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Enduring Communities

Japanese Americans in the Interior West: A Regional Perspective on the Enduring Nikkei Historical Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah (and Beyond): Part 5

>> Part 4

The Japanese Arizona World War II experience has been assayed by two historians, both working at Arizona universities: Charles Ynfante at Northern Arizona University and Andrew Russell at Arizona State University.  Their work on this topic has in common the fact that both consider it within the context of Arizona’s overall home-front experience during World War II.1   Russell’s article in Arizona Goes to War: The Home Front and the Front Lines during World War II , co-edited by Brad Melton and Dean Smith, is not very compatible with the celebratory tenor of the anthology.  Smith, for example, observes that World War II “brought about amazing changes in Arizona’s economy,” and he suggests that these changes were matched by Arizona’s “improvement in race relations.”  To support his contention, he does not emphasize changes occurring during or immediately after the war, instead focusing on ones that, while catalyzed by the war, did not materialize until later in the postwar period.2  “Even the Japanese Americans,” contends Smith, “[who were] vilified after Pearl Harbor and herded into relocation centers, gained new acceptance after the war as Arizonans increasingly embraced the ideal of cultural diversity.”3   While Russell’s narrative and sidebars are not without some triumphalism, he does not shield readers from the darker aspects of the wartime exclusion and detention experience in Arizona.  Thus, at one point, he writes:

Within a few short weeks [after Pearl Harbor] the climate of tolerance evaporated [in Arizona].  By March of 1942 the southern half of Arizona (including much of Maricopa County) became part of the huge military zone from which all Japanese Americans were to be evacuated.  Military planners at the headquarters of the WDC [Western Defense Command] ultimately drew the exclusion line that cut across Arizona, but Arizona forces probably played a significant role in the shaping of evacuation policy within the state.  Considering the high levels of anti-Japanese antagonism that had surfaced during the Salt River War [in 1934], it is not difficult to imagine that some Arizonans would have jumped at an excuse to finally rid the valley of Japanese farmers.  Governor [Sidney P.] Osborne’s collected papers and state newspapers bear witness to the steady growth of anti-Japanese sentiment in wartime Arizona.4

Russell indicates, too, how the Arizona press barely even paid attention to the U.S. government-sited concentration camps in Arizona for incarcerating Nikkei.5   When newspapers did write about the Japanese they “tended to be negative,” as headlines such as “[Gila] River’s Japs Take 600 Jobs” and “[Officials] Forbid Japs to Leave Camps Lest Hostile Acts Occur” confirm.  Russell also describes specific developments about the Nikkei presence in wartime Arizona that incited negative press coverage.6   Finally, he floats this mordant note:  “Japanese Arizonans can recount few if any pleasant memories of World War II.”7

As for Charles Ynfante’s study of World War II Arizona, it tests historian Gerald Nash’s thesis that the war transformed the western region into a modern economy by applying it to a western state Nash largely neglects in his scholarship―Arizona.8 Additionally, Ynfante explores the wartime experiences of Native Americans, African, Americans, Japanese Americans, and Mexican nationals (but not Mexican Americans) to determine whether Nash is right in judging World War II a watershed for Arizona’s racial-ethnic minorities.  While conceding that Nash is correct in concluding that Arizona experienced a major turning point economically during and after the war, Ynfante enters this caveat:

At the same time, Arizona’s dominant Anglo society was generally racist toward its resident minority groups.  Perhaps Nash should have made further inquiry into the social experiences of this southwestern state before making his optimistic assessment about the war’s impact upon minority groups in western society.  Had he done so, he would have found that Arizona was laggard in improving its own racial relations.  Arizona is as vital a state as any in the western region.  Its experiences deserve exploration that penetrates deeper than Nash’s general assessment. 9

Ynfante’s closing words nicely lend themselves to appropriation and reapplication here.  Directly put, they can be used to support the argument that the Interior West experience of Japanese Americans is as vital as that for any other region of the United States, and that it deserves a much deeper exploration by dedicated students of Nikkei history, society, and culture than it has received to date.

Part 6 >>


1.  See Charles Ynfante, “Arizona during the Second World War, 1941-1945: A Survey of Selected Topics” (PhD diss., Northern Arizona University, 1997), later revised and published as The Transformation of Arizona into a Modern State: The Contribution of War to the Modernization Process (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen Books, 2002); and Andrew B. Russell, “Arizona Divided,” in Brad Melton and Dean Smith, eds., Arizona Goes to War: The Home Front and the Front Lines during World War II (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), pp. 38-55.

2.  Smith cites, for example, a desire by Native Americans to “broaden their horizons” and the breakdown of segregation for African Americans and Mexican Americans (along with Raul Castro’s 1974 gubernatorial election).  In 1962, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), which five years earlier Congress had established “to document disparities in the rights, laws, and social experiences of those deprived of rights and legal recourse as a result of race, color, religion, or national origin,” made Phoenix its first urban metropolis study site, “because of its tremendous growth, the diversity of its minority groups, and because it is a city where there are few, if any, antidiscrimination laws, and where progress in the realization of civil rights has reportedly been made.”  However, after hearings held in Phoenix, the USCCR discovered that Arizona’s largest city, whose population had exploded from 65,000 to 440,000 between 1940 and 1960, and contained a modest “Oriental” and “Indian” population, a substantial number of “Negroes,” and a large, rapidly growing “Mexican American” community, had as late as the 1950s segregated schools, theaters, and even many restaurants―sometimes with the force of law.  See Tom I. Romero, “Of Race and Rights: Legal Culture, Social Change, and the Making of a Multicultural Metropolis, Denver 1940-1975” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2004), pp. 253-55, which compares the findings of the USCCR in Denver with those in other western urban centers such as Phoenix. 

3.  Dean Smith, “Conclusion,” in Melton and Smith, Arizona Goes to War , 178-79.

4.  Russell, “Arizona Divided,” pp. 44, 46.

5.  Arizona’s detention facilities included Mayer Assembly Center, Poston and Gila River Relocation Centers, Leupp Isolation Center, and Catalina Federal Honor Camp, which collectively imprisoned upward of 35,000 Nikkei, far more than in any other Interior West state during World War II.

6.  Specific developments mentioned by Russell include the following: when a profit-making cooperative at the Gila River camp was established in 1942; when the War Relocation Authority [WRA] instituted a policy allowing those behind barbed wires to accept temporary jobs or long-term employment outside the military zone (especially in the Intermountain states); when, in mid-summer 1943, “a team of army investigators from WDC had to travel to Phoenix . . . because some Arizonans had blamed ‘Japanese sabotage’ for fires that consumed two produce-packing sheds”; and when, in 1944, the federal government lifted West Coast exclusion orders and announced the imminent closing of the WRA camps, thereby causing “renewed concerns that the camp populations might try to settle in Arizona.”

7.  Ibid., 53-55.

8.  See Gerald D. Nash, World War II and the West: Reshaping the Economy (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1988) and The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1985).

9.  Ynfante, “Arizona during the Second World War,” p. 317; for Ynfante’s evaluation of the Japanese American experience in World War II Arizona, see Chapter 8, pp. 208-39, in which he baldly states that “the legacy of Japanese internment is deplorable” (p. 232).

© 2009 Arthur A. Hansen

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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.