People who were allowed to remain on the West Coast during the mass incarceration

In the course of researching the life of Kenji Inomata, a retired Issei naval veteran who was protected by his old Naval superiors from removal under Executive Order 9066, I was moved to reflect on the various people who were allowed to remain on the West Coast throughout World War II, despite the military’s exclusion orders and the determination of Western Defense Command Chief of Staff Col. Karl Bendetsen that anyone with “one drop of Japanese blood” should be incarcerated. (These cases are distinct from the people who attempted to stay behind without permission from the authorities, whose stories deserve their own column.)

The small numbers of people whom the government exempted from mass removal fall into different categories. First, there were those who avoided forced removal from the West Coast because they were already confined, whether in hospitals or in prison. This category includes, for example, the group of 175 Issei and Nisei, such as the artist and actor Edo Mita, who were undergoing treatment for tuberculosis and whom the authorities decided were too sick to be removed to camp. Instead, they were sent to institutions such as the Hillcrest Sanitarium in La Crescenta, Calif. and the Maryknoll Sanitarium in Monrovia, Calif., which were each guarded by armed sentries.

Conversely, among those in prisons were the early Nisei novelist and aviator Kay Karl Endow (aka Karl S. Nakagawa), who was serving a sentence in the California State Prison at Folsom for check fraud at the time of mass removal. Endow completed his sentence in early 1944. He left California and traveled to the Amache camp in Colorado to spend a few days as a guest with his family, who had been confined there, then relocated to New York, where he died a few years later.

There were also a handful of hapa Japanese Americans who managed to remain on the Pacific Coast without interference by the authorities. There are several explanations as to why some hapas avoided incarceration. One possible reason is that their non-Asian appearance and non-Japanese names made it possible for them to pass unnoticed. These included members of the Thomson and Ohnick clans. The Ohnicks, whose father Hatchero Ohnick (born Onuki) had been a pioneering banker and executive, boasted several family members on the West Coast. These included Helen Ohnick, who had once toured in a vaudeville act with her sister Marion, but who was working in 1942 for an insurance firm in Los Angeles. Another West Coaster was Helen’s niece Barbara Ohnick, who attended University of Washington during the war and later became a well-known lawyer in Seattle.
Others who remained on the Pacific Coast included the six Thomson siblings. Born in Japan of a British father and a Japanese mother, the Thomson family immigrated to the United States in 1919. By the time of the war, the six children had all reached adulthood. None of those living on the West Coast faced official action from the Army. In fact, William Taro Thomson, who faced job discrimination in New York after Pearl Harbor because of his Japanese ancestry, was hired for war work by California Institute of Technology in 1943 and moved to Pasadena, Calif., ignoring the exclusion regulations. As William Tyrell Thomson, he would later achieve renown as an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Another rare exception was the once-renowned German-Japanese critic and litterateur Sadakichi Hartmann. By then aged and ill, Hartmann was allowed to remain on his daughter’s ranch in the rural city of Banning, Calif. after 1942, but was visited and watched by the FBI. Eventually he passed away in 1944 while visiting another daughter in Florida.

Another category was primarily composed of Nisei women who were married to white American men. In the aftermath of Executive Order 9066, the Army drafted a policy designed to cover wives in mixed marriages. According to this policy, which drew on a tortured mix of gender and sociological stereotypes and was hastily put together and haphazardly applied, ethnic Japanese women (but not men) who were married to non-Japanese spouses could be exempted from removal, as could their minor-aged mixed-race children. While in theory, women who were married to nonwhite men from “friendly” countries could also apply for exemption, it is not clear that any such were ever granted. On the contrary, there are numerous documented stories of Chinese-Japanese and Filipino-Japanese couples who were split by the wartime orders, with the Japanese wife in each case going alone to camp. The racist and sexist nature of the military policy, as well as its cruelty, were apparent in the fact that such exemptions were granted on a case-by-case basis, depending on the ethnic Japanese partner’s overall level of “Americanization” (that is, their assimilation to their inspector’s own conception of white American norms). These biases were also evident in the section of the exemption plan that provided that, should any ethnic Japanese woman divorce her husband or be widowed, she would then become immediately subject to removal. (I am unaware of this provision ever being actually applied.)

There were a few cases where people did not request official military exemption, but were left undisturbed nonetheless. The actress Lotus Long (born Pearl Shibata), a biracial Nisei who had spent her career in prewar Hollywood portraying Chinese, Inuit and other “exotic” roles (and who was widely believed to be Chinese) remained in Los Angeles throughout the war, living at home with her white Canadian husband William James Knott. The fact that Long remained absent from the screen during the exclusion period leads to the inference that either the studios refused to hire her or that she preferred to keep a low profile. (Lotus Long would return to the studios in fall 1945, when she was hired to portray Tokyo Rose in the film of the same name.)

Another exceptional case was that of Ronald M. Hirano, a deaf Nisei boy. In spring of 1942, when the Hirano family faced removal from the West Coast, Hirano’s parents made the painful decision to leave 9-year-old Ronald behind, knowing that there would be limited facilities for him in camp. Instead, Hirano’s parents sent him to live with Delight Rice, a hearing woman who had deaf parents. She housed the boy and served as his legal guardian during the war years. While living with her in Berkeley, Calif., young Hirano had the opportunity to learn American Sign Language. The FBI granted the boy a special permit, the size of a driver’s license, which he carried around in his wallet, and came around periodically to check up on him. As he recalled in 2015, “The FBI would come visit me every month or two and question me. I was ten years old, and they’d ask me all these questions. I was innocent! Ah, whatever.”

In sum, cases of exemption were few and far between, as the exclusion order was implemented with horrifying literalness and efficiency, with military authorities visiting orphanages to remove children who might have Japanese ancestry. Even the Japanese American students and teachers in the language school of the Military Intelligence Service, who were Americans of undoubted loyalty doing confidential work for national defense, were forced to leave their headquarters at the Presidio in the mid-1942 and move inland to Minnesota. Nevertheless, the stories of those who were able to remain suggests the variability of real-life conditions when applied to such a diverse group as Japanese Americans.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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