Harry Ueno

Name Harry Ueno
Born April 14 1907
Died December 14 2004
Birth Location Pau'auilo, Hawai'i
Generational Identifier

The central figure in the Manzanar Riot of December 6, 1942, the World War II Japanese American incarceration experience's bloodiest incident, Harry Yoshio Ueno (1907–2004), headed up the Mess Hall Workers Union at the Manzanar War Relocation Center . A popular thirty-five-year-old Hawai'i-born Kibei , Ueno was arrested for his alleged role in the previous night's beating of scorned Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) leader Fred Tayama . Ueno's jailing sparked mass demonstrations leading to military police gunfire killing two detainees and wounding others. After World War II Ueno lived primarily in California's Santa Clara County, working as a farmer and, after his retirement, actively supporting redress and reparations for Japanese Americans because of their wartime mistreatment.

Before the War

Harry Ueno was born April 14, 1907, in Pa'auilo village, on the north-central coast of the Island of Hawai'i. His parents came from Japan's Hiroshima Prefecture. Harry had two brothers. When his father switched from plantation labor to leasehold farming, Harry enrolled in both public and Japanese schools .

In 1915, Harry was sent to live with grandparents in Hiroshima City. Harry and his parents were reunited in Japan seven years later. Familial strains encouraged Harry's relocation to Tokyo, where he extended his education. Harry then attended an Osaka maritime school, after which a U.S.-headed ship hired his services; but Harry jumped ship in Tacoma, Washington.

After working at a variety of jobs on the Pacific Coast and in the Midwest, Ueno moved to Los Angeles and there, in 1930, married Japanese immigrant Yaso Taguchi Ueno (1904-1987). Living near Little Tokyo, the Uenos raised three boys, while Harry did fruit stand and market work.

Japan's December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor caused the Uenos, like other Nikkei , to pay steeply for their Japanese ancestry. In the five months before incarceration at the Manzanar concentration camp in eastern California's Owens Valley, the U.S. government stripped them of constitutional rights and human dignity. Such treatment was particularly harsh against Kibei like Harry, who became progressively vexed that some Nikkei, notably JACL leaders, were collaborating with government and intelligence personnel to expose suspect co-ethnics. "When the war started, there was a drugstore at First and San Pedro Streets—Iwagi Drugstore. The JACL had a fifty-foot long billboard reading 'Anti-Axis Committee Headquarters.' I looked at that and said to myself, 'Wow.'" [1]

Wartime Detention and Dissent

Union Leader

After entering Manzanar—whose 10,000 inmates mostly originated from Los Angeles County—Harry cut sagebrush. When Ueno's Block 22 mess hall opened, he became a cook's assistant and inventively eased his block mates' burden. In July 1942, he developed a rock pond outside the mess hall so residents awaiting meals could be aesthetically uplifted.

Sugar was significant within Ueno's solicitude. Whereas he placed ample sugar on tables so adults could dilute their unpalatably strong coffee, for children Ueno oil-fried and sugar-sprinkled oven-dried uncooked rice as a snack. By fall 1942, sugar cuts ended such considerations. After surveying camp mess halls, Ueno disclosed "that . . . they [all] were getting shorter and shorter on sugar." [2]

Ueno next assembled an inmate committee to investigate the reason(s) for the worsening sugar shortfall. It found persuasive Nikkei police reports of the camp's assistant director, Ned Campbell, having spirited 100-pound sugar sacks out-of-camp for black market sale.

Eventually, in October 1942, Ueno formed the Mess Hall Workers Union. Of Manzanar's 4,000-workforce, 1,500 (including many Kibei) were kitchen workers. The union symbolized Manzanar's mushrooming anti-JACL sentiment. This antipathy extended to the Communist-dominated leftist faction, which forged a pragmatic common front with the business-dominated JACL to combat Axis fascism and promote Nikkei detention.

As early as the end-of-July formation of the JACL-inspired Manzanar Citizens Federation—"to aid the administration . . . and help the Nisei get more power and political strength in opposition to the Issei" [3] —it was Kibei who sparked the combustible animosity toward the JACL-Leftist alliance. This situation was inflamed over the next four months by divisive events leading to the Manzanar Riot.

Growing Tensions

Between Pearl Harbor and mass eviction, Los Angeles Kibei resented the JACL for forgetting that they too were U.S. citizens. This resentment was exacerbated at Manzanar. In early July 1942, Assistant Director Campbell reaffirmed the War Relocation Authority (WRA) policy mandating inmates' meetings be conducted in English, a JACL-endorsed policy that allied Kibei communist Karl Yoneda aggressively promoted. Most Kibei, however, interpreted this measure as politically emasculating.

