From the Archive

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Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

September 2008 - Inland Enterprise: Japanese Americans in Colorado and Utah

Small business in Ogden, Utah, 1920. (from denshopd-p162-00047)

This summer Densho staff traveled to Denver and Salt Lake City to capture the stories of Japanese Americans from these lesser known, yet historically relevant, communities. One of the more compelling themes that emerged from the interviews was how Japanese Americans made a living in areas away from the West Coast, where Nikkei often relied on large networks of fellow immigrants to sustain their livelihood. While urban Japantowns and rural communities certainly existed, and even thrived, in Colorado and Utah, Japanese American enterprise differed significantly inland. Farmers, professionals and small business owners all faced unique challenges and opportunities because of their geographic location.

The narrators whose families came to Colorado or Utah before the war told us their parents migrated inland to pursue financial opportunities outside the West Coast centers of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many of these Japanese Americans journeyed east by working in railroad or mining camps, slowly making their way across the country. Frank Konishi's grandfather, who left the Southwest for economic reasons, walked to Fort Lupton, Colorado, selling sembei to Japanese workers along the way.

Japanese Americans established Japantowns in cities around Utah and Colorado, opening shops, restaurants and small businesses. Like their West Coast peers, these entrepreneurs faced discrimination, organized protest and even anti-Japanese violence. Yet, Japanese Americans living inland often benefited from the lack of competition in their professions that existed in cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles. Jun Kurumada, a Utah native who attended the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to remain in the Bay Area to open a dental practice. He decided to return to Salt Lake City after seeing the heavy competition and poor conditions that many Japanese American dentists endured in San Francisco.

During World War II, Denver and Salt Lake City became popular destinations for Japanese Americans leaving the camps. Both cities were located near the West Coast and already had sizeable prewar Japanese American communities. Colorado, in particular, saw a major increase in its Japanese American population due to Governor Ralph Carr's liberal stance on resettlement. He famously welcomed Japanese Americans into his state, prompting a substantial migration of Nikkei from all ten WRA camps. While many of these people found jobs in Denver's Japantown, others settled in rural areas, joining existing Japanese Americans, Italians and even German POWs on farms around the state.

This influx of Japanese Americans into Denver had a dramatic impact on Japantown. New businesses and restaurants opened during this time to serve the burgeoning Japanese American population, which jumped from 323 in 1940 to approximately 5,000 in 1945. Factories also emerged to fill the demand for Japanese food and products. With shipments from Japan unavailable during the war, Japanese American business owners developed ingenious methods of producing Japanese food - umeboshi made from apricots, nori using California seaweed. Due to housing segregation, these factories, and the young men and women who staffed them, clustered in one geographic area, making Denver's Japantown the "unofficial Japanese capital of the United States."

The migration of Japanese Americans from the camps also boosted demand for Japanese food and products in Salt Lake City. Like Denver, the Japanese American population in Salt Lake City peaked during the war. Grace Oshita resettled to Salt Lake City with her mother and father from Topaz incarceration camp. Her family had operated a successful miso factory in San Francisco. They decided to re-open the Fujimoto Company in Salt Lake City to serve the growing Japanese American community. After the war, as Japanese Americans began to return to the coast and demand for miso diminished, they changed their business model to include shipping their product to cities in the Midwest and East Coast. They were able to succeed financially because of the access to these new markets.

As restrictions lifted on the West Coast, Japanese Americans left Colorado and Utah in great numbers. In Colorado alone, the Japanese American population dropped from 11,700 in 1945 to 5,412 in 1950. Yet, a small group of Japanese Americans decided to remain, finding hardship and success in their new surroundings. Bob Sakata, whose family operated a 10-acre farm in Northern California before the war, struggled to grow crops in the harsh Colorado climate. He adjusted the growing methods and types of crops to accommodate the weather and was able to turn Sakata Farms into one of the largest produce growers in the country.

Japanese Americans in Colorado and Utah have a long and significant history. Those who moved inland established lives and communities under circumstances that differed considerably from their West Coast counterparts. The ways in which Japanese Americans made a living in these areas illuminates an important part of our community history. Often overlooked, these stories remind us of the true diversity of the Japanese American experience.

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