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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 6

>> Part 5

This essay has thus far examined how scholars from varying disciplines have, in recent years, supported a deeper exploration of the Interior West Nikkei experience from pioneering days through World War II. Let us now briefly explore recent scholarship pertaining to the post-World War II experience of Interior West Nikkei. A strategic starting point is a 2006 study done by Joel Tadao Miyasaki.1 The larger and direct concern of Miyasaki—who describes himself as “the son of a Japanese American father and a white mother”—is Nikkei identity in Utah and Idaho during the World War II exclusion and detention experience of Japanese Americans (and, indirectly, for Nikkei generally in the period since World War II).2

Miyasaki’s study has a three-part theoretical base: first, it draws on a concept from sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, that “historical circumstances influence the process of ‘racialization,’ the creation of racial identity [and that] this identity in turn affects the way that historical actors live and make decisions within any particular moment in time”3; second, it explores the idea from historian George Sánchez, “that cultural adaptation affects identity [which] occurs when ethnic groups encounter the dominating influence of white society”4; and third, it examines the concept, put forth by historian Lisbeth Haas, that “history occurs both in time and space [and] power relationships [are] formed by different groups as they enter a particular space and attempt to manipulate that space for their own purposes.”5

Miyasaki uses this conceptual framework to illuminate the World War II story of the “small, but influential” and “largely ignored” Japanese American population in Utah and Idaho, who “found themselves dispersed inside a largely white, Mormon population.” He then concludes that, in general, “these regional circumstances created a much different communal identity” from that constructed by West Coast Nikkei, and in particular, that the relative “freedom” Interior West Japanese Americans had during World War II (together with the wartime prejudice in their region) “created a discourse of self-preservation among Utah’s and Idaho’s Nikkei [and] the spirit of survival found its way into the JACL’s [Japanese American Citizens League] wartime policies and [thereby] consequently affected the United States’ larger Japanese American population in real and tragic ways.”6

Miyasaki argues that not only have scholars showed a preoccupation with World War II politics and prejudice, but also that traditional Japanese American historical scholarship has been “California-centric.” As a result, the wartime experience of Utah and Idaho—Interior West states in the “Free Zone”—has been woefully slighted. Still, recent work on the Nikkei experience, especially that stimulated by oral history interviewing, has placed a premium on first-person perspectives; this work has provided Japanese Americans in the Interior West a chance to examine “how they participated in the creation and absorption of culture.” This, in turn, has allowed studies like “Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West” to at long last “find a home and [gain] a sense of importance.”7

The heart of Miyasaki’s study is its fourth chapter, entitled “A Discourse of Survival.” Therein, Miyasaki maintains that the two Utah-based Japanese vernacular newspapers—the Utah Nippo and the Pacific Citizen—progressively sounded a chauvinistic message reflecting a “discourse of good citizenship.” (The Utah Nippo had an English-language section edited by Mike Masaoka, a Mormon convert; just before the outbreak of World War II he became national secretary and field executive for the Japanese American Citizens League, the organization recognized by the U.S. government as the Nikkei community’s “voice.” The Pacific Citizen was the JACL’s newspaper, and during the war it relocated, along with the organization’s national leadership, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.) Convinced that for Nikkei to “survive” in Utah and Idaho they needed, at all costs, to preserve the American way of life, Sunao Ishio—Masaoka’s successor as Utah Nippo ’s English-language section successor—trumpeted this uncritical patriotic anthem on October 8, 1941: “Let there not be found within the Japanese American Community one to criticize the course set by the people of the United States.”8

Ishio’s verbal flag-waving, as Miyawaki explains, foreshadowed “the policy the JACL and its allies would use in the months and years after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.”9 Moreover, because the national JACL increasingly relied on those chapters constituting the organization’s newly organized Intermountain District Council10 (which just weeks before Pearl Harbor held its second annual convention in Pocatello, Idaho, with the theme of “Thank God I am an American”)11 for membership and funding support during the war, the “local” survival discourse of militant Americanism increasingly reverberated in the public philosophy espoused by national JACL leaders and within the pages of both the Utah Nippo and the Pacific Citizen.