This interpretation deepened with the July 28 Manzanar Citizens Federation meeting, packed by JACL organizers with pro-American Nisei . When WWI veteran Joe Kurihara , a Nisei from Hawai'i, declared that, because of discounted citizenship rights, he was now "a Jap and not an American, and [that] he wanted to go . . . to Japan where he belonged,' another WWI vet, Tokutaro "Tokie" Slocum , onetime chair of the JACL's Anti-Axis Committee, responded (to cheers) that "I'm here [in Manzanar] because my commander-in-chief, the President [Franklin D. Roosevelt] ordered me here." [4]

The Kibei belief that chauvinistic Nisei provoked their plight was dramatized at the August 8 "Kibei Meeting." Attended by 400 Kibei, it featured three Kibei speakers. The first accused certain Nisei of disregarding Issei and demanded (to deafening applause) that "those Nisei ought to be struck down." "I have heard," said the second presenter, "that there are a few [Nisei] who even send reports outside"—a revelation greeted with boos and shouts of "down with those rats." Contrastingly, the third speaker, Karl Yoneda, was interrupted by jeering and cries of "Sit down! Get out! Shut up!"

Right after administration-appointed JACL-associated Nisei block leaders were supplanted through election by Issei or Kibei, camp officials announced on August 22 its strict enforcement of the WRA ruling restricting political offices to U.S. citizens. The Issei, with Kibei backing, charged that this injustice was JACLer-encouraged. Undaunted, Director Ralph Merritt named an all-Nisei self-government commission to draft the governing charter.

Next to appear was the JACL-backed Manzanar Work Corps, which Kibei staunchly opposed. Convinced that the Corps was an administrative tool unsuited to safeguarding kitchen workers' interests, Harry Ueno clashed with Corps chairperson Fred Tayama.

Another anti-JACL sign was rising opposition to the JACL-dominated, Togo Tanaka -led Charter Commission. "In my block," scoffed Ueno, "we see no necessity for such a joke of a thing [self-government]; we should organize a strong Japanese Welfare Group in this camp. . . . I think it is a plot of the government to use those who can be used when they talk about self-government." [5] Not surprisingly, self-government was unanimously rejected.

Meanwhile, Fred Tayama and another JACL leader were in Salt Lake City as Manzanar's delegates at the JACL national convention. For inmates, "no more unrepresentative person [than Tayama] could be chosen to present the views of Manzanar at the convention." [6] The prewar antipathy by Los Angeles Nikkei toward him was compounded in camp. Favored by Manzanar's administration, Tayama now had the temerity to "represent" Manzanarians at a gathering where WRA national leaders were present and policy measures forged. Indeed, word filtered back to camp of Tayama advocating Nisei induction into army combat units. Merely mentioning Fred Tayama stirred inmate repulsion.


On the evening of December 5, 1942, following Tayama's return to Manzanar, six unidentified inmates assaulted him. The severe beating hospitalized Tayama and prompted camp officials to apprehend three Kibei. Two were released after questioning, but the remaining one, identified specifically by Tayama as Harry Ueno, was jailed in nearby Independence, California. [7]

The next day's meetings, involving large inmate crowds, discussed Ueno's arrest and his camp return. Attendees overwhelmingly believed Ueno innocent of Tayama's beating and felt him victimized for fingering select WRA officials of appropriating inmate provisions for personal gain. Following fiery speeches, a Committee of Five, including two Issei and two Kibei from the Mess Hall Workers Union, negotiated Ueno's reinstatement with Director Merritt. Joe Kurihara, Ueno's non-union friend, was the principal spokesman. When the crowd descended upon the administration building, Merritt requested military police to deploy outside the camp's access gate. Merritt then convened with the committee and, contingent upon demands being fulfilled, agreed to confine Ueno in Manzanar's jail within an hour after the crowd had withdrawn to their barracks.

With Ueno duly returned to the camp jail, the Committee of Five affirmed this action and announced their dissolution. But a crush of two to four thousand inmates demanded Ueno's unconditional release, even if this meant enforced removal. They also demanded that "informers" like Fred Tayama be killed. Now a mob, the inmates split into two main groups, one going to the camp hospital to finish the previous night's attack on Tayama, and the second to the jail to liberate Ueno. Unable to find Tayama, the first group splintered into two sub-groups bent on finding and killing Tokie Slocum and Togo Tanaka, two other reputed JACL "stooges." These missions all proved futile. Director Merritt then authorized military police to enter Manzanar and form a barricade between the crowd and the jail.

From 7:00 to 9:30 p.m., the administration negotiated with the inmate representatives. When inmates hurled missiles, the MP captain ordered his men to tear gas the demonstrators. For reasons unknown, several soldiers then fired into the crowd, killing a teen-aged Nisei and wounding nine other Nikkei, one fatally.

