Resettlement in Denver


Denver was a popular destination for Japanese Americans during and after World War II, in part because of the reputation of the state's prewar governor, Ralph Carr, who spoke out against incarceration and welcomed Japanese Americans to Colorado. A thriving Japantown area sprung up and lasted into the 1950s. Although the community shrank as families moved back to the West Coast, third, fourth and even fifth-generation Japanese Americans have grown up in the Denver area, and today keep alive cultural traditions and celebrate their identity in an annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

Prewar

The first Japanese arrived in Colorado in the late 1800s, mostly as railroad workers. Many passed through, and didn't settle in the state. By 1890, the Census noted only 10 Japanese lived in Colorado. Immigration from Japan into Colorado began in earnest in the first decade of the new century, and by 1910 the Japanese population was at 2,300 according to the official census. Of those, 585 lived in Denver.[1] Unlike California and other western states, Colorado didn't have an alien land law prohibiting Japanese immigrant farmers from buying or leasing land and starting their own businesses.[2] Along with rural towns, Japanese settled in Denver, the capital and largest city. Most concentrated in what's now the "Lower Downtown" area along Blake and Market Streets, and later, Larimer Street.

World War II

Many Japanese Americans feel kindly towards Colorado because of the state's governor at the start of World War II, Ralph Carr. A Republican who was considered a future candidate for president, Carr was an attorney who above all else believed in the United States Constitution. When President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 led to concentration camps for people of Japanese descent, Carr was the sole western governor who opposed the idea, and welcomed Japanese Americans to Colorado. His reasoning was purely constitutional: He felt it was illegal to imprison American citizens (which U.S.-born Japanese Americans were) without cause. This decision cost him his political career, but grateful Japanese arrived in Colorado even before forced removal from the West Coast began.

Nearly 2,000 refugees from the West Coast arrived to avoid incarceration in early 1942.[3] Some had jobs lined up through relatives and friends. Tillie Honda, a nurse from California, took a train in the middle of the night to take a position at Denver's Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. The job was arranged by her Caucasian doctor. Honda stayed the rest of her life in Colorado, and said she didn't suffer racism when she arrived. "Governor Carr set the tone by publicly welcoming us to his state."[4]

Carr continued to publicly fight for Japanese Americans' rights and was attacked by newspapers and individuals across the state for his stand to accept "evacuees," and received threats including death threats.[5]

While racial hatred simmered, Japanese were required to register and to give up certain possessions such as ham radios, cameras and dynamite (an essential for farmers). They had to contact local authorities if they wanted to leave their home area. Jim Hada, whose parents were separated before the war, found himself working in northern Colorado with his father, while his mother, who had stayed in California, was incarcerated at Amache. He got permission to visit his mother, and spoke to her briefly at the gate and was allowed to drive her to see his father and his farm before returning her to Amache. That was the only contact he had with his mother during the war.[6]

In Denver, the war brought growth for the existing Japanese community. The Denver Bureau of Public Welfare counted 2,310 Japanese in the city in 1944, out of which 755 were people who'd come to Colorado to avoid West Coast incarceration, and 1,158 were from concentration camps and had moved for sponsored jobs and schooling. But by 1945, when families began moving out of the camps, the Japanese community reached a population of 5,000. The corresponding explosion in Japanese-owned businesses, especially in the corridor along Larimer Street, reflected the growth: There had been 46 businesses in 1940, but by 1946 there were 258.[7]

Postwar years

By the time the war ended, many Japanese Americans who'd been in concentration camps didn't want to return to the West Coast, where they had lost their homes and businesses. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) stated in 1944 that out of 22,000 Japanese Americans released from the 10 concentration camps that year, the largest number to head to one place, was the 5,000 that relocated to Chicago. Denver was second with 2,507 former prisoners hoping to start new lives.[8] After the war, the Japanese population in Colorado swelled to 11,700, with almost half living in Denver.[9]

The Japanese American Citizens League, which had moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Utah during the war, held its first biennial convention of the postwar era in Denver in 1946, with a 14-point agenda it would work towards that included reparations for Japanese Americans displaced by internment.[10] The keynote speaker at that convention was former Gov. Ralph Carr, who was given a gold pocket watch inscribed with the message, "In grateful appreciation for your courageous stand for Democratic American principles."[11]

By 1950, the Japanese population in Denver had grown eightfold since before the war. The resettled population merged with the existing community. The Japanese community of Denver after World War II stretched from the original Nihonmachi section along Larimer Street (where businesses were concentrated because they weren't allowed to open in other parts of the city)[12], to the historically black Five Points area all the way east to City Park. During the 1950s and 1960s, many Japanese faces looked out from middle school and high school yearbooks in those neighborhoods.

One reason that Japanese Americans found it easy to resettle in Denver was that the foundations of the community had been laid decades before World War II, and since Japanese weren't rounded up during the war (though they certainly faced racism and their freedoms were limited by authorities), those institutions were still in place.

