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Suspicious Points of Contact in Pre-War Chicago

Eizo Yanagi - Part 1


Soon after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began a nationwide campaign to detain “enemy aliens,” conducting home searches and detentions immediately after the outbreak of the war. They also closed places where Japanese people gathered, such as Japanese restaurants and churches.1 In Chicago, eight Japanese art goods stores closed.2 On the night of December 7, four windows at the Japanese-owned gift shop, Oriental Trading Company, were smashed by heavy ball bearings, one of which hit and slightly injured the proprietor’s wife.3 At the same time, Minoru Yasui, a Nisei lawyer who served as secretary to acting consul Kihachiro Ohmori, was busily burning papers and documents at the Japanese Consulate at 435 North Michigan Avenue,4 which was locked and sealed soon thereafter. By December 11, 1941, seven Japanese had been arrested in Chicago.5 Among them were Shoji Osato, Eizo Yanagi6,7 and Kihachiro Ohmori, the acting consul himself.8

Although the population of Japanese and Japanese Americans in Illinois at this time was very small, around 462,9 these people had been watched by the government since long before the outbreak of the war. This surveillance was similar to the scrutiny that people of the same background received on the West Coast, where the Japanese population was much larger and anti-Japanese movements had flourished since the beginning of the 20th century. For example, in 1936, a sightseeing Japanese American couple from Colorado was arrested at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois and questioned by a Department of Justice agent for attempting to obtain pictures considered of value to the Japanese government. They did not know the island was a government arsenal and, impressed with the view, took photographs of the girl with a sailing boat and the wooded arsenal island in the background.10

However, the situation surrounding the detention of Japanese in Chicago greatly differed from the situation on the West Coast. One particular difference, besides the small number of arrests, was that roundup by the FBI continued even into the winter of 1943, two years after the war had broken out. Indeed, by 1943, the US government had already started releasing Japanese and Japanese Americans from the concentration camps who were deemed to be “loyal” after they completed “loyalty” questionnaires in February 1943. Even before that, the first official War Relocation Authority (WRA) resettlers had arrived in Chicago in June 1942.11 Nevertheless, in July of 1943, a 24 year-old known as “Tokyo Jap,” who had come to Chicago in 1940 on a student visa and since then had traveled extensively in the US, was arrested in the Hyde Park neighborhood.12 In December 1943, four more Japanese were arrested, bringing the total number of Japanese seized in Chicago after Dec 7, 1941to fifteen.13 The last four arrested were restauranteurs Masuto Kono and Yasuma Charles Yamasaki, medical doctor Robert Hajime Shiomi, and Buddhist priest Soyu Matsuoka.14

According to the newspaper article, Shiomi and Yamasaki were suspected of being “heavy contributors to the Jap war chest,” by sending money to help Japanese soldiers in China through the Japanese military. Kono was believed to have close ties with the Japanese consulate, and Matsuoka was found with eleven address books containing the names of Japanese all over the United States.15 Why did Japanese continue to be arrested in Chicago at a time when the political tide toward Japanese and Japanese Americans in other parts of the country was changing? Were there any other reasons for arrest, beyond supposed contributions to a “Japanese war chest” and “being in possession of multiple address books?”

Consider the case of Eizo Yanagi, one of the initial seven individuals arrested just after the Pearl Harbor attack. Yanagi was first arrested on December 11, 1941, released on February 9, 1942, and was arrested again on October 28, 1942. For the next four years, Yanagi was transferred every year from camp to camp under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, first from immigration detention quarters in Chicago to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin on November 28, 1942, then from Wisconsin to Fort Missoula in Montana in the spring of 1943, then from Montana to the Kooskia Camp in Idaho on February 1, 1944, and then from Idaho to the Santa Fe Camp in New Mexico in March of 1945. After the war was over, he was finally released on March 11, 1946 and returned to Chicago.16 What made him so persistently “dangerous” and “suspicious” in the eyes of the US government?

A clue to answering this question can be found in Chicago Nikkei-jin Shi (A History of the Chicago Japanese), written by Ryoichi Fujii in Japanese, one of two monumental books about Japanese people in Chicago. Fujii, activist and editor, had been imprisoned at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming before being released in 1944. He then relocated to Chicago, where he founded the Chicago Shimpo Japanese newspaper in November, 1945. In his book, Fujii reported that a staff member of the Japanese Consulate had been frequently seen visiting a Japanese restaurant with an African American before the war, and that Yanagi’s arrest was due to his contacts with African Americans.17 However, Fujii did not identify Yanagi in particular as the consulate staff member who was seen visiting Japanese restaurants with African Americans.