Those on the inmates' black and death lists were removed to the nearby MP encampment, while those deemed responsible for the disruption were arrested. Later, the first group was taken to an abandoned Death Valley CCC camp, while the second was imprisoned within Owens Valley jails. The former, including Fred Tayama, were soon resettled into residential and employment slots throughout free-zone America and within the U.S. military. The latter, including Harry Ueno, spent the remaining war years in various lockups, like the Moab Isolation Center in Utah, the Leupp Isolation Center in Arizona, and the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California. Considered "troublemakers" by the WRA, these men were never charged with a crime or granted a hearing. As for Ueno, although an outspoken dissenter at Moab, by Leupp's late-1943 closure and throughout his Tule Lake imprisonment, he exchanged camp politics for family and work duties. At Tule Lake he would also restore his earlier renounced U.S. citizenship.

After the War and Discussion

Following release from Tule Lake, Harry Ueno and his family first resettled in central California's San Luis Obispo County and, a few years later, moved north to Santa Clara County, where on leased land in the San José area they grew cherries and strawberries for over twenty years. During this period, when Nikkei generally kept a decidedly low profile, little was heard of Harry Ueno.

A notable exception occurred in 1948 when the official JACL newspaper, the Pacific Citizen , on September 25, reprinted an earlier published Colorado Times article by Togo Tanaka meant to rejoice over the reversed estates since camp days of JACLers, like himself, and anti-JACL resisters, like Harry Ueno. Then, "pressure boys," like Ueno, in "morally defiled places," like Manzanar, had intimidated/seduced the Nikkei majority into believing that JACL leaders, like Tanaka, were informers who, having sold out their ethnic community for self-advancement, needed punitive beatings and banishments. This goal accomplished, resistance "messiahs" were themselves removed from camps as "troublemakers." Even though each charismatic resistance leader had been transformed into "a martyr for his glowing cause," Tanaka opined, posterity would not vindicate them. It was already clear that these individuals had not "contributed anything more than zero to securing the present position of Japanese Americans in U.S. life." Having punctured camp resisters' historical pretensions, Tanaka turned to obliterating them, via the prototypical Harry Ueno, from the collective memory of both Japanese and mainstream America: "This ex-fruit-stand clerk has disappeared into the obscurity and oblivion from which he reared his sallow head, and no one seems to care very much if at all. Thus, the story endeth."

Yet, in the 1960s-1970s, when American and Nikkei society underwent a tumultuous upheaval, whereby blind obedience to authority ceased being admired while those speaking up for social justice were commonly valorized, Harry Ueno decided to share his World War II story with a wider world. Thanks to Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, historian Don Hata, Sue Kunitomi Embrey , a Manzanar detainee then heading the activist Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee and its annual Manzanar Pilgrimage , along with Cal State University, Fullerton, oral historian Art Hansen, tape-recorded an interview with Ueno at his San José home. It became the basis for the 1986 book Manzanar Martyr .

Following his memoir's publication and the death of his wife Yaso, Ueno became active in the Japanese American community, attending several Manzanar Pilgrimages, participating in public programs and oral history and film projects, depositing his papers at selected public archives, and contributing to the Japanese American redress and reparations movement through affiliation with the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) and its class-action lawsuit again the U.S. government for wartime damages.

Authored by Arthur A. Hansen , California State University, Fullerton

For More Information

Harry Ueno

Embrey, Sue Kunitomi, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson. Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno' . Fullerton, Calif.: California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program, 1986.

---. "Harry Yoshio Ueno." Oral history interview (October 30, 1976) in Resisters, Part IV of Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project, edited by Arthur A. Hansen (Munich: K. G. Saur, 1995): 1-67. Online transcription available through Online Archive of California (OAC): http://www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft1f59n61r;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e336&toc.depth=1&toc.id=&brand=oac4 .

Estrella, Cicero A. "Harry Ueno—Prostestor during, after Internment." Obituary of Harry Yoshio Ueno. San Francisco Chronicle , December 18, 2004. Obituary available online: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Harry-Ueno-protester-during-after-internment-2628666.php .

Hansen, Arthur A. “A Riot of Voices: Racial and Ethnic Variables in Interactive Oral History Interviewing.” Chapter 3 in Barbed Voices: Oral History, Resistance, and the World War II Social Disaster . Louisville, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2019.

Hansen, Arthur A., Betty E. Mitson, and Sue Kunitomi Embrey. "Dissident Harry Ueno Remembers Manzanar." California History 64 (Winter 1985): 16-22.

"Harry Y. Ueno Papers, 1937-1986." University of California, Los Angeles, Charles E. Young Research Library, Department of Special Collections. Finding Aid available through Online Archive of California (OAC): http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf3w1005kh/admin/ .

