THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Rest of New York: Nikkei adventures as resettlers

|

This is the second installment of a series on Japanese Americans in what I have dubbed the “Rest of New York,” that is, the various parts of the state that lie outside of the five boroughs of New York City.

I noted in the May 2, 2013 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly that Nikkei continued to settle in the New York region throughout the pre-war era, though the pace of entry slowed once the Immigration Act of 1924 cut off Japanese entry. Unlike on the West Coast, there were no restrictive covenants or alien land laws to keep the newcomers from settling where they pleased. As a result, affluent Issei spread to suburbs such as White Plains and Scarsdale (Westchester County) and Long Island.

For example, Fukuzo Arita moved to Rye and Port Chester, where he founded a successful business as a flower gardener. He also earned extra money by providing day care for local children, who played along his grass fields with Arita’s children. During World War II, Arita’s three sons enlisted as soldiers. Perhaps the most famous of the pre-war suburbanites was silent film star Sessue Hayakawa, who bought a house in Great Neck, Long Island, next to the city. He played golf regularly at the Soundview country club and taught fencing at his club to a group of Nisei boys.

Beginning in the 1930s, Nisei and younger Issei likewise moved into the suburbs. Architect Minoru Yamasaki moved from Seattle and took a house in Mamaroneck (Westchester County). Another Seattleite, photographer Toge Fujihira, settled in Roslyn Heights, Long Island. During World War II, he photographed resettlers in New York for the War Relocation Authority and was later hired by the Methodist Mission Board. Toru Matsumoto, a young Japanese who had trained as a minister at Union Theological Seminary, settled with his wife and son in Larchmont.

In addition, some Japanese Americans settled in Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. There, a commune of artists, led by the renowned painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi, was established. Meanwhile, Takashi Ohta, who had worked as a set designer at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, moved up to the area with his wife and two children, and was hired as artist and set designer for the Woodstock Playhouse. During the Depression, the Ohta family survived on what they could grow or sell, and finally returned to the city. (After the war, Takashi lived with his daughter Toshi and her husband, composer and musician Pete Seeger, in the house the couple built in Beacon — the Seegers remained in the area through Toshi’s death in July of 2013).

Nikkei migrate during World War II
World War II brought further Japanese American migration and visibility to upstate New York. In 1943, after receiving assurance from local religious leaders and community leaders that Japanese Americans would be welcomed, the WRA opened a resettlement office in Buffalo on the 11th floor of the Rand Building.

Meanwhile, Saki Yonayama of the Buffalo YWCA and Dr. Kiyoshi Sonoda of the International Institute helped coordinate the activities of resettler groups, while Kazuo Mihara and Mrs. Frank Fukuda assisted individuals. With the help of the official and unofficial agents, resettlers began to settle in the Buffalo area.

By mid-1944, the Gila New-Courier reported that there were about 25 Nikkei in the city, including several students at University of Buffalo, and that local labor shortages made it an attractive destination. (Apparently, however, few resettlers took advantage, as the following year the Manzanar Free Press reported that there were hundreds of job offers still available). The Rev. Showshu Sakow became the leader of an Issei Buddhist congregation. One newlywed Nisei couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sadao Baishiki, who resettled in Buffalo in mid-1944, received the surprise of their lives when they reported to the WRA. Upon getting off the elevator at the resettlement office, they were met by Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been visiting another office in the same building. The First Lady greeted them with outstretched hand and said, “I’m so glad to see you,” before entering the elevator and heading off.

Rochester also became home to a number of Japanese Americans. Thanks to the efforts of an interfaith church group, the Committee on the Resettlement of Japanese Americans, the city was singled out for praise in the pages of the Minidoka Irrigator for the “warm welcome” it offered resettlers. Yoshio Sato, who had received his master’s degree in chemistry from University of Oregon before the war, enrolled as a doctoral student and teaching assistant at the University of Rochester, and he received his doctorate there in chemistry in 1947. Three Nisei women, Mary Marutani, Fumi Yosaki and France Yoge, were enrolled as student nurses at the city’s General Hospital.

In April 1944, the WRA opened up an additional upstate relocation office in Rochester. WRA staffer Miwako Yanamoto, who had herself resettled from Poston, Ariz. to New York, was transferred to help run the new office, but left soon after to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps. Newcomers found employment in fields ranging from nursing to dairy farming. Harry Yasuda, a linotypist who had been confined at Topaz (Central Utah), was able to find housing in Rochester at the Brick Church Institute’s dormitory, and was hired by the Ledger Printing & Publishing Company, with union membership granted to him.

Scattered Japanese Americans in small upstate towns gained attention. A young Nisei, Coolidge Shiro Wakai, graduated from Central High School in Tully, N.Y. in 1943 before enlisting in the Army and becoming a physician in the postwar years. The Ikeda family, who resettled from Minidoka, Idaho, to the little town of Bedford Hills in Westchester County, attracted positive attention. Henry Ikeda was elected president of his class at Bedford Hills High School in 1945. His sister Betty was selected as drum major for the town’s Memorial Day parade. Perhaps the most intriguing Nikkei migrants to upstate New York in their period were Minosuke and Tomi Noguchi. During the pre-war years they had raised five daughters, all of whom graduated from college and went on to productive careers. In 1948, after spending 42 years living in Colorado, they moved to Millbrook (Dutchess County) and lived with their daughter Sugi Noguchi, a doctor.

Nikkei Not Welcome in Albany
Not all the wartime experiences of Japanese American New Yorkers were entirely positive. In June of 1942, Toro Matsumoto’s Victory Garden, housed within a larger garden plot in Larchmont, was trampled and destroyed by vandals — after the incident was publicized in national media, a group of townspeople sponsored campaigns to reconstruct it.

In April of 1945, the local resettlement committee in Buffalo reported that when a resettler, Mr. Mihara, wished to purchase the rooming house in which he was a tenant from its white owner, he encountered perceptible racial hostility from locals. Rep. Edward Elsasser wrote to the WRA to ask that Mihara forego such a purchase.

Shortly after, when WRA officials inquired about resettlement possibilities in the state capital of Albany, Gerda Bowman, an officer of New York’s State War Council, reported, “I am afraid I shall have to report that Albany as a whole, would probably be cold to any Japanese who tried to settle here.” Despite the warning, some Japanese Americans did settle in Albany, notably the family of Lydia Monotoya, who told stories of her childhood in postwar Albany in her memoir “Talking to High Monks in the Snow.”

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 a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See the 2024 CAAMFest