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Acts of Injustice: Part 1 continued

‘Is he gone? Did they take him today?’

The book “Stubborn Twig” by Lauren Kessler, a journalism professor at University of Oregon, recounts the story of the Yasui family of the Hood River valley, whose patriarch Masuo arrived in 1905 and established a successful business that served as a community center for the local Japanese-American community.

This excerpt is from Chapter 6, “Paradise Lost,” upon the invasion of Pearl Harbor.

The Yasui family was among the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were forced from their homes in 1942. The Hood River “evacuation” happened on May 13 of that year.

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As the winter of 1941 blanketed Hood River valley with its first snow, Masuo found himself even busier than usual. His business ventures, now recovering form the worst of the Depression, kept him working late most nights. His community service, expanding as his own stature continued to grow among the hakujin (whites), demanded more time than ever.

He was still the only Japanese member of the Apple Growers Association Board of Directors, representing scores of his countrymen who would otherwise have been voiceless in the organization that determined their livelihood. He was a model Rotarian. Now, with the war escalating in Europe and the draft boards all across America readying themselves for the inevitable, Masuo was asked to perform yet another vital service as a link between Hood River’s selective service board and Nisei boys who might be called for military duty.

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During the first week of December he was busy checking special orders for the hectic Christmas season. On Saturday evening, Dec. 6, he, along with many members of the Nikkei community, stayed late at the Japanese Hall rehearsing their annual Christmas show. The next day, early in the afternoon, he got a call from Hugh Ball, editor of Hood River’s weekly newspaper, telling him that the Japanese had attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Masuo was dumbstruck. After a long moment, he managed to ask: “Is that an authentic report? Has that been verified?” Ball said yes.

Masuo’s first thought was to tell his countrymen. He grabbed a heavy winter coat from the closet and ran more than a mile to the Japanese Community Hall, where many of the valley’s Nikkei were gathered for a church service. “Remain calm,” he told them, trying to keep his own voice steady. “Return to your homes.” He ran home himself, panting and almost wild-eyed, stopping by a vacant lot where his 16-year-old son Homer was playing football with several neighborhood boys. Homer had never seen his father so agitated.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Homer remembered, “but I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”

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That night Masuo and the rest of America learned the details of what President Roosevelt was calling “a day that shall live in infamy”: more than 2,000 Americans were dead; 150 aircraft and 19 ships were destroyed. And that same night, the rumors began: The Hood River Japanese had known about the bombing beforehand; they were gathered at the Community Hall late the night before planning a victory celebration; they were flashing radio messages to Japanese submarines lurking off the coast of Oregon; they were plotting to blow up Bonneville Dam; they were conspiring to poison the town’s water supply.

The Hood River Japanese — the men and women who had lived, worked and raised their families in the valley for the past three and a half decades — were the enemy.

On Monday, Dec. 8, as Homer and Yuka sat in their Hood River High School classrooms feeling anxious, confused and somehow ashamed, Taiwan-based Japanese bombers struck two American airfields in the Philippines, destroying more than half of the U.S. Army’s Far East aircraft. Fueled by rumors, propelled by panic, the gears oiled by a century of racism, the federal machinery jump-started.

The day after Pearl Harbor the Treasury Department ordered all Japanese-owned businesses closed and all issei bank accounts frozen. In Hood River, armed treasury agents boarded up the Yasui Brothers Store and posted sentries at the front door. Masuo and Renichi had to get formal written permission to remove anything from the store, including perishable food items for family use.

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, FBI agents began arriving in town, and for the next two days, as Hood Riverites sat glued to their radios listening to reports of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, government agents fanned out throughout the valley, searching selected issei homes...

Later in the week, agents returned to arrest two valley issei, Mr. Akiyama and Mr. Watanabe, both of whom were active in the local Japanese Welfare Society, an all-male self-help and cultural association that sponsored picnics and parades. If there were any charges against the two men, no one was told what they were.

The Nikkei watched in stunned silence. The whites watched also. To them the arrests seemed to legitimize the worst rumors: There were “Jap spies” in the valley.

The searches and arrests may have come as a complete surprise to West Coast communities, but such actions had long been planned by top federal officials. Five months before Pearl Harbor a special Department of Justice committee, with assistance from the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence, was busy preparing lists of Japanese and Germans “with something in their record showing an allegiance to the enemy.”

The so-called ABC List, which numbered 2,000 by mid-1941, included “known and dangerous aliens” whom the FIB had individually investigated (the “A” list), others about whom the government had suspicions (the “B” list) and hundreds of men with clean records who had never been investigated by whose position or occupation made them “suspicious” (the “C” list).

By midsummer 1941, federal officials had created a comprehensive interdepartmental plan that, in the event of war, called for the FBI to arrest “potentially dangerous” aliens, the Department of Justice to run hearings to determine their loyalty and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to take custody of those deemed disloyal.

During the week after Pearl Harbor, more than a thousand issei men were arrested up and down the West Coast. The FBI singled out community leaders, religious leaders, educators. They arrested businessmen, officers in Japanese associations, editors of Japanese-language newspapers, Shinto and Buddhist priests, teachers in Japanese-language schools. And, on Dec. 12, they came for Masuo Yasui.

He knew they were coming. There was little doubt in the Yasui household that Masuo, the most powerful and visible leader of the state’s second-largest Nikkei community, would be picked up.

Fourteen-year-old Yuka was in a state of “sheer panic” all that week. She’d walk home from school for lunch, tense, breathless, wondering: “Is he gone? Did they take him today? What will become of us? What will I tell people? What will they think if my father is arrested?”

(“Stubborn Twig,: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family,” by Lauren Kessler. 2008 Oregon State University Press, excerpted by permission).

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