She was a test case for resettling detainees of Japanese descent — and unaware of the risk
By JOE MOZINGO | Los Angeles Times | Published: November 30, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — On the windswept plains of eastern Colorado, dust storms rattled the barracks of the Granada War Relocation Center, driving grit through the cracks, bending sapling trees, blotting out the sun. It was 1944, and Esther Takei didn't understand why she had to be languishing there, alienated by the only country she knew.
The internment camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences and eight machine gun towers. When her family took walks at night, they were hit by floodlights, as if they were criminals. Esther wanted nothing more than to return to California to start college.
That opportunity arrived sooner than expected. On a hot, listless day in the dog days of that summer, an old family friend named Hugh Anderson had come in on the train from Los Angeles with news. The federal government had given him the go-ahead to bring a single Japanese American student back to Southern California to enroll in college. It was a test case for the resettlement of all the detainees of Japanese descent, and he thought Esther, 19, would be a perfect candidate.
The nation was starting to envision the end of the war. Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were all on the retreat.
But anti-Japanese sentiment was unabated and withering, and hatred extended to the Nikkei in the United States — in ways it did not for Germans and Italians. Since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Americans had read daily headlines about "Jap" atrocities while tens of thousands of American men were killed in the Pacific theater. The Japanese immigrants and their U.S.-born children were bound to be targets of deep-seated rancor.
Anderson, a Quaker accountant who had worked at the incarceration camp in Poston, Ariz., explained to her parents that Esther would enroll at Pasadena Junior College while living with his family in Altadena.
Her resettlement would gauge the public reaction and, if all went well, lead the way for tens of thousands more to return to the West Coast.
Her parents agreed to let her go, putting their fears aside. They needed to show the nation their people's humanity, and their loyalty. But when Esther boarded the westbound train a few weeks later, her father had a moment of panic: Am I sending my daughter to her death?
The roundup and incarceration of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the West Coast — 62% of them American-born citizens — during World War II is a chapter of American history now roundly viewed as a betrayal of the country's ideals, an inhumanity driven not by military necessity, but by racism, paranoia and greed. In California, some of the first to lobby for their removal were white farmers who coveted their land and wanted them out of the market.
The lesser known part of the story was the rutted road to resettlement. Families that had been here for decades and thrived before the war — many turning marginal farmland into some of the state's most productive soil — returned to find little was left for them. Most had to start from nothing, in the most hostile of times.
Esther Takei Nishio, the first to make that journey home, died last month at her home in Pasadena at the age of 94.
Like so many others of her generation, Nishio (her married name) did not dwell on the indignities of her past. She lived a quiet life in Pasadena, working as an executive secretary, doting on her husband, raising her son. She was loved for her easy grace, humor and gleeful laugh. When she sat down for an oral history interview with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 1999, she hadn't told the story of her return to California in more than three decades. Beyond her family, her account is known mostly to small circles of scholars and survivors of the mass incarceration.
"Even at our church, a lot of people didn't know what she had done," her son John Nishio said. "They heard it the first time at the memorial service."
Her experience — documented here from two oral history interviews, World War II-era news articles, archived correspondence and interviews with her son — illuminates a seminal moment of Los Angeles and California history, American race relations and civil rights. Nishio helped lead her people home to a bewildering new reality in the country that betrayed them.
"She was a kind of parallel to the first African Americans who integrated white universities in the years after World War II," said Greg Robinson, a history professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal who has written extensively on the relocation camps. "She ran the risk of attracting bigotry and perhaps violence, and her success helped open doors for other Nisei."
Esther grew up in a most peculiar place and time in the United States: Venice Beach in its early heyday, a rollicking carnival by the sea, with speakeasies and bingo parlors, an amusement pier and canals of crooning gondoliers.
Her father and mother — Shigehisa "Harry" Takei and Ninoe Takei, first-generation Issei — had started several game concessions along the pier, where patrons pitched baseballs at milk bottles, tried to hook wooden fish in a pond, and shot corks at candy bars on a shelf. They lived in a two-story house at 64 N. Venice Blvd., between the beach and the Grand Canal.
