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Enduring Communities

The Nikkei in New Mexico

New Mexicans were celebrating their racial and cultural diversity long before most other Americans. Often described as a “tri-cultural society,” comprised of Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos, the New Mexico mosaic is actually much more complex. This part of the Southwest is the ancestral homeland of a variety of Indian people, including the Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and Comanche. Over four hundred years ago, it became the northern frontier of Spain’s vast empire, settled by people already representing Spanish, Indian, African, and mixed bloodlines. The “conquest” of the Southwest by the Americans in the 1800s brought new multitudes to the military forts, supply stations, railroads, mines, boomtowns, ranches, and homesteads of the territory. The majority were “Anglos” (tracing roots back to various parts of Europe), but many African Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans also came to explore opportunities. This great mixing of humanity certainly spawned some epic conflicts, from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 through the wars against the Navajo and Apache in the late 1800s. On the whole, however, New Mexico has earned its reputation as a place where diversity rules and racists fair poorly.

This famed landscape provides a unique backdrop for studying Japanese Americans in the West. On the surface at least, the Japanese Americans, or the Nikkei, seemed to gain little ground in New Mexico up through World War II. Few came to settle here, and no more than 300 Nikkei were counted by census-takers between1900 and 1950. Despite that, New Mexico joined other states in passing an alien land law and supporting anti-Japanese immigration restrictions in the 1920s. During World War II, New Mexico played host to two major Japanese internment camps—adding to a fairly bleak overview. That said, the low settlement figures closely resemble those of Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, and Texas. If prejudice had its effects, it seems that no sizable anti-Japanese movement ever existed here. And, as for New Mexico’s reactions to the World-War-II “Japanese question,” it was decidedly mixed—molded in part by New Mexican influences but largely by federal intervention.

Japanese immigrants, the Issei, were slow to discover New Mexico. The 1900 US Census counted only eight, but the figure increased to 250 by 1910. Lured mainly by coal-mining jobs, hundreds of Issei undoubtedly passed through New Mexico in that decade. Most worked in the mines around Gallup, Madrid, and Raton. Other Japanese contract workers harvested sugar beets in some of the valleys north of Santa Fe. These crews of recent immigrants came via Japanese labor contractors based elsewhere but were supervised locally by a Japanese “boss,” like Masatomo Nakanishi (who reportedly managed 300 Japanese coal miners in the Albuquerque-Madrid region in these early days).

Through the second decade, some found permanent work in the mines and on the railroads of New Mexico, and a few Japanese moved into farming. A handful of Japanese women also arrived, becoming the cornerstones of small, family-based communities that dotted the map by 1920. These pioneer couples gave birth to a second, Nisei generation that would soon outnumber the Issei in New Mexico.

Powerful forces worked against Japanese settlers of the West, as explained elsewhere. Federal immigration laws and the alien land laws in particular stifled ambitions in New Mexico. The earliest rumblings of these California-centered exclusion campaigns were not felt in the territory struggling toward statehood in 1912 (though the “sister state” of Arizona passed its first land law a year later.) New Mexico would join the pack in 1921 when the state legislature amended the Constitution to bar “alien” (meaning Japanese) individuals or partnerships from acquiring “title, leasehold, or other interest in or to real estate in New Mexico.” Republican Governor Merritt C. Mechem received a mass of anti-Japanese propaganda and instruction from the editor of the Sacramento Bee , V. S. McClatchy, and pushed his lawmakers to act. New Mexican voters approved the amendment, but how much “homegrown” anti-Japanese sentiment that action involved is unknown.

Only a few Japanese families had acquired New Mexico farmland prior to 1920. Between lands being tied up in old Spanish/Mexican land grants and Indian reservations, homesteading restrictions, and the marginal condition of available lands, it is little wonder. A dozen or so Japanese farmers did help to pioneer agriculture in the still under-developed Mesilla and Las Cruces districts. They arrived in the late teens to plant traditional crops like wheat, corn, beans, and sugar beets. Tenacious and experimental, they soon began growing various “truck crops,” like cantaloupes, onions, cabbage, peas, and tomatoes. The Tashiro and Nakayama families built thriving operations that survived a general exodus during the Great Depression and expanded well into the 1950s. One Nisei of the clan, Roy M. Nakayama, earned a doctorate in agricultural science, taught and did field work for New Mexico State University, and developed the “NuMex Big Jim” variety of green chile—not to mention the Nakayama Scale that measures the hotness of chile. A few others, like the Togami, Yonemoto, Ebina, and Mizunuma families, migrated into New Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s to lease land and farm around Bluewater, Grants, and Albuquerque.