In order to verify Fujii’s reasoning about Yanagi’s arrest, it should be noted that, in September 1942, right before Yanagi’s second arrest in October 1942, 85 black cultists were rounded up by federal investigators in Chicago. The Chicago Defender, one of the most significant black newspapers in the country, reported the arrest on its front page with the huge bold headline: “SEDITION: RACE HATE USED BY TOKIO TO LURE 85 NABBED BY FBI.”18

Chicago Defender dated September 26, 1942.

They were charged of sedition and draft evasion, showing passive resistance to the American war effort as a protest to racial discrimination in the United States. Some were charged in utterance with bitter defiance that "Tojo will be the savior for American Negroes” and "Our prayers were answered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor."

The federal agents were also investigating the probability that Japanese money had financed the operations of those blacks, because they had lavish, expensive clothing and plenty of money.19

Here is another difference between the West Coast and Chicago in terms of persistent suspicion towards the Japanese population: On the West Coast, where ties to Japan were considered strong, the government’s suspicions focused on insiders in the Japanese communities, and officials searched for possible collaborators with Japan from among community leaders such as successful businessmen, fishermen, produce distributors, language teachers, martial arts instructors, Buddhist priests, travel agents and Kibei Nisei. These suspects were classified into three categories: “known dangerous,” “potentially dangerous,” and operators “at the very periphery of the enemy intelligence network.”20

In contrast, in Chicago and the Midwest, where no sizable enclaves of Japanese existed, the investigators’ persistent search for possible Japanese collaborators focused mainly on the periphery or outside of an invisible “Japanese community”, a border zone in which suspicious collaborators could agitate for “solidarity” with “the other Americans” enough to cause everyday society to fall into disorder. “The other Americans” referred to another group of people of color, African Americans.

Suspicions about a Japanese-Black Alliance

As early as the 1920s, V. S. McClatchy, a hard core leader of the anti-Japanese campaign on the West Coast, had warned about a “Japanese-black alliance.” In his self-published 110-page brochure, McClatchy insinuated that “the Japanese have inaugurated a campaign in this country intended to stir up the colored race against the whites” and that “the negroes were urged to make common cause with the Japanese.”21 McClatchy’s views, however, were not widely held. For example, in his analysis of race relations in Seattle, Quintard Taylor implied that interracial relations were very different in the prewar years. He noted that in Seattle, “the Japanese constituted the city’s largest racial minority until World War II,” that the black-white dichotomy “was virtually meaningless” because “through World War II, blacks rarely constituted the largest non-white population in western cities” and that “the virulent racism usually directed against blacks in eastern urban communities was diffused in Seattle among the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and African Americans.”22

Chicago was different. Horace R. Cayton, who came to Chicago from Seattle in 1931, was so overwhelmed with the racial diversity in Chicago that, confirming Taylor’s analysis, he made the following comment: “Never had I seen so many Negroes; it came almost as a shock to see so many dark faces. In Seattle I had seen perhaps a hundred or more together at some special affair, but I was unprepared for this sea of black, olive, and brown faces everywhere.”23 In truth, Illinois was different from Seattle in the degree of racial tension in the black-white dichotomy, especially in the Black Metropolis of Chicago, the second largest black community in the country. Indeed, the situation in Illinois had become so radicalized that race riots broke out in the state capital of Springfield in 1908, in East St. Louis in 1917, and in Chicago in 1919.

While race riots after World War I gave birth to a new generation of African Americans called “New Negroes,” according to historian Yuichiro Onishi, “the participants in the New Negro movement cultivated a political space that was informed by black nationalism, vindicationism, and Marxism, and presented a sharp critique of white supremacy “24 and “the diverse constituents of the New Negro movement utilized the case of Japan’s race-conscious defiance against the United States, the British empire, and the French empire”25 for its own ends. Chicago was an important space for the New Negro political movement, but this movement also gave rise to suspicions of a “Japanese-black alliance” involving domestic and international race politics, which divided the African American community.

