The Japanese have a long history in Spokane. Arriving in the 1890s as railroad workers, many decided to settle Spokane in hope of new opportunities in the city. Men set up farms and small businesses. As their success grew, families were sent for, and a small community developed. Despite being strangers in a new land, the Japanese-American community prospered, even publishing a photographic book of their enterprises.
After Pearl Harbor, national concerns about American Japanese loyalty grew. Although national intelligence reported “no Japanese ‘problem’ on the coast,” the U.S. War Department deemed American Japanese a threat to national security. Anyone with a drop of Japanese blood now considered an “enemy alien.” By spring of 1942, approximately 117,000 Japanese individuals were forced to leave their homes and relocate inland to internment camps—away from the newly established coastal military zones in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Nearly two-thirds of those affected by the relocation program were American citizens.
For the Japanese communities located beyond the military zones, like Spokane, life was radically altered. In 1940, a little over three hundred Japanese families lived in Spokane. By 1943 the number had reached into the thousands, as families from Portland and Seattle moved into town to escape internment. But for those living in Spokane, the aftershock of Pearl Harbor hung around like a looming shadow. Being Japanese was associated by many as a display of anti-Americanism.
Fred Shiosaki remembered all too well the cloud of suspicion he experienced in the months after Pearl Harbor. Working as a photographer for the Rogers High School yearbook, Shiosaki was used to attending events and snapping photographs. Local FBI agents became suspicious of his behavior and the school was forced to hire a professional photographer. Other Japanese residents recall the animosity of other immigrant groups like the Chinese, who wore “I am Chinese” buttons to separate themselves from the Japanese. The prejudice against Japanese-Americans lingered after the war. According to a 1945 survey, nearly half of Spokane’s homeowners said they would sell their home if a Japanese family moved onto the same block. Japanese families gradually moved away, returning to their prewar homes.
For those that remained, Spokane was their home. Despite the hardships, Spokane’s Japanese-American community has left a lasting legacy, filled with activism, entrepreneurship, and community engagement. Throughout the city their presence and history can be seen. This tour is just a small sampling of rich history of Spokane’s Japanese-American community.