These two newspapers, along with two Denver-based vernaculars, the Colorado Times [Kakushu Jiji] and the Rocky Shimpo [Rocky Jiho], were all “authorized” by the U.S. government to serve as the “free” Japanese American wartime press, and they substantially enlarged their print runs to serve the expanded Nikkei readership within the concentration camp and resettlement populations. Responding to government subsidization (and a fear of being forced by the government to suspend operations), the Utah Nippo and Colorado Times English-language sections intensified their prewar editorial policy espousing a muscular Americanism, and in so doing they complemented—and, arguably, deepened—the all-English Pacific Citizen’s nationalistic message and tone.12

As interpreted by Miyawaki, the content and tenor of both the JACL and the vernacular press led to Japanese Americans feeling as if they had to fit into American society in a nonthreatening way: they had to work harder than whites, maintain low profiles, fully support government actions, personify the idea of “blood assimilation” through risking and even losing their lives on the battlegrounds of America’s wars, and privilege “playing American” over protecting civil liberties and individual rights.13 According to an influential theory postulated by historian Gary Okihiro, this situation represents a quintessential example whereby the mainstream (in this case, the national Japanese American community) was transformed through the ideas and actions occurring on one of its margins (in this instance, the regional Nikkei community of the Intermountain West).14

In his study of World War II Nevada, Andrew Russell contends that “few scholars have looked east of California at Japanese-American life, history and wartime experiences outside the camps.”15 He suggests that this neglect of the Interior West states, where some 12,000 to 14,000 Japanese Americans (one-tenth of the pre-World War II Nikkei population) lived prior to and just after Pearl Harbor, “represents a large gap in history.” In his opinion, this gap represents a serious problem, not simply because “historical significance of a group is not determined strictly by its size,” but also because information about the general Japanese American experience provides a master “mainstream” narrative to which are bound the stories and struggles of the “marginal” Interior West region. Russell reveals his indebtedness to Okihiro’s work in the observation that if “great lessons for mainstream America have emerged from the study of how Japanese Americans were victimized and how they protested these transgressions of justice during and after the war,” so too can “the images and experiences of Japanese Americans that emerged and evolved beyond the West Coast and the barbed-wire parameters of the camps . . . shed additional light on experiences of the ethnic mainstream, on the attitudes and actions of the larger American mainstream, and, most importantly, on the historic margins and mainstreams of interior states like Nevada.”16 Thus, a searching examination of both “the historic margins and mainstreams” is crucial to achieve the broadest and deepest understanding of the Japanese American experience.

In order for scholarship to continue in this area, the present wealth of studies pertaining to the mainstream Japanese American experience before, during, and after World War II must be supplemented by a proliferation of published— and thus readily accessible—work centering on the Interior West Nikkei experience. While a good start has been made by the appearance in print of some of the books and articles referred to in this essay,17 a next step must be to convert a selected number of currently unpublished book-length manuscripts cited in this essay.18 Readers are encouraged to go beyond the select secondary sources cited in this essay to explore some of those not mentioned but nonetheless pertinent and readily obtainable,19 along with the abundant (if more ephemeral) virtual sources available on the Internet.20 Before proceeding down this path of inquiry, you are invited—and strongly encouraged—to read the contents and ponder the meanings of the luminous five essays that follow this one: each has a unique perspective on the enduring communities created by Japanese Americans in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.21


1. See Joel Tadao Miyasaki, “Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West: Japanese American Ethnic Identity in Utah and Idaho” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 2006.

2. Miyasaki’s specific interest is with the area extending southward from Rexburg in southeastern Idaho to Price in northern Utah.

3. See Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).

4. See George Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angele, 1900-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

5. See Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995).

For Miyasaki’s articulation of his study’s tripartite theoretical base, see “Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West,” pp. 1-3.

6. Ibid., iii-iv.

7. Ibid., 4.

8. Ibid., pp. 68-69. The gold standard for the articulation of the JACL’s discourse of citizenship was achieved the previous year by Mike Masaoka in his widely circulated “Japanese-American Creed” (for this creed, see ibid., p. 67). By way of prefacing it, Miyasaki notes that Masaoka’s creed “represents his feelings as an intermountain Nisei” and characterizes it as “the first written manifestation of the policies the JACL supported during World War II.” Miyawaki alludes to precursors to this brand of nationalistic boosterism in Utah, such as the Rei Nei Magazine ; this periodical was published in the 1920s in Salt Lake City explicitly to “promote patriotism,” and the existence of an informal Salt Lake City-based organization in the 1930s, the Rei Nei Kwai, that “often found ways to perform . . . patriotic fervor” (ibid., pp. 63-64).