Since the turn of the century, along with business, the institutional support of churches and kenjinkai—associations for people from the same prefecture—had smoothed the way for Japanese immigrants to settle and build new communities. The first such organization in the state wasn't organized around a specific prefecture, but the community in general. The Japanese Association of Colorado (recently renamed the Japanese American Association of Colorado) was formed in 1907 or 1908, and the organization was able to buy a building at 2109 Larimer St. in 1934. [13] There were also separate prefectural associations formed before the war, the Fukushima Kenjinkai and Fukuoka Kenjinkai.[14]

The Denver Buddhist Temple was established in 1916, and initially was housed in a former house of prostitution a few blocks from the heart of Nihonmachi. During the war, with the much larger Japanese population on hand to support an expansion, the renamed Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple was built on Lawrence Street, the next block from Larimer. The Buddhist Temple is still at the same address, and today anchors the Sakura Square development that serves as the center of the Japanese community.[15]

The Japanese Christian community has been served by the United Methodist Church since 1908, when the California Street Methodist Church was established in downtown Denver. The congregation moved from space to space as it grew, and now is based in the western suburb of Arvada, as the Simpson United Methodist Church.[16]

There were also long-established business organizations within the Japanese community since before World War II, including the Japanese Business Men's Association, Japanese Restaurant Keepers Association and the Japanese Boarding and Lodging House Keepers Association. They haven't survived over the decades, although today there is a Japanese Firms Association for employees of Japanese companies who are stationed in Denver for the duration.

Several newspapers had served the Japanese community in the decades leading up to war and incarceration, and during the war, one—the Rocky Shimpo—was caught up in a conspiracy trial because its editor, James Omura, supported the Fair Play Committee, a group of draft resisters organized at the Heart Mountain concentration camp. He was found innocent, but lost his job, and the newspaper shut down in 1951. Other newspapers were published within the Japanese community over the decades, but the longest-running was the Colorado Times, which was started as the Denver Shimpo in 1908 and became the Colorado Times when it merged with another newspaper in 1918.[17] By the 1970s, the only newspaper serving the community was the Rocky Mountain Jiho, which came on the scene in 1961. Bill Hosokawa wrote a weekly column in it for years.[18] That paper eventually shut down in the 2000s, and the community currently has no newspaper dedicated to it.

By the '60s and '70s, many Japanese American families had migrated back to their roots in California, even if they had resettled in Colorado after the war. Denver's Japanese American population also dropped during the 1960s, not just because of families heading back west, but also because of upward mobility, urban renewal and a general flight to the suburbs.[19]

The remaining symbol of the community that once flourished is Sakura Square, a one-block development that wraps around the Buddhist Temple, between Larimer and Lawrence and 19th and 20th Streets. The development opened in 1973 with the temple in one corner, Pacific Mercantile, a grocery store that's been operated by the same Japanese American family for four generations (and in its same location since before the war) in another, and in a third corner, Tamai Tower, an apartment building offering subsidized housing that was initially filled with elderly Japanese Americans but now has a multicultural mix of residents.

The fourth corner features a zen garden style park with a sculpture of the minister who oversaw Sakura Square, and busts of Minoru Yasui, the civil rights pioneer and longtime Denverite, and Gov. Ralph Carr.

Authored by Gil Asakawa

For More Information

Endo, Russell. "Japanese of Colorado: A Sociohistorical Portrait." Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences 31 (Fall 1985): 100-10.

Hosokawa, Bill. Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005.

Schrager, Adam, The Principled Politician: The Ralph Carr Story. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Russell Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity: The Japanese of Colorado" (unpublished paper presented at the Symposium on Ethnicity on the Great Plains, in Lincoln, Nebraska, 1978): 3-4.
  2. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 6.
  3. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 12.
  4. Joyce Hirohata, and Paul T. Hirohata, Nisei Voices: Japanese American Students of the 1930s – Then and Now (Hirohata Designs, 2004): 40.
  5. Adam Schrager, The Principled Politician, The Ralph Carr Story (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008): 185–97.
  6. Gil Asakawa,, "Speaking Out for the Past," The Denver Post, Feb. 16, 2003; online audio recording of Jim Hada, http://nikkeiview.com/nv/clips/postamache021603.htm.
  7. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 14.
  8. "2,507 of Released Jap Camp Residents Settle in Colorado," The Denver Post, May 25 1944: 1.
  9. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 13.
  10. Bill Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005): 147–48.
  11. Schrager, The Principled Politician, 315.
  12. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 12.
  13. Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese, 76.
  14. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 6.
  15. Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese, 65–75.
  16. Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese Americans, 58–64.
  17. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 12.
  18. Hosokawa, Colorado's Japanese, 135.
  19. Endo, "Persistence of Ethnicity," 14–15.