Esther went to Florence Nightingale Elementary School and helped her parents on the pier on weekends. Her supremely artistic mother — always dressed to the height of fashion — enrolled her in tap, drama, ballet and piano classes. Her father was an entrepreneur from a wealthy family in Yamanashi prefecture. He spoke fluent English he had mastered working the carnival circuit and had other business interests in dry cleaners, a nursery and a newspaper. He loved to stroll town in his bespoke double-breasted, navy blue suit.
In her first oral history interview, she recalled the Venice of those pre-war days as "very glamorous" with its Italianate architecture, grand ballroom, plunge pool, and shuttle boats that took people out to mob-run gambling ships outside territorial waters, just three miles from shore. Her parents bought an Octopus ride that became one of the pier's top attractions.
As a girl, Esther didn't know any other Nisei — the children of Japanese immigrants — but said she never felt the sting of racism, other than knowing white people were allowed in the plunge and she was not.
She never considered herself anything other than American.
"It wasn't until I went to Venice junior and senior high schools that I came across a lot of Nisei," she would later tell interviewers.
At Venice High School, she joined the Glee Club and a Japanese American club. In her senior year she was selected to be on the Venetian Ladies, an elite women's honor society, for her academic achievements and service in the community. She got her club sweater — but world events intervened before she could pose for the annual picture.
Esther was at home on Dec. 7, 1941, when she heard the news about Pearl Harbor on the radio. Her parents were working on the pier, and it took her three hours to summon the nerve to leave the house and join them.
They came home in a state of shock. War with Japan would upend their lives.
Esther's parents had the money and family connections to return to Japan, but they had no intention of leaving their new country.
They had already made plans for the possibility of war: to pack up their concession equipment in their two flatbed trucks and move to an interior state.
But the next day, the FBI knocked on their door and arrested Harry as a suspect in aiding imperial Japan. He was in his pajamas, and they told him he had to go as he was dressed. He said, no, he was a community leader, and insisted on putting on his navy blue suit. The agents relented.
His family had no idea where the agents took him.
Newspapers in California began whipping up hysteria.
President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, confirmed Esther and her mother's worst fears. The military was gearing up to expel "enemy aliens" from the West Coast, even though federal officials had investigated the Nikkei for years and determined they would be loyal to the United States in the event of war with Japan. But Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, advised Roosevelt that no person of Japanese descent could be trusted.
In the weeks before their forced removal began in April, Esther and her mother stored some of their equipment in the garage of Anderson's Altadena home. They turned the concessions, equipment and octopus ride over to two employees, who were supposed to keep the businesses going for them.
The Japanese on the West Coast were given so little time to prepare for their removal — with no more than a suitcase per person — that they were forced to sell properties, farms, tractors and plows, fishing boats and nets, vehicles, furniture and appliances for a fraction of what they were worth. Or they entrusted white friends to keep these belongings for them until they returned.
Esther's mother took her to JC Penney in Santa Monica to buy "rough clothes" for "camping." Days later, mother and daughter walked off to catch the Red Car train to downtown Los Angeles, where they boarded buses for the "Assembly Center" at the Santa Anita Park racetrack. They were pointed to barracks in the parking lot.
"I had taken civics and studied about the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and how great it was to be an American citizen," Nishio recalled in 1999. "And then, when the exclusion order came, I was really shocked and hurt. But I was — I guess, I just turned 17 in February of '42. I thought, well, I guess, as a good American citizen, we have to do what the government wants us to do."
Harry Takei had been taken to the Los Angeles County Jail, then to the Tuna Canyon Detention Station in Tujunga and finally to the Department of Justice incarceration camp in Santa Fe, N.M. He was eventually released for lack of evidence and rejoined his wife and daughter at Santa Anita. The family surmised that he had been viewed as a potential Japanese agent because he was the president of the PTA of a Japanese-language school. He rarely spoke about what happened in the months he was gone, the interrogations the first night in jail, the beatings to try to force him to say he was a spy. "I think he wanted to forget ... 'cause he loved the United States," Esther said.
She recalled that, despite the grim surroundings, she was excited to meet so many new Nisei at Santa Anita, all of them enjoying a certain freedom from parental supervision. She had her first boyfriend and worked as a waitress in the mess hall.
In September they boarded a train for the tiny town of Granada, Colo. Camp Amache, as it was called, sat on a hill southwest of town, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. The area, near the Kansas border, had been hit hard by the Dust Bowl and still suffered dust storms.
