portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting oregon & cascadia

human & civil rights | legacies

"I Didn’t Think They Would Take Citizens Away” -- Portland Detention Camp Anniversary

"My brother and I, we thought we would be able to stay home and run the (family grocery) store because we were citizens. I didn't think they would take citizens away," said the 1937 Jefferson High School graduate. "It was really a shock to hear that we all had to go."
Photo from The Oregonian,  April 29, 1942
Photo from The Oregonian, April 29, 1942
Harue “Mae” Ninomiya with photo of her brothers Sam and Mino
Harue “Mae” Ninomiya with photo of her brothers Sam and Mino
With businessman Sho Dozono a major player in this year's mayoral campaign -- the primary is set for May 20 -- an incredible local cycle of racism, exile, and endurance has finally come full circle.

That's because May also marks the 66th anniversary of the eradication of the city's thriving Japantown business district when the area's entire population of Japanese and Japanese Americans was forced into a makeshift WWII internment camp at the former Portland International Exhibition stockyards - site of the current Expo Center on North Marine Drive.

Born in Japan and arriving in Portland about a decade after the war when he was 10 years old, Dozono himself was not involved in the American war-time internment of more than 110,000 Japanese nationals and US citizens of Japanese descent. His grandparents, US citizens residing in Portland, however, were internees and had all their assets seized and never returned, according to a Dozono campaign document.

So the symbolism of someone at the threshold of ultimate political power in a city that had jailed and exiled that candidate's entire ethnic community within the living memory of its senior citizens resonates deeply among those who will never forget just how far they have been forced to travel.


"It was May 3, 1942," Harue "Mae" Ninomiya distinctly remembers as the day her family entered the Portland camp. "My friend who built this house (where she still resides with a son on North Russett Street in Kenton) drove us down to the Pacific Expo Building there.

"We could only take two things, a duffle bag and a suitcase for a family of six. So we couldn't take much of our clothes. It didn't matter how many were in the family. That's all anyone was allowed," Ninomiya declared matter of factly. "I said, 'I wonder when we'll ever come back?' That was my biggest question. 'Will we ever be able to come back?'"

Ninomiya, 89, her three younger brothers, and parents Hidekichi and Tetsuno Okazaki were held along with nearly 4,000 other Japanese and Japanese Americans - many US-born citizens and lifelong Portland residents - from May through September 1942 at the benignly named Assembly Center during that first full year of US involvement in WWII.

"My brother and I, we thought we would be able to stay home and run the (family grocery) store because we were citizens. I didn't think they would take citizens away," said the 1937 Jefferson High School graduate who was 23 years old at the time. "I knew that my mother and father beings aliens would be, but what a disa . . . it was really a shock to hear that we all had to go."

Executive Order 9066 issued on February 19, 1942 by Franklin D. Roosevelt set off a series of actions ultimately forcing more than 110,000 Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent into isolated military-style camps in Western desert areas for the duration of the war. Prior to their final destinations, the internees from California, Oregon and Washington State were first ordered to report to temporary Assembly Centers, a total of 16 locations up and down the West Coast. The Portland Assembly Center was one of those feeder camps, built directly over the dirt animal holding grounds of the Portland International Livestock Exposition, the forerunner to today's Expo Center tradeshow facility.

The story behind the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans usually is explained as a result of wartime hysteria. The reality is apparently more complex.

"Often people think Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the West Coast were removed because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and this was a revenge," Executive Director June Arima Schumann said from the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland. "Well, if you look at the history of intolerance in this country, including Oregon, Pearl Harbor simply acted as an excuse to take action against Japanese to remove them from our community, because of this whole chain of activities that had been hostile towards Chinese, and later Japanese."

Within the Legacy Center's museum, cultural and educational facility at 121 NW 2nd Ave., once the heart of a thriving multi-block downtown Japanese business and social community that was eliminated as a result of the internments, Schumann added, "(Before the war) people in opposition of Japanese farmers in California, Oregon and Washington were petitioning the government to remove them from the farms. So when Pearl Harbor came along, they said, 'Ah, ha!' Franklin Delano Roosevelt, being the kind of leader he was, just sort of succumbed to public pressure."

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the FBI led a comprehensive round-up of business, cultural and religious leaders of the West Coast Nikkei, Japanese migrants and their descendants, Schumann noted: "They got jailed (for the duration of the war). Our information says there were about 78 from Oregon arrested that way. What that did was to sort of suck out all the influential people who had the skills and knowledge to provide leadership in the community." In this manner, she added, the local Nikkei were basically left without the means to effectively defend themselves.

