Exceptions to the Rule: How Caretakers Helped Some Japanese American Families Minimize WWII Property Losses

Japanese Americans subject to forced removal seventy-five years ago suffered tragic losses of property, business assets, family heirlooms, and more. But there were some notable exceptions—cases where non-Japanese Americans stepped in to watch over farms and other property left behind, ensuring their evicted friends and neighbors would have something to return to at the war’s end.

As Natasha Varner wrote in a recent blog post, Japanese Americans forcibly evicted from their homes and businesses seventy-five years ago this spring suffered incalculable losses of property due to the rushed nature of their eviction and the lack of any reliable contingency plan by the government to care for their possessions and properties. All suffered some degree of losses, with many losing nearly everything. Some three-quarters of farmers—most of whom were relegated to leasing rather than owning land due to alien land laws—had no farm to return to when they were finally allowed to return to the West Coast three years later.

But there were exceptions. In some cases, Japanese Americans had non-Japanese American friends, colleagues, or even employees who watched over their possessions for them. Among the notable instances of this is the story of Bob Fletcher, which has seemingly become well-known since his death (at age 101) in 2013. A state and county agricultural inspector, he got to know Japanese American families in the Central Valley and was approached by three families in the Florin area about managing their farms during their forced removal and incarceration. He agreed to do so, running the farms and keeping up the houses, returning them intact to the families and even turning over half of the profits.

In Bainbridge Island, Washington, many Japanese Americans turned their farms over to Filipino American farmworkers to run in their absence, which helped them retain the farms through the war years and also helped the Filipino Americans establish themselves as farmers. This story is told in the 2007 documentary short Island Roots by Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers.

Ilohlio Narte (left, holding an unidentified child) and Felix Narte with Frank Yoshito Kitamoto, holding his daughter Lilly, after a fishing trip in the 1930s. The Nartes worked for the Kitamotos and looked after their farm while they were incarcerated during WWII. The Kitamoto family returned to Bainbridge Island after three years to find that the farm had been well taken care of by these men, and gave them some land in gratitude for all that they had done. Photo courtesy of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.

There are many similar stories of exceptional circumstances, but two other lesser-known cases are particularly interesting.

Writer Mary Oyama Mittwer and her family (her husband Frederick—who was of mixed Japanese-white ancestry—and two children with a third to be born in Heart Mountain) had just built a new house in Los Angeles six months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the call for forced removal came, they faced the same dilemma as other Japanese Americans. They managed to find a renter, an African American couple new to the city. The couple kept up the house and the family was able to return to their home in April 1945.

As she wrote in her column in the Pacific Citizen, “[o]ur friends then drove us immediately to our home where our Negro American friend, Jean, who had been living in our house was clearing away the last of her belongings.” It turned out they were planning to move to New York, so the timing was fortuitous. Continuing the story in Common Ground, Oyama wrote that Jean “greeted us warmly as we walked dazedly toward the living room, which seemed like a golden dream. ‘Don’t stand there, Mary! Sit down! After all, this is your home!'” Furthermore: “There was food and milk in the refrigerator, the cupboards were well-stocked with groceries and staples, and all the utilities—lights, gas, water, telephone—were ready. It was as if we had been away only an afternoon rather than almost three years. We were grateful to our friends.” Oyama concluded, “Homecoming could not have been more efficient or pleasant.”

Even if one takes the upbeat details in Oyama’s account with a grain of salt—she was clearly trying to show other Nisei that conditions on the coast weren’t as bad as was rumored—she nonetheless had a house to return to thanks to good friends and tenants.

What makes the story even more interesting is the identity of the tenants: writer Chester Himes and his first wife Jean Johnson. As Himes wrote in a 1962 letter, Jean had gotten a good job “as codirector of women’s activities for the eighteen USOs of the Los Angeles area.” He writes that they stayed in “a very pleasant little house… out on top of a hill in City Terrace.” Frustrated with the racism of Los Angeles, he wrote a series of articles about race and more in various publications. Also, as he writes in the 1962 letter, “It was there I wrote the first draft of If He Hollers Let Him Go….” Holler, Himes’ first published novel, told the story of an African American war worker and his collision with racism-L.A. style and became a critically acclaimed and influential work. Himes pays a small tribute to the Mittwer family in the book, writing in the voice of protagonist Bob Jones of the impact of witnessing the forced removal of Japanese Americans:

“Maybe it had started then, I’m not sure, or maybe it wasn’t until I’d seen them send the Japanese away that I’d noticed it. Little Riki Oyana singing ‘God Bless Amerca’ and going to Santa Anita with his parents the next day. It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word.” [The eldest of the Mittwer children was named Ricky.]