9. Ibid., p. 69.

10. Ibid., p. 89.

11. Ibid., p. 72.

12. For a critical assessment of the Japanese American press during World War II, see Takeya Mizuno, “The Civil Libertarian Press, the Japanese American Press, and Japanese American Mass Evacuation” (PhD diss., University of Missouri, 2000). The situation of the Rocky Shimpo ’s English-language edition, particularly during the January-April 1944 editorship of James Omura, which featured editorial support for the organized Nisei draft resistance at the Heart Mountain concentration camp, was different from these other three papers both in its greater emphasis upon civil liberties and social justice and its independence from and even spirited opposition to the JACL. However, after the U.S. government, encouraged by the JACL leadership, forced Omura out of his editorship and replaced him with JACL stalwart Roy Takeno, the Rocky Shimpo ’s English-language section was in editorial accord with its three Interior West counterparts.

13. See Miyawaki, “Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West,” pp. 71-72, 86, and 89.

14. See Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994).

15. See Russell, “Friends, Neighbors, Foes and Invaders,” pp. 1-4.

16. Ibid., pp. 129-30.

17. Bill Hosokawa, Colorado’s Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present (2005); Masakazu Iwata, Planted in Good Soil: A History of the Issei in United States Agriculture (1992); Mike Mackey, ed., Guilty by Association: Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West (2001); Andrew Russell, “Arizona Divided” (2003); Susie Sato, “Before Pearl Harbor: Early Japanese Settlers in Arizona” (1973); Kumiko Takahara, Off the Fat of the Land: The Denver Post’s Story of the Japanese American Internment during World War II (2003); Eric Walz, “The Issei Community in Maricopa County: Development and Persistence in the Valley of the Sun, 1900-1940” (1997), “From Kumamoto to Idaho: The Influence of Japanese Immigrants on the Agricultural Development of the Interior West” (2000), and “Japanese Settlement in the Intermountain West, 1882-1946” (2001); and Charles Ynfante, The Transformation of Arizona into a Modern State : The Contribution of War to the Modernization Process (2002).

18. Ellen Schoening Aiken, “The United Mine Workers of America Moves West: Race, Working Class Formation, and the Discourse of Cultural Diversity in the Union Pacific Coal Towns of Southern Wyoming, 1870-1930” (2002); Kara Allison Schubert Carroll, “Coming to Grips with America: The Japanese American Experience in the Southwest” (2009); Barbara Hickman, “Japanese Railroad Workers in Wyoming, 1891-1945” (1989); Kara Miyagishima, “Colorado’s Nikkei Pioneers: Japanese Americans in Twentieth Century Colorado” (2007); Joel Tadao Miyasaki, “Claiming a Place in the Intermountain West: Japanese American Ethnic Identity in Utah and Idaho” (2006); Tom I. Romero, Jr., “Of Race and Rights: Legal Culture, Social Change, and the Making of a Multiracial Metropolis, Denver 1940-1975 (2004); Andrew Benjamin Russell, “American Dreams Derailed: Japanese Railroad and Mine Communities of the Interior West” (2003) and “Friends, Neighbors, Foes and Invaders: Conflicting Images and Experiences of Japanese Americans in Wartime Nevada” (1996); Eric Walz, “Japanese Immigration and Community Building in the Interior West, 1812-1945” (1998) and “Masayoshi Fujimoto: Japanese Diarist, Idaho Farmer” (1994); and R. Todd Welker, “Sweet Dreams in Sugar Land: Japanese Farmers, Mexican Farm Workers, and Northern Utah Beet Production” (2002).

19. Since books are much easier to access and use than articles, the references here pertain only to books. Listed by state, they represent but a select sampling of those rendered within an interethnic/multicultural context: (Arizona) Brad Melton and Dean Smith, Arizona Goes to War: The Home Front and the Front Lines during World War II (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003) ; (Colorado) Adam Schrager, The Principled Politician: The Ralph Carr Story (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 2008); (Idaho) Robert Hayashi, Haunted by Waters: A Journey through Race and Place in the American West (Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2007); (New Mexico) Richard Chalfen, Turning Leaves: The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American Families (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press,1991) and Everett M. Rogers and Nancy R. Bartlit, Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2005); (Oklahoma) Juli Ann Nishimuta, The Nishimutas: An Oral History of a Japanese and Spanish Family (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2006); (Texas) Irwin A. Tang, ed., Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives (Austin, TX: The It Works, 2007) and Thomas K. Walls, The Japanese Texans (San Antonio: The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, 1987); and (Utah ) Leslie G. Kelen and Eileen Stone, Missing Stories: An Oral History of Ethnic and Minority Groups in Utah (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2000) and Allan Kent Powell, Utah Remembers World War II (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1991).