Evacuation and detention notices were then posted in public places such as store walls and telephone poles, as well as constant articles and commentary in the major newspapers. Two original evacuation and detention posters are on display at the Nikkei Legacy Center.

"My father went to register at a place at Interstate and Russell. We all got a family number," Ninomiya said. "All the Japanese people had to register at different places in the city." Extensive records of those family numbers, along with names of the individual family members interned at the Portland Assembly Center, also are retained at the Nikkei Legacy Center.

Though the internment was closely followed and supported by the newspapers of the day -- The Oregonian ran almost daily updates on evacuation information, instructions, photos and commentary - and memorials have been erected and commemorations continue annually, to this day many Portland residents remain unaware of the city's explicit involvement in erecting and maintaining a local detention camp to hold an entire ethnic community that was openly and systematically removed from its streets, businesses, homes and places of worship.


"In Oregon, in Portland specifically, it's always surprising to me, when I teach this in my undergraduate classes, how amazed they are to hear how that the very same place they've gone to maybe visit a ski show or something, is essentially where individuals of Japanese descent were initially taken. And at that time it would have been a livestock exposition center," Ken Ruoff, Professor of Japanese History at Portland State University, remarked. "So you ask yourself, 'Well, here's such important history -- an important chapter in the broader history of racism that's been all too important to American history -- that happens to be profoundly local, you know? This part's local."

Ruoff continued, "Maybe there weren't many African-Americans, in Oregon which didn't have formal slavery, or any of that. But my goodness, we had this. And this is when the racism was most virulent. So why is it that it isn't thoroughly, thoroughly taught in the secondary schools? Because I get the sense it's not."

Conditions at the hastily erected Portland Assembly Center were cramped and spartan. "Six cots, that's all the furnishings there were. Six cots. No table, no chair, no nothing," Ninomiya explained about living quarters within a huge roofed hall. She said that in their family "apartment," the cots took up all the floor space and were simply left open side by side both day and night. "At first we got mattress bags, and we had to fill them with straw." Mattresses were eventually distributed. As for privacy, "In our compartment, the wood partitions were, I think, 8 feet high and our doorway was a canvas bag."

Schumann added details about the Assembly Center construction. "What they did was take away the partitions of the animal stalls, swept away the manure on the dirt floor, laid rolls of 2x4s, and then put 1x10 or 12x10 boards across to make the floor. So people lived on top of what used to be where the manure was, okay?" She noted that a standard space for a family of four was 20x14 feet, with larger dimensions for bigger families like the Okazakis. The canvas door coverings were purposely left several inches off the flooring, Schumann explained, "so officials patrolling the area could look into the unit."

Due to the number of people and limited seated area, each meal was divided into two back-to-back shifts. "The food wasn't bad because it was Japanese cooks. It was good after they got the soy sauce," Ninomiya added with an easy laugh. "We were so used to it. Everything was rice and vegetables cooked in soy sauce with meat. That was a staple. They got the soy sauce right away because everybody complained."

Asked to reflect on the general mood at the Assembly Center, Ninomiya's mood turned somber. "I was very bitter at the beginning. I was just doing nothing. But I thought, 'What's the use of being bitter? We're going to have to live here. We just have to go along with what the government's going to do with us.' " Eventually she landed a job in the facility teaching young school children. "Most of us thought that we go to make do the best we can. Live day by day."

Life did go on. Groups of internees from throughout the northwest regularly came into the Portland Assembly Center as others were shipped out to their final internment camp locations. In all, four deaths and 23 births were recorded at the Portland site, according to an Oregon State Archives exhibit. A medical facility was present, staffed by two interned doctors and four nurses.

Recreation was reportedly available in the form of basketball, volleyball and baseball, with a variety of art, music and game activities. "The parking lot of the yellow Max station there (at the Expo Center) was the baseball field, from what I understand," Schumann said. In a May 10, 1942 issue of The Oregonian, a photo caption noted, "The young Japanese girls, as well as the boys, engage in daily games on the center's diamond." Pictures of smiling internees from the time should be considered as either a form of propaganda or displays of people trying to make the best of a bad situation, the Legacy Center director added.