The Takeis moved into Block 6E, next to the sewage plant. As in Santa Anita, Esther made new friends and found a job, this time working as a dental assistant for a Dr. Nagamoto. But the weather was oppressively hot in summer and cuttingly cold in winter, with heavy snow. She was cooped up in the barracks, disaffected and restless, her life on hold, her parents set back to zero.
She set her sights on college and got approval to move in with a family in Boulder outside Denver to work as a maid — cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and gardening. Within a year she'd have state residency and could apply to the University of Colorado. But she hated the "slave work," as she later called it, and felt lonely and unhappy. Her father brought her back to Granada in early 1944.
Hugh Anderson grew up in Pasadena, the son of a merchant who started the Model Grocery Co. He went to Pasadena Junior College and then Stanford University in 1937, becoming an accountant and auditor, first managing his family stores, then working for other companies and the state of California. He became a Quaker and got involved in human rights advocacy, setting up an interracial credit union and arranging for a Jewish family of four to escape from Berlin to California through Russia and China.
Anderson strongly opposed the Japanese relocation and had joined a group in Pasadena called Friends of the American Way, started by a local real estate agent, William Carr, to keep in touch with the local Nikkei residents who were sent to camps and manage their affairs as best they could.
Anderson and Carr had started plotting ways to end the Japanese exclusion from the West Coast. In the spring of 1944, they hatched a plan to bring a single student back — quietly, with no news coverage — and wrote to the new commander of the Western Defense Command, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Bonesteel Jr., for approval.
"He had us on the phone almost immediately and said he was in favor of it and to go ahead with the program," Anderson wrote in his memoirs.
Anderson traveled to Granada in July to get the Takeis' approval and returned to make the final preparations for Esther to attend Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College).
School administrators polled the students about her return and the responses were 90% positive. John A. Sexson, superintendent of schools, fully supported her enrollment.
Esther was excited about the challenge, though not fully aware of the potential danger; for all its bleakness and drudgery, the camp had largely spared her from the hatred outside.
When she boarded the Super Chief train in September, she felt heartache saying goodbye to her parents and friends, but brimmed with optimism over a new adventure.
When she arrived in Pasadena on Sept. 12, Esther was greeted enthusiastically by the Anderson family, along with the editor of the school newspaper and members of the Student Christian Assn.
She moved into the Andersons' quaint two-story home with a swooped roof on Roosevelt Avenue in Altadena and was the guest of honor that night at the Eagle Rock residence of E.C. Farnham, executive director of the Church Federation of Los Angeles.
The warm welcome was short-lived. The next morning, newspapers tipped off by the editor of the campus newspaper published articles about her arrival — including the address of Anderson's home. The story was then picked up by Stars and Stripes and published in papers around the world.
Local nativist groups began whipping up a froth. Menacing letters started piling up in Anderson's mailbox.
"The only kind of a Jap the people of Cal. trust is a dead one," an anonymous correspondent from Los Angeles wrote.
Others railed against Anderson as being un-American.
"I have a son in the service who has just recently been discharged. " a Mrs. J.H. Wilson wrote. "The boys wonder what they are fighting for when the government tells them to kill them and our citizens take them into their homes."
Phone calls were even more threatening. "Your house is being watched," snarled one caller.
A local man named George L. Kelley formed a Ban the Japs Committee and demanded the Pasadena Board of Education expel Esther.
But many rose to defend her.
She was buoyed by the people who stood up for her, particularly former servicemen just back from the war in the South Pacific. They formed a group that escorted her from class to class to make sure she was safe.
With her ebullient, unflappable personality, Esther made many quick friends at school. And she got dozens of letters supporting her, from other Nisei, from churches and housewives, and particularly, from soldiers, sailors and Marines who had fought Japanese forces.
A sailor named David Mumford, on night watch in the Pacific, scratched out a letter commending her own fight for the nation's ideals. "I write to express to you the hope that you will remain in good cheer and stand fast in your little battle zone. Your importance as a person is as nothing, in a larger sense, to your importance as an example of what can be done or else, cannot be done to an American citizen."
But the hatred didn't ease up on the streets.
Esther often ran into an "old lady" at her bus stop. "She would always call me, 'Jap', and [say,] 'Get out of here!' And one day she slapped me."
Other people spit on her, and so many drivers motored up Anderson's street to scream epithets — or just get a glimpse of her — there were traffic jams.
