Property of the Evacuees

Seattle posting of the first Japanese Exclusion Order (No 17, dated April 24, 1942) Courtesy Schmid, Social Trends in Seattle (1944)

To me, some of the most moving scenes in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet were of the Seattle Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) having to dispose of nearly everything they had worked for and accumulated. The scene where Chazz brags about his father buying up property in Japantown made me wonder how such a thing could have happened. Was some of the Nikkei’s property confiscated? I decided to look in more detail at what had typically happened to Nikkei property during the evacuation.

As depicted in the novel, once they’d received evacuation orders, the 8,000 or so Seattle Nikkei had only about a week to dispose of their property, transfer leases, sell equipment, etc.  Evacuating Nikkei could ask the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco for help in settling these personal affairs, but many Nikkei didn’t know of this possibility and others did not want to sign the required power of attorney. So, frantic evacuees arranged their affairs as best they could.

The Nihonmachi (Seattle’s Japantown) had a variety of stores, shops, and other service businesses. Seattle’s Nikkei business owners usually had two choices: sell or arrange a caretaker. Those selling often did so through newspaper ads. Because sellers had no leverage, property was often sold for pennies on the dollar. Some Nikkei hired professional brokers to handle sales, but these middle men also sold cheaply.

Courtesy Densho Digital Archive

Owners not wanting to sell their property at a loss tried to arrange for caretakers, such as neighbors or business associates. Such caretakers often abused the trust of the absentee owners, who could get no time off from the camps to handle problems or disputes. Many such caretakers failed to make mortgage payments or pay property taxes, so the property was repossessed. Often internees were paid so little for camp work ($12 to $19 per month) that they couldn’t make their own payments. Even when a trustworthy caretaker was found, many Nihonmachi businesses died due to lack of a customer base. Business owners that tried to store unsold stock and other belongings often lost everything anyway: Eighty percent of goods privately stored were stolen or sold.

As for cars, appliances, and other large belongings, roving brokers often approached frantic sellers with take-it-or-leave it offers, sometimes as part of scams. The Army offered to store automobiles, but these vehicles weren’t cared for and deteriorated over time. The Army ended up requisitioning many of them.

Evacuees with pets were forced to give them away or euthanize them.

It is hard to calculate a dollar value for the losses Nikkei suffered. Government records are slipshod, and evacuating Nikkei had little time for careful documentation. Losses were certainly huge, larger if you calculate loss of income during the three years of incarceration.

Congress passed legislation in 1988 providing for a one-time $20,000 payment to the surviving 60,000 internment camp inmates. Payments began on October 9, 1990. The bill included an official apology on behalf of the people of the United States.

Bibliography:

Fiset, Louis. Camp Harmony. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Miller, Richard Lawrence. “Confiscations from Japanese-Americans during World War II”. Website: Forfeiture Endangers American Rights.

Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.:  The Commission, 1982.

Taylor, Sandra C. “Evacuation and Economic Loss: Questions and Perspectives” in Kitano, Harry H.L. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Cameron

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