A very different but equally interesting exception story can be found in the Abiko colonies of Central California. The visionary Issei leader Abiko Kyutaro (1865–1936) had purchased and subdivided land in Livingston, California in 1906—prior to alien land laws—and sold forty-acre plots to other Issei as a means of encouraging permanent settlement. He dubbed the resulting community Yamato Colony. Two similar colonies, Cressey and Cortez, developed nearby. Because of their origins, farmers in each of the colonies enjoyed particularly close ties to each other and were used to cooperative actions.

Yamato Colony families gathered at the Miyahara Farm. Livingston, California, 1916. Photo courtesy of the Merced County Courthouse Museum.

In the chaotic days of early 1942, as Japanese Americans prepared for being forcibly removed from their homes and businesses, leaders of the three Abiko colonies gathered to assess their options. Putting aside rivalries between them, they set up an ambitious joint organization that would manage their members’ farms while they were away. The organization had a three-member board of trustees that was given power of attorney over the Japanese American properties. Hugh Griswold, a local lawyer, headed the board. There was also a five-member advisory council populated by prominent white community members. The board hired Gus A. Momberg to manage the operation of the farms. Momberg had worked for a local bank subsidiary that liquidated repossessed farms during the Depression years and had experience in various aspects of agriculture. Momberg and his staff managed 105 properties from the three colonies. About 20% were actually operated by Momberg; the other 80% were leased to tenants. Every year, Griswold and one of the other board members would travel to Amache, spending days going over financial records with each owner.

Over the next three years, this arrangement continued. When the West Coast opened up in 1945, Momberg, Griswold, and two of the advisors went back to Amache in January to plan for the return. It was agreed that just a couple of influential farmers would go back first, in the spring, to assess conditions and lay the groundwork for the return of others, who would follow later. Though affected by the rampant terrorism that hit California agricultural areas in the first half of 1945, the early returnees held tight, and the rest returned in the fall. Many camped at the local Buddhist church until their tenants’ leases were up, moving back to their farms gradually. While the conditions of the farms and farm houses varied greatly and the ensuing years were difficult, the returnees did have something to return to, making them much more fortunate than the majority of their rural counterparts.

These exceptional cases—no doubt driven by unique conditions not necessarily replicable elsewhere—shouldn’t obscure the greater sufferings of the vast majority of forcibly removed Japanese Americans when it came to lost property and possessions. But it is also a testament to the ingenuity of Japanese Americans like the Abiko colonists and Mittwer, and the kindnesses—even if driven by some degree of self-interest—of their non-Japanese American friends and associates.

By Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director

Sources:

Oyama’s homecoming accounts are available online, in the August 4, 11, and 18, 1945 editions of the Pacific Citizen newspaper that can be retrieved from the Densho Digital Repository and in the Winter 1946 issue of Common Ground, available from the Unz Archive. The October 31, 1962 letter from Himes to John A. Williams can be found in Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters between Chester Himes and John A. Williams, compiled and edited by John A. and Lori Williams with a foreword by Gilbert H. Muller (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008). Other who have written about the Oyama/Himes connection include Valerie Matsumoto, Matthew Briones, Hillary Jenks, and Greg Robinson. The story of the Abiko colonies’ unique wartime arrangement can be found in Valerie Matsumoto’s Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993) and Kesa Noda’s Yamato Colony: 1906-1960 (Livingston, Calif.: Livingston-Merced JACL Chapter, 1981).

[Header photo: Original WRA caption: Woodland, California. Filled with evacuees of Japanese ancestry, the special train is ready to depart from this rich agricultural section for the Merced Assembly Center, 125 miles away. May 20, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.]

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