20. The following state-by-state entries for websites pertaining to the Interior West Japanese American experience are not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to provide information that is particularly relevant, interesting, reliable, useful, and, when possible, interethnic/multicultural: (Arizona) Naomi Miller, “Racial Identity in Balance,” Chronicle of Higher Education , January 7, 2004, (accessed August 15, 2009); (Colorado); “History of Longmont,” ColoradoInfo , (accessed August 15, 2009), Takeya Mizuno, “Keep and Use It for the Nation’s War Policy: The Office of Facts and Figures and Its Use of the Japanese-Language Press from Pearl Harbor to Mass Internment,” (accessed August 15, 2009), and Takeya Mizuno, “To Suppress or Not to Suppress, That is the Question: Pros and Cons Over the Suppression of the Japanese-Language Press from Pearl Harbor to Mass Evacuation,” (accessed August 15, 2009); (Idaho) Laurie Mercier, “Japanese Americans in the Columbia River Basin,” (accessed August 15, 2009); (Nebraska) Twin Cities Development Association, Inc., “Cultural Diversity [in Southern Panhandle of Nebraska],” (accessed August 15, 2009), and “Sugar Beet Production in Nebraska,” Panhandle Research and Extension Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, (accessed August 15, 2009); (New Mexico) “Albuquerque Ethnic Cultures Survey,” (accessed August 15, 2009), “Japanese Americans – City of Albuquerque,” (accessed August 15, 2009), and Brian Minami, “Justice Camp Remembered in Santa Fe,” April 20, 2002, (accessed August 15, 2009); (Nevada) “Japanese-American Experience,” University of Nevada, Reno, Oral History Program, (accessed August 15, 2009), and Joan Whitely, “Bill Tomiyasu (1882-1969),” Stephens Press, August 15, 2009); (Oklahoma) Dianna Everett, “Asians [in Oklahoma],” Oklahoma Historical Society, Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, (accessed August 15, 2009); (Texas) “The Japanese Texans,” The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio, (accessed August 15, 2009), “Japanese-Texans,” Texas Almanac, (accessed August 15, 2009), and “Texas Since World War II,” The Handbook of Texas Online, (accessed August 15, 2009); (Utah) Helen Zeese Papanikolas, “Peoples of Utah” (updated by Phil Notarianni), Utah History to Go, (accessed August 15, 2009), Raymond S. Uno, “Minority Racial and Ethnic Mix of Utah,” Utah Minority Bar Association, February 2005, (accessed August 15, 2009), Helen Z. Papanikolas and Alice Kasai, “Japanese Life in Utah,” Utah History to Go, (accessed August 15, 2009), Nancy Taniguchi, “Japanese Immigrants in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia, (accessed August 15, 2009), Barre Toelken, “Dancing with the Departed: Japanese Obon in the American West,” (accessed August 15, 2009), and Joel Tadao Miyasaki, “Mike Masaoka and the Mormon Process of Americanization,” The Juvenile Instructor, March 22, 2008, (accessed August 15, 2009); (Wyoming) Western Wyoming Community College, Wyoming History, (accessed August 15, 2009), and Cynde Georgen, “Subjects of the Mikado: The Rise and Fall of Sheridan County’s Japanese Community, 1900-1930, (accessed August 15, 2009).

21. The author would like to extend his profound appreciation to Sherri Schottlaender for her remarkable work in copy-editing the present essay.  The time, energy, and intelligence she invested in this undertaking far exceeded reasonable expectations.  Her efforts not only greatly improved the essay, but also provided the author with an invaluable learning experience. 

Timeline for Japanese Americans in the Interior Westis is available in Nikkei Wiki and PDF format (see attachment in below) >>

© 2009 Arthur A. Hansen

arizona Colorado New Mexico texas utah voluntary resettlement World War II

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.