"Harry Y. Ueno Papers, 1912-1997." Stanford University Libraries, Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives. Finding Aid available online: https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/ft5h4nb0pb/entire_text/

Ng, Wendy, "Harry Y. Ueno." Oral History interview, January 23/May 9, 1998. In Regenerations Oral History Project: Rebuilding Japanese American Families, Communities, and Civil Rights in the Resettlement Era , Volume 4 (San Jose Region). Edited by Darcie C. Iki, ed. (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, in conjunction with the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, and the Japanese American Resource Center/Museum of San Jose, 2000), 457-530. Online transcription available through Calisphere: http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=ft600006bb;NAAN=13030&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=d0e26375&toc .

Oliver, Myrna. "Harry Ueno, 97: Hero to Japanese Americans in Internment Camps." Obituary of Harry Yoshio Ueno. Los Angeles Times , December 21, 2004. Obituary available online: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/21/local/me-ueno21 .

Rabbit in the Moon. Documentary film produced by Chizu Omori and directed by Emiko Omori. Hohokus, N.J.: New Day Films, 1999.

Tachibana, Judy. "Indefinite Isolation: The World War II Ordeal of Harry Yoshio Ueno." Rafu Shimpo , December 20, 1980.

Tateishi, John. "Harry Ueno—Manzanar." In ' And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.186-207.

Ueno, Harry. "Hostages of War." Rikka 10 (Autumn 1985): 16-22.

Ueno, Harry, interview by Emiko Omori, February 18, 1994, Emiko and Chizuko Omori Collection, Densho , http://ddr.densho.org/interviews/ddr-densho-1002-7-1/ .

Manzanar Riot

Hansen, Arthur A., and David A. Hacker. "The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective." Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1974): 112-57.

Hansen, Arthur A., and Betty E. Mitson. Voices Long Silent: An Oral Inquiry into the Japanese American Evacuation . Fullerton, Calif.: Japanese American Project of Oral History Program at California State University, Fullerton, 1974.

Kurashige, Lon. "War and the American Front: Collaboration, Protest, and Class in the Internment Crisis." Chapter 3 in Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival in Los Angeles, 1934-1990 . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Okihiro, Gary Y. "Japanese Resistance in America's Concentration Camps: A Re-evaluation." Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1973): 112-57.

Unrau, Harlen D. "Operation of Manzanar War Relocation Center—March-December 1942" and "Violence at Manzanar on December 6, 1942—An Examination of the Event, Its Underlying Causes, and Historical Interpretation," Chapters 10-11 in The Evacuation and Relocation of Persons of Japanese Ancestry during World War II: A Historical Study of the Manzanar War Relocation Center . 2 vols. Manzanar National Historic Site, California: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1996. Available online: https://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm


  1. As quoted in Sue Kunitomi Embrey, Arthur A. Hansen, and Betty Kulberg Mitson, Manzanar Martyr: An Interview with Harry Y. Ueno (Fullerton, Calif.: California State University, Fullerton, Oral History Program, 1986), 13.
  2. Manzanar Martyr , 30.
  3. Letter dated Jan. 7, 1946, to M. M. Tozier, Chief, Reports Division, WRA, Barr Bldg., Wash., DC, from Ralph P. Merritt, Project Director, Manzanar War Relocation Center, Manzanar, CA, as cited in Arthur A. Hansen and David A. Hacker, "The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective," Amerasia Journal 2 (Fall 1974): 131.
  4. Togo Tanaka and Joe Masaoka, "Historical Documentation: Project Report No. 36," U.S. War Relocation Archive, Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, Special Collections, UCLA Research Library, Collection 122, Box 9, as cited in Hansen and Hacker, "The Manzanar Riot," fn. 75, p. 152.
  5. Tanaka and Masaoka, "Historical Documentation: Project Report No. 76," U.S. War Relocation Archive, Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, Special Collections, UCLA Research Library, Collection 122, Box 9, as cited in Hansen and Hacker, "The Manzanar Riot," fn. 97, p. 155.
  6. Morton Grodzins, "The Manzanar Shooting," [Japanese American] Evacuation and Resettlement Study, University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Folder O10.04, p. 4. As cited in Hansen and Hacker, "The Manzanar Riot," fn. 102, p. 156.
  7. In 1994 Harry Ueno confessed that he led the attack, accompanied by four younger Kibei, on Fred Tayama. For details on this event, see Appendixes A, B, C, Arthur A. Hansen, “A Riot of Voices: Racial and Ethnic Variables in Interactive Oral History Interviewing,” Chapter 3 in Barbed Voices: Oral History, Resistance, and the World War II Japanese American Social Disaster (Louisville, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2019).

Last updated Dec. 19, 2023, 4:32 a.m..