In the prewar decades, however, railroad work sustained more Nikkei families than farming, which was unusual. The Santa Fe Railway alone employed scores of Japanese trackmen and craft workers in its repair shops. Western railroads also favored Japanese section foremen to supervise track maintenance crews of mixed ethnicity in this period.

World War II threatened to erase these modest inroads made by the Japanese in New Mexico. Most vulnerable were the railroad workers and families living on or near the nation’s vital transportation/communication systems. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Department of Justice sent confused signals as to whether Japanese nationals could continue working. The Santa Fe Railway and some other railroads pulled Japanese employees off their jobs within days and ultimately terminated and “excluded” them from company homes and property.

This development caused extreme hardships for a significant number of Japanese New Mexicans. The worst effects were felt in Clovis, where about thirty Japanese Americans lived under house arrest for a month before being “evacuated” from Clovis to an abandoned and isolated Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Lincoln County. Local factors, such as physical and cultural isolation, resentment over seniority rights, and Clovis’s proximity to “Little Texas” (at the eastern and southern fringes of the state), contributed to this tragedy.

Elsewhere, however, the state’s trademark toleration seemed to rule. The Japanese families of Gallup received especially kind treatment from local residents and officials, who reportedly banned together and signed a petition to resist any efforts to intern the local Japanese. Incredibly, Gallup High School students elected two Nisei students as senior class presidents during the war. Most eligible Nisei sons of the state, in turn, served with the famed 442 Regimental Combat Team. By luck or design, that devastating line of exclusion that wrecked so many lives on the West Coast and in Arizona stopped abruptly at the New Mexico border. Still, between lost railroad wages, confiscated “contraband” property, and assorted restrictions, the Nikkei of New Mexico suffered considerable problems.

Newspapers and other period documents also testify to some increased anti-Japanese wartime sentiment. A great many New Mexicans, stationed in the Philippines, suffered through the Bataan Death March and years of abuse in Japanese prison camps, which generated misplaced fears, anger, and frustration that lingered. Racial hatred also surfaced over a plan to establish farming colonies in New Mexico for tens of thousands of Japanese Americans being forcibly expelled from the West Coast. The plan failed, but federal authorities did build two large internment camps in New Mexico on the outskirts of Santa Fe and Lordsburg.

Unlike the larger mass relocation camps, the official internment camps were creations of the Department of Justice, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Army. Roughly 800 Issei “enemy aliens,” arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other authorities during the early part of the war, arrived at the Santa Fe camp by May of 1942, and this INS-administered facility housed close to 1,900 by the following summer. The Lordsburg camp held about 600 internees by then, guarded by Military Police units of the Army. The prisoners held in Santa Fe and Lordsburg represented the economic, intellectual, and creative elite of the Japanese American community—businessmen, writers, editors, artists, teachers, former military officers, and community leaders.

The government treated the internees like prisoners of war and basically ran the camps by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Living conditions were crude, but relatively few problems occurred. The history of the Lordsburg camp was punctuated, however, by the shooting death of two weak and aged Issei in 1942, said to be trying to escape, and a brief riot disrupted camp operations in Santa Fe for a time in 1945. The latter situation stemmed from the importation of over 350 men who had been identified as “troublemakers” and removed from the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California. A handful of Kibei in the group (American-born Nisei educated in Japan) began to intimidate some of the peaceful Issei internees and engage in pro-Japan activities, prompting a minor revolt and a crackdown by authorities. These men and others from various camps identified as troublemakers were subsequently sent either to Lordsburg or to another segregation facility, known as “the stinker camp,” located at Fort Stanton in Lincoln County.

Grand federal decisions like the ones to “dismiss” Nikkei railroaders and to place internment camps in New Mexico magnify this state’s role in a larger narrative. The Bataan saga and the building of the atomic bombs here created other uncomfortable links between New Mexico and Japan through 1945. Conversely, the modest increase in the “free” Japanese American population of New Mexico during and just after the war points to the other side of a complex legacy.

