Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The first generation of Japanese immigrants, known as issei, originally came to the Great Plains as sojourning contract laborers for railroad or mining companies in the late 1890s and early 1900s; few other occupations were open to them. After completing their contracts, many worked for farmers and meatpackers, and eventually some became owners of small businesses and farms. By 1910 Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado each had a Japanese population of between 1,500 and 2,500. The other Great Plains states each had fewer than 1,000 Japanese. In Canada, most of the early Japanese immigration was to British Columbia. In the early 1900s the Canadian Pacific Railway recruited many Japanese immigrant workers, especially Okinawans. Just before World War II there were more than 550 Japanese in Alberta and 40 in Manitoba.

The Oriental Trading Company brought Japanese railroad gangs to Montana for the Great Northern Railroad in 1898 and provided as many as 6,000 workers to eight other railroad companies in Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota. Other Japanese workers built railroads in Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Issei were brought to the Great Plains by labor contractors called keiyaku-nin, who recruited and transported the laborers to work sites and negotiated labor conditions with employers. Contractors also served as foremen, supervisors, and translators, and they kept a portion of the workers' wages for their services: a contractor for the Northern Pacific Railroad, for example, charged each worker ten cents out of their $1.10 daily wage. Most issei were bachelors who lived in boxcars in despicable conditions, often developing illnesses from overwork and malnutrition.

Issei first engaged in agriculture as contract laborers. While European Americans could obtain land through the Homestead Act or outright purchase, the majority of Japanese Americans remained tenants because of the alien land laws of several states. These prohibited the acquisition of land for "aliens ineligible for citizenship''.a racist constitutional interpretation that until 1952 limited citizenship to "free white person[s]" and "persons of African nativity or descent." In the Great Plains, Japanese Americans mainly grew sugar beets but gradually diversified by adding potatoes and beans as they acquired larger acreages. In the early 1900s the Great Western Sugar Company in Billings, Montana, and Scottsbluff, Nebraska, specifically encouraged Japanese production of sugar beets. In Colorado, Naoichi Hokazono advanced the sugar beet venture by cultivating 2,000 acres near Greeley using Japanese contract laborers. Issei farmers also made Rocky Ford, Colorado, famous for quality cantaloupes. Altogether, between 1907 and 1909, issei farmers in Colorado increased their total farming acreage by 131 percent.

Miners were the other major pioneering group of issei to first reach the Great Plains. In 1909 there were 300 Japanese miners in Colorado from a total of 3,555 Japanese Americans in the state. In Wyoming, Japanese miners, who worked in at least seven mines, joined the white labor union. Issei also entered the meatpacking industry in the Great Plains when labor contractor Kinji Okajima brought in 120 strikebreakers to an Omaha packinghouse and another 100 strikebreakers during Kansas City's 1904 Armour meat packinghouse strike.

Denver became home to the largest Japanese American community in the Great Plains. Although Denver's Japanese town survives in greatly reduced form, its cultural and religious institutions once served much of the Great Plains. Denver's Tri-State Buddhist Church, established in 1916, grew to serve a 600-mile radius, extending into Nebraska and Wyoming, with fourteen branch churches in 1934. Tamai Towers, a senior citizens' home, stands in Denver's Sakura Square to honor Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai, who dedicated his life to ministering to his dispersed Great Plains congregation. Farther east, Japanese communities developed in Nebraska in the cities of Omaha, Lincoln, North Platte, Scottsbluff, and Mitchell. Rev. Hiram Hisanori Kano, a minister of the Episcopal Church in Nebraska and leader of the Japanese agricultural community, received an early graduate degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska. A farmer himself, he later established the Japanese colony of Dutton Ranch in Hebron, Nebraska. Kano and members of the Nebraska Japanese Improvement Association achieved a minor victory when the state's land law was widened to include aliens, not just those eligible for citizenship, and leases were extended from two to five years.

During World War II approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes and were sent to temporary detention centers operated by the army and then to one of ten concentration (a term now preferred to internment) camps operated by the War Relocation Authority. Two of these camps were located in or near the Great Plains—Heart Mountain near Hunt, Wyoming, and Amache near Granada, Colorado. The Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians living in the Great Plains were not forcibly relocated, apart from several issei leaders, including Reverend Kano. The governors of the Great Plains states, with the exception of Colorado's Ralph Carr, may have had some responsibility for the system of concentration camps because they opposed settlements of unguarded Japanese among the general population in their states. The Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also operated several smaller camps for issei, which detained such "security risks" as community leaders, Japaneselanguage teachers, and newspaper editors. Several ins camps were located in the Great Plains, including those at Bismarck, North Dakota, and Crystal City, Texas.

Japanese Americans were able to leave the concentration camps once they secured college admission, army service, or army clearance. This led to increased Japanese American student enrollment at some Great Plains colleges, particularly in Colorado and Nebraska. Japanese Americans were also furloughed temporarily from the camps to work on sugar beet farms in the surrounding areas. The Canadian government, as a part of its own forced relocation, also sent some 3,600 Japanese Canadians to work in harsh conditions on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Many nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) from the Great Plains also served in the muchdecorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The sacrifices of soldiers of the 442nd and the exploits of Nebraska war hero Ben Kuroki are credited as part of the reason for the amelioration of anti-Japanese racism.

Although the majority of the removed Japanese Americans returned to the West Coast, third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans are now part of the fabric of life in the Great Plains, serving as city council leaders, editors, professors, and farmers. According to the 2000 census, 17,120 Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans live in Texas, 11,571 in Colorado, 2,505 in Oklahoma, 1,935 in Kansas, 1,582 in Nebraska, 1,964 in New Mexico, and 1,906 in other Great Plains states. Canada's 1996 census reveals that 8,280 Japanese and Japanese Canadians reside in Alberta, 1,670 in Manitoba, and 415 in Saskatchewan.

See also WAR: World War II.

Noriko Asato University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Iwata, Masakasu. Planted in Good Soil: A History of the Issei in United States Agriculture. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

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