According to St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton, Chicago’s reputation for sensationalism was “primarily the work of newspapermen with an eye for the dramatic.”26 The city’s enormous capacity for drama was probably piqued in 1921 when Kijuro Shidehara, Japanese ambassador to the US, requested permission from the ministry of foreign affairs in Tokyo to have a meeting with Consul Kuwajima in Chicago about placing a new bureau for foreign publicity, propaganda, in Chicago.27 The US government’s emerging fear of the spreading idea of “solidarity among colored peoples” had become apparent in the early 20th century when Japan started spreading the anti-western, anti-imperialistic propaganda of pan-orientalism, with the slogan “Asia for the Asiatics.” In the US, pan-orientalism looked like a “menace to the world”28 and Lothrop Stoddard’s book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920 inflamed American fears of “Pan-Asiatic resistance.”29

On the other hand, according to Ernest Allen, Jr., “pro-Japanese sentiment among African Americans dates back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905,”30 and according to George Lipsitz, “as far back as the 1920s, the Department of Justice and agents from military intelligence had expressed fears of a Japanese-black alliance.”31 In his 1920 Japanese book, “Nichibei Moshi Tatakawaba (If the US and Japan Fight),” Kojiro Sato claimed that the black problem in the US would spark social unrest, and, if there were a US-Japan war, Mexicans could act in unison with the black rebellion and help Japan.32 In the 1930s, when the international scene of racial conflict began to overlap with domestic racial issues, the Chicago Defender stated in an editorial, “If Japan and Uncle Sam got into a fight, only southern white boys would be sent over. They would know what to do with people of the color, the Japanese.”33 The white-black dichotomy was amplified according to the psychological distance of each African American from Japan, which at one point had been called “a champion of darker races.”34 Further, a 1937 letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, claiming to be from a Japanese person living in the US, did not hesitate to encourage consciousness of African Americans: “as to the war between my country and China, it is an effort on our part to halt the rising tide of white supremacy. And I do hope that the Negro people of this country will realize that our fight is their fight also.”35

Part 2 >>


1. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 8 and 9, 1941
2. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 10, 1941
3. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 8, 1941
4. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 8, 1941
5. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 10 and 11, 1941
6. Fujii Ryoichi, Chicago Nikkei-jin shi, Page 89
7. Ito Kazuo, Chicago ni Moyu, page 216
8. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec .18, 1941
9. 1940 Census
10. Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept 11, 1936
11. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History, page 62
12. Chicago Daily Tribune, July 21, 1943
13. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 5, 1943
14. Masuto Kono file, National Archives and Record Administration, RG 60, Box 272
15. Chicago Herald American, Dec 5, 1943
16. Eizo Yanagi file, National Archives and Record Administration, RG 60, Box 255
17. Fujii Ryoichi, Chicago Nikkei-jin shi, page 89 – 90
18. The Chicago Defender, Sept. 26, 1942
19. Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 23, 1942
20. Bob Kumamoto, “The Search for Spies: American Counterintelligence and the Japanese American Community 1931-1942,” Amerasia Journal, Vol 6 Number 2 1979
21. V. S. McClatchy, Japanese Immigration and Colonization BRIEF prepared for consideration of the State Department, 1921, page 73
22. Quintard Taylor, Blacks and Asians in a White City: Japanese Americans and African Americans in Seattle, 1890-1940, The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 22, No4, 1991
23. Horace R. Cayton, Long Old Road, page 175
24. Yuichiro Onishi, “The New Negro of the Pacific: How African Americans forged Cross-Racial Solidarity with Japan, 1917-1922,” Journal of African American History, Vol 92, Issue 2, page 192
25. Ibid
26. St. Clair Drake and Horace R Cayton, Black Metropolis, page 6
27. Correspondence from Shidehara, Diplomatic Archives of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1-3-1-35_1_2_008
28. Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 30, 1912
29. Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 3, 1922
30. Ernest Allen, Jr, “When Japan was ‘Champion of the Darker
Races’: Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black Messianic
Nationalism,” The Black Scholar Volume 24, No. 1, 1994, page 28
31. George Lipsitz, “Frantic to Join … the Japanese Army: The Asia
Pacific War in the Lives of African American Soldiers and
Civilians,” The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, page 331
32. Kojiro Sato, Nichibei Moshi Tatakawaba, 1920, page 92-93
33. Chicago Defender, Feb 6, 1932
34. Ernest Allen, Jr. “Satokata Takahashi and the Flowering of Black
Messianic Nationalism”, The Black Scholar, Winter 1994, page 23
35. The Pittsburgh Courier, October 9, 1937


© 2019 Takako Day

african american chicago Department of Justice FBI illinois japanese american race racism World War II

About this series

This series tells the stories of Japanese and Japanese Americans in Chicago and the Midwest prior to and during World War II, stories that were very different from those of Japanese on the West Coast. Although the Japanese population, along with the number of Japanese arrested by the FBI right after the war broke out, were both small (less than 500 and 20 respectively), the US government’s watchful eyes had been suspicious of Japanese government espionage carried out by Japanese Chicagoans who had daily contact with African Americans since the 1930s. The series focuses on the lives of four Japanese in Chicago and the Midwest who were arrested on suspicion of espionage.