When the school principal received a bomb threat, Anderson moved Esther to another house for 10 days and sent his family away. The stress made it difficult to study.
Kelley, the anti-Japanese crusader, held a protest of the board on Sept. 26 and said he would take court action if it didn't heed his demands. Supt. Sexson stood his ground.
Three days later, Kelley attended a panel in Pasadena with his opponents, the Committee for American Principals and Fair Play, and Dillon S. Myer, director of the War Relocation Authority. Myer, who was in charge of the relocation camps, was now advocating to resettle the Nikkei detainees.
There is no record of what was said on the panel. But it had a momentous effect — at least on Kelley.
The next day he made the stunning announcement that he was resigning from his own committee, stating plainly that he was wrong.
"When I'm wrong I'll admit it, and I was wrong," Kelley said. "That Dillon Myer fellow convinced me."
With that, the fury largely subsided.
Anderson sent a report to Maj. Gen. Bonesteel, who later told him that Esther's experience persuaded him to approve widespread West Coast resettlement in January 1945, a year before he had planned to.
Esther began speaking to churches and colleges and on race-relation panels.
Her parents arrived in Pasadena from Grenada in the spring of 1945, only to find they had lost everything that they hadn't left with Anderson. Their employees who kept their equipment and trucks had sold them out.
They stayed in a hostel before they could find a small apartment. Esther couldn't bear to see them struggle and dropped out of college to support them. She started working as a secretary in a war surplus company in Los Angeles.
Ninoye, 48, found employment in a garment factory.
Harry, 55, bought a trowel and some basic tools and started working as a gardener. He held his head high as he endured insults, taking the bus from job to job.
The Takeis were resilient, and Harry used his business acumen and connections to get ahead. In the early 1950s, Harry, with other Issei, founded Rose's Frozen Shrimp Co. in downtown Los Angeles — selling wholesale frozen fish sticks and Mexican shrimp. He and Ninoye built a small house in Pasadena.
One day, Shig Nishio, a young man Esther had met in the barracks at Santa Anita, asked her on a date. She was excited and bought new pedal pushers and tennis shoes. They went to the Ocean Park pier.
"I was just swooning!" she recalled with a laugh half a century later. "He was so cute and so nice. And so that was it for me!"
They got married in 1947, had their son John the next year and built their own home in Pasadena in 1952.
Harry Takei applied for and received U.S. citizenship the moment he was allowed to under new immigration laws passed in 1952. But he missed Japan and tired of the racism he continued to face.
In 1958 he and Ninoye moved back to Tokyo. Still, Harry loved nothing more than wearing his double-breasted navy blue suit and chatting up American servicemen in the perfect English that he mastered as a carny.
Esther Takei Nishio took a job as a secretary for the Flying Tiger Line for the perks it offered — travel to Japan to visit her parents. Their son spent two full summers with his grandparents.
At home, John played baseball — in the Japanese Little League because he wasn't allowed in the "real one."
"My parents never missed a game, watching me miss fly balls and strike out," he recalled.
At home, the Nishios were active in the Pasadena Union Presbyterian Church, founded by Issei in 1913. When John joined an all-Nikkei Boy Scout troop, Shig became the Scoutmaster. The family often went fishing and camping in the Eastern Sierra, in part because hotels turned them away. Driving up Highway 395, they stopped at empty fields where the Manzanar Relocation Camp once stood and, poking around one time, found the cemetery.
"We found the grave of a baby covered in weeds," John Nishio recalled, and were moved by that.
They cleared the weeds, and returned to do that at least once a year.
Esther Nishio never forgot what happened to her family in 1942. In 1981, she was one of the first to volunteer to testify before Congress about how her parents' belongings were effectively stolen. Years later she spent hours with interviewers from the Japanese American National Museum and Densho, a group that documents the testimonies of Japanese Americans during their World War II incarceration.
But she really liked to recall small, poignant — or funny — moments with her family, like the time she hired a belly dancer to embarrass Shig on his 60th birthday. She couldn't stop laughing about that, her son said.
Around 4 am on Oct. 1, Shig discovered that his wife of 72 years had collapsed on the floor and died. She had a smile on her face, John said, and he came and lay beside her for hours.
"She was always just so cheerful," John said," always praising people, trying to help them.
"The Japanese American community lost a true heroine when she passed, and so did our family."
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