From the 1940s to the present, Japanese Americans have made additional contributions to the fabled, multicultural landscape of New Mexico. Noteworthy individuals made an impact in the areas of agriculture and education, art and architecture, military service and civic affairs. Some testimonies to this include: Nakayama’s beloved Big Jim Chile; the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu designed by famed architect and woodworker George Nakashima, and the Miyamura Veterans Park and the I-40 Overpass in Gallup named after Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura—recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for feats of bravery during the Korean War. It is also reflected in the work of postwar “newcomers” like Satoye “Ruth” Hashimoto, who settled here in the early 1950s. Among other honors stemming from her work on behalf of the United Nations Association, the United Nations Children’s Fund, Sister Cities International, and Japanese American Redress, Hashimoto was invited to the White House for the signing of the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 1988. She has since received the Living Treasure of New Mexico Award, the Woman of the 20th Century Award, the Japanese Emperor’s Medal, and induction into the New Mexico Women’s Hall of Fame.

The positive side of the legacy is also reflected in a wide variety of Japanese American clubs, businesses, and annual celebrations that endure in this “land of enchantment.” While it has remained rather small in membership, the Albuquerque-based New Mexico chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League dates back to 1946 and hosts the annual Aki Matsuri Celebration. Links between the Sister Cities of Albuquerque and Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, were forged in 1966 and remain strong. Numerous Japanese restaurants can be found in the larger cities, as well as clubs dedicated to teaching and preserving Japanese martial arts, bonsai and flower arranging, and taiko drumming. Albuquerque is home to the Kyokai Buddhist Community association, and several Zen centers dot the state map as well. These are rather amazing reflections of cultural persistence, given that the 2000 census counted only 1,593 Japanese Americans in New Mexico.

Another benchmark was achieved in 2006 when New Mexicans voted to amend the state’s constitution and remove the obsolete anti-Japanese land law. As we celebrate this achievement, we should also ask why New Mexico lagged so far behind other states in taking this step (and why the same ballot question failed just a few elections back). And we should reflect on the uproar and anti-Japanese sentiments that surfaced in 1999 over plans to establish a modest historical marker near the site of the Santa Fe internment camp.

Like so many ethnic groups, Japanese Americans have become an integral part of the beloved diversity that is New Mexico. But the sum of their experiences reflect a mixed legacy of tolerance and intolerance, successes and setbacks, positive and negative outcomes of World War II, and long-term contributions and accomplishments—none of which have been fully explored or publicized. Indeed, a wide audience can profit from further study into the peculiar history of the Nikkei in New Mexico.

* * * * *

Timeline for Japanese Americans in New Mexico

1900 US Census counts eight Japanese in the New Mexico Territory

1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” greatly reduces Japanese immigration

1910 Census counts 250 Japanese in New Mexico

1912 New Mexico and Arizona gain statehood

1913 California and Arizona pass tough anti-Japanese alien land laws

1915 Number of Japanese women into New Mexico begins to grow

1918 Japanese farmers settle in Dona Ana County

1921 New Mexico adds anti-alien land law amendment to state constitution

1922 Ten Japanese railroaders of Clovis work through major shop strike

1930 Census counts 249 Japanese Americans in New Mexico

1940 Census counts 186 Japanese Americans in New Mexico (72 Issei; 114 Nisei)

1941 Japanese workers dismissed from Santa Fe Railway

1942 Clovis workers and families removed to Baca Ranch camp, Lincoln County
Santa Fe and Lordsburg internment camps established
Western evacuation zone ends at New Mexico border
Two Japanese internees killed at Lordsburg internment camp
News of horrors of Bataan Death March reaches New Mexico

1945 Small “riot” at the Santa Fe internment camp
Atomic bombs built in New Mexico dropped on Japan, ending World War II

1946 New Mexico chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League established

1950 Census counts 251 Japanese Americans in New Mexico

1953 New Mexican Hiroshi H. Miyamura awarded Congressional Medal of Honor

1966 Albuquerque (USA) and Sasebo (Japan) become Sister Cities

1988 President Ronald Reagan signs Civil Liberties (Redress) Act

1989 Satoye “Ruth” Hashimoto inducted into New Mexico Women’s Hall of Fame

1998 Department of Justice extends redress to victims of railroad/mine firings

1999 Opposition surfaces over plan to establish Santa Fe camp historic marker

2000 Census counts 1,593 Japanese Americans in New Mexico

2002 Santa Fe Internment Camp marker placed at Frank S. Ortiz Park

2006 Gallup Veterans Park dedicated to Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura
New Mexico repeals its anti-alien land law


* Andrew B. Russell is one of the panelists in a presentation titled, "Enduring Communities: An Overview of Japanese Americans in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah " at the Enduring Communities National Conference on July 3-6, 2008 in Denver, CO. Enduring Communities is a project of Japanese American National Museum.

© 2008 Andrew B. Russell

About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.