topaz (Central Utah) with his three sons, worked in a supermarket. Some Nisei took jobs in flower markets.

The Crescent City slowly resumed its status as a magnet for accomplished Nisei, and an estimated 14 families were in residence by 1950. Roku Sugahara, after a stint in the Army, returned to New Orleans part-time, where he operated a real estate appraisal business and served as local correspondent for the Japanese American Citizens League’s (JACL) Pacific Citizen until his untimely death in 1952. The Yenari family settled in the suburb of Gretna.

The Emperor of Japan honored Hajime Yenari, a jeweler and watchmaker, for his service to U.S-Japan relations. His wife Katsu Oikawa Yenari, a physician, undertook a residency in pediatric medicine at Tulane; then opened up a private practice in Gretna. Hajime’s brother, Ted Yenari, a Nisei optometrist, also set up shop. George Asaichi Hieshima, an ex-GI, got his medical degree form Tulane University, while Kazuo Watanabe, a former Military Intelligence Service officer, graduated from Tulane’s Law School.

Sometime around 1950, the Japanese consulate in New Orleans reopened its doors, further boosting the size of the regional ethnic population — the 1960 census listed 519 ethnic Japanese statewide — and their prestige. By the mid-1960s, Japan had become New Orleans’s chief foreign trading partner — in 1972, for example, New Orleans had a higher value of exports to Japan (including a booming business in soybeans) than to all of Europe.

During the decade ending in 1976, an average of 200 Japanese ships a year called in New Orleans. Japanese tourists became a common sight on the Crescent City’s streets, even as Bourbon Street remained a spiritual home (and pilgrimage center) for Japanese and Nisei jazzmen.

A few Nikkei residents gained widespread attention. After serving in the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, football start Sam Nagata returned to Eunice and spent 30 years coaching local high school football teams. In 2003 he was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Linebacker Scott Fujita, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, earned even greater fame in recent years, both for his playing and community activism. Dr. Akira Arimura was named professor of Medicine at Tulane University in 1965, and served there for 30 years, leading a circle of Japanese endocrinologists working in the Nobel Prize-winning medical research team of Dr. Andrew Schally. Charles H. Shindo, a California native, has served as professor of history at Louisiana State University for over a decade.

Still, not every aspect of the Japanese presence in Louisiana was so positive. In Baton Rouge in 1992, meat market manager Rodney Peairs shot dead a 16-year old Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori, after he and a white friend knocked mistakenly on Peairs’s door in search of a Halloween Party.

The National JACL inquired in vain why Peairs had shot only at the Japanese boy and not his white companion. At his trial, Peairs was acquitted of manslaughter, though the student’s family subsequently won a large award for civil damages from Peairs.

Some of the old connection between Louisiana and Japan has dimmed. Trade declined sharply after the bursting of Japan’s economic boom in the early 1990s. Conditions have been especially difficult in recent years. In 2007, the New Orleans Japanese consulate closed its doors, citing lack of business, and relocated to Nashville, Tenn. The move, coming at a time when the city was struggling to rebuild after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, was a blow to the city, and it attracted fierce criticism and unsuccessful petitions.

CAFE DU MONDE ­— Japan is the only place outside of Louisiana with the famed French Quarter café. photo by Heng Wee Tan

Still, there are remnants of the former closeness between Japan and Louisiana, and the financial and cultural exchange between them. One of the most unique is the Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans institution that has survived for 150 years. Thanks to an exclusive concession agreement, there are 20 branches of the iconic café in Japan — the only branches in the world outside Louisiana — serving its menu of chicory coffee and beignets.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.


Correction

Accuracy is fundamental in journalism.

In the Nov. 10 – 16, 2011 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled, “The astonishing history of Japanese Americans in Louisiana,” erroneously stated that Japanese consulate that had been in New Orleans relocated to Texas. It relocated to Nashville, Tenn.

The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.

Comments

  1. Dear Greg,

    Thank you for posting the correction on your article! We really appreciate the in-depth reporting you have done on Japanese Americans in Louisiana. If we can ever be of assistance to you at the Consulate, please let us know.

  2. Grant B Hieshima, MD says

    Hello Professor Robinson,
    Thank you for your very informative articles. I can add a little about George Asaichi Shimidzu Hieshima, my father, who was born in 1919 and his father was in the US Army when he was born and subsequently suffered a back injury and developed paralysis and died. He was raised by his mother, Yoshiko Hagiwara Shimidzu who later remarried George Yoichi Hieshima who was Asaichi’s step father.
    Asaichi married Yoshiko Alice Miyazaki while they were attending UC Berkeley in 1941. In January of 1942 he was drafted into the Army and with his pre-med training was initially trained to be a medic. He was stationed at Camp Grant in Rockford Illinois in July of 1942 when I was born at Santa Anita Assembly Center which is how I received my name . While he was in the Army the rest of our family was sent to Jerome Arkansas and eventually to Amache, Colorado. When he was discharged he was sent into the camp with us and from there applied to Tulane Medical School. There were other Japanese Americans in medical school during the War but I believe most were accepted to medical school before Pearl Harbor. Our family has always been grateful to Tulane and the School of Medicine for accepting my father for admission in the latter part of the war. He is now 94 years old and we will be attending our class reunions at the end of May 2014 which will be his 65th and my 45th medical school reunion.
    I was fortunate to live in New Orleans for 5 years while my father went to Tulane med school and interned at Mercy Hospital and then another 5 years while I went to Tulane. We were fortunate to know some of the people you have mentioned including the Yenari family the Ijuin family and others who were always very kind considerate and helpful to our family. We were also well received by others who were not of Japanese ancestry and they helped us to enjoy the culture and especially the cuisine of Louisiana.

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