For Ninomiya, life in the Portland Assembly Center was complicated. Fortunately, her boyfriend and future husband Nug was also interned there and lived at the camp's bachelor's quarters. She described the existence as sometimes being "carefree." At the same time, though, she "was just in a world to myself. I was very close with my boyfriend. We wanted to get married but we didn't know. Everything was kind of uncertain . . . . we didn't know what was going to happen."

More problems came to Ninomiya and her family as a result of treatment by fellow internees. Before the war, the family owned and operated Lombard Food Center at the corner of Denver and Lombard, working 9am to 9pm daily. Only days before their internment, the family was able to purchase the store property through one of her brothers who had recently turned 22. Resident aliens like her parents were not allowed to own land, and the FBI interrogated her brother for three hours before the purchase was finally allowed.

"When we went into camp, there were about 100 grocery stores among the Japanese in the city of Portland," Ninomiya recalled. "And we were the only ones that did what we did. My father said, 'I can't go see anybody. They're just ridiculing me. They said, 'You're crazy!' Everybody thought it would be confiscated. They called him Boca Okazaki. It means crazy."


She recalled the heavy smell of manure that sometimes permeated the camp, especially after firemen hosed down a particular area as they misguidedly tried to bring some relief from the hot summer temperatures.

The one midsummer holiday was markedly different than earlier celebrations. "Oh, well, the Fourth of July didn't have that much meaning," Ninomiya remembered, saying everyone in the barbed wire camp couldn't help but realize how their former neighbors beyond the wire and armed guards still enjoyed their everyday lives. "We could see all the fireworks at Jantzen Beach."

By mid-September 1942 Ninomiya and her family members were shipped to a large desert internment camp in Hunt, Idaho, but not before two of her brothers Sam and Mino, enlisted in the Army and served with the famous 442 Infantry unit in Europe. They survived the war and eventually returned to Portland. Ninomiya was able to actually leave the Idaho camp by finding work as a nanny with a nearby family. She later worked as a farm laborer near Caldwell, Idaho before the remaining family was able to return back to their home and business in Portland after almost four years.

Unlike many internees, the Okazaki family returned to their home (rented out to a friend) and the business property (also rented out), and reopened the store. The grocery was known under various monikers (Lombard Sentry and Lombard Thiftway) but always had the name Lombard. the family-owned and operated business survived, expanded and thrived until the late 1990s.

Schumann estimated there were "at least several hundred" Portland Assembly Center internees who still live in the metro area. Many of those people remain "a living history resource" for the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center, offering advice on exhibit planning and development, as well as vital members of the center's speakers' bureau.

The federal government has recognized its role in the WWII-era internments by issuing an official apology and distributing reparations of $20,000 to living internees in the early 1990's. The reconciliation process has taken decades, and local conditions similarly took years to develop.


Ninomiya said hers was one of the only Japanese families in the Kenton neighborhood after the war. "Oh, yeah, there were bad reactions for quite a while. It took us quite a long time. Quite a while. Because the neighbors said we were enemy aliens and such. That they shouldn't be trading with us. So it took a while."

Old customers started returning to the store because of the high quality of the produce, but usually only after nightfall. During the day, pedestrians would go so far as to walk across the street rather than pass by the store, Ninomiya said: "I felt like a monkey in a cage." Business returned to normal only after her two brothers in the military returned from Europe wearing their uniforms in the store. "That's when (the neighborhood) realized maybe the mother and father were aliens, but we were American citizens. That's when the business grew."

Ninomiya and Nug finally married on December 15, 1945 and raised their four children in Portland. He eventually became an auto salesman for 30 years on Union, now MLK Boulevard. Mr. Ninomiya died 17 years ago. She raised the children and worked at the family grocery until the early 1970's. She eventually returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree from Portland State University in 1987 at the age of 70. Ninomiya has also worked for the school district and enjoyed volunteer activities.

Asked how the internment shaped the remainder of her life, Ninomiya answered, "It was a block out of my life that I guess I put in storage, you know? Even today, we never talk about it."

As for what the internment means locally, Schumann replied, "You have to sort of think of Oregon in a longer term history. Our state was no different than many others in having a Klu Klux Klan and other similar organizations. Even though we have a public reputation for being progressive, periodically we go through the cycle of reactionary response to things.

"Small minded, racist response is not that far away, I think."

* * *

Lawrence J. Maushard is a journalist and author residing in southeast Portland. His recent work has covered union antiwar planning, immigrant day laborers, US and Western torture practices, war fears of the local Iranian community, urban crime and neighborhood solutions, and reactions of area Tibetans to homeland tensions. More is available at www.maushard.net