Resettlement in New York

Japanese American resettlement in New York during and after World War II represents a remarkable chapter within the wartime experience, as well as a decisive stage in the evolution of the city's ethnic Japanese population. While the Issei and Nisei from the camps who arrived in New York initially experienced some economic dislocation and racial discrimination, they joined with established residents to form a cohesive and politically engaged community.

The Prewar Community

Before the war, New York was home to the only sizable concentration of Nikkei east of the Rockies. Unlike the long-resident farmers and shopkeepers and their families who comprised the bulk of West Coast communities, New York's population, which was predominantly Issei, featured businessmen and diplomats as well as industrial workers, artists, and writers. Not only were ethnic Japanese in New York generally younger and more educated than their Pacific coast counterparts, they enjoyed full legal equality: there were no property restrictions or bans on intermarriage. As a result, the Japanese population was highly decentralized. A large minority—possibly even a majority—of Nikkei residents chose non-Japanese partners.

In the months before Pearl Harbor, many of the businessmen and consular officials who were the mainstay of the community returned home to Japan, while several hundred more diplomats and community leaders were arrested following the outbreak of war and interned by the government at Ellis Island. However, while restrictions remained in force on Issei as "enemy aliens," New York was formally unaffected by Executive Order 9066 , and with the emptying out of the West Coast, the city became the largest "free zone" on the U.S. mainland. A circle of antifascist Japanese Americans, largely first-generation, organized the Japanese American Committee for Democracy , which soon assumed community leadership.

Resettlers from Camp

As the war went on, the city's ethnic Japanese population was swelled by former West Coasters, including many artists and political activists, who had elected to resettle in the city after being incarcerated en masse in camps. At least 1,000 inmates resettled in New York during 1943-44, and they continued to arrive in even greater numbers during 1945 and 1946. As a result, the city's Japanese population grew from barely 2,000 in mid-1942 to about three times that number in 1946-47. The Japanese Americans who resettled in New York during 1943-1944 were almost entirely Nisei (at least 70%), while anecdotal evidence from the WRA's New York office indicates that a large number of the perhaps 1,500 inmates who moved to New York in 1945-46 were families and individual Issei.

Migration of Japanese Americans to New York generally followed nationwide patterns. As in other resettlement communities, most newcomers had never previously lived in New York, and often had never visited. Although the migrants held all sorts of jobs, a large percentage of Issei worked as domestics or gardeners, while Nisei men were employed as dishwashers in city restaurants, as hotel bellhops, as laundry workers, or as hospital staffers. Women worked as nurses, stenographers, secretaries and in domestic service. As time passed and more jobs opened up, Nisei took jobs as salesclerks, service workers and skilled laborers. Groups of younger Nisei attended college at Columbia, New York University, and at the city's four public colleges (later CUNY), as well as at denominational colleges, business schools, and trade schools—there were even seventeen Nisei girls studying at the Traphagan fashion school. In sharp contrast to other areas, numerous migrants were able to open their own businesses.

The newcomers also tended to congregate together residentially. The War Relocation Authority opened a hostel in Brooklyn Heights in mid-1944, and a few hundred resettlers lived there during its two-year existence. Other hostels soon opened. Even after they left their temporary quarters, many resettlers found housing in two small Japanese American enclaves. One was located on the West Side around 106–110th St., near the Japanese American Methodist Church, an area which one wit soon dubbed the "pickled plum district." A second group moved into Inwood, near Manhattan's northern tip, where another Japanese American church set up operations.

As in other resettlement locations, there was marked official and unofficial discrimination against the newcomers. New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was openly hostile to Japanese Americans (despite his generous public endorsement after Pearl Harbor of the loyalty of a local Issei, New York Philharmonic xylophonist Yoichi Hiraoka). LaGuardia refused to protect Japanese Americans faced with firing from city jobs after Pearl Harbor or to permit Japanese Americans to be hired for city jobs, although he was willing to experiment with hiring 50 Japanese Americans in "hospital helper" positions to reduce a desperate hospital worker shortage. In April 1944, when the WRA announced its plans to open its Brooklyn hostel, LaGuardia publicly denounced the project and asserted that resettlers from the camps were not welcome to enter New York. Not only did they threaten the city's security, he insisted dubiously, but their presence would spark riots among the city's Chinese population.

The records of the WRA's New York office, which was responsible for finding jobs and housing for the newcomers, also testify to a widespread pattern of job discrimination. Different firms openly refused to consider hiring Nisei. In late September, 1943, two Nisei, Kenji Ota and Hideo Tanaka, were sent by the WRA to interview for welding jobs with a New York company that maintained a shipyard in Camden, New Jersey. Ota and Tanaka were forced to wait until several weeks after their initial interview to hear back from the company. They then were summoned for a second interview. This time they were asked a set of extraordinarily irrelevant and insulting questions, such as whether they were fluent in Japanese and whether they hoped Japan would win the war. WRA officers, outraged by these harassing "interview" tactics, protested to the FEPC.

The Evolving Community

Still, the city was remarkable for the unusually rapid adjustment of the migrants and their entry into the cosmopolitan life of the city. On the one hand, New York, a historic center of settlement houses and charity work, was much better equipped than most cities with non-Japanese agencies prepared to serve the immediate needs of the resettlers and get them on their feet. The Protestant Welfare Council and the American Baptist Board for Home Missions both took important roles in this effort. Later, the Greater New York Citizens Committee for Japanese-Americans formed in November 1945, under the leadership of George Yamaoka and Robert Benjamin. Moreover, their adjustment was facilitated by their presence within an established, cosmopolitan community. New York had long-existing Japanese American churches, Japanese restaurants and grocery stores, and Japanese language courses, which were prepared to absorb the newcomers. What is more, the community had always been heavily young, educated, and transient, so there was less suspicion of outsiders than elsewhere.

At the same time, the character of the newcomers made their adjustment easier. Unlike in other regions, the migrants were not primarily farmers with little experience of urban life. Rather, those who chose to resettle in New York, especially Nisei, were educated, articulate, and wide-ranging in their interests and associations. A number of them had been active in West Coast community newspaper and political groups before the war, or had taken leadership roles in camp.

The newcomers were able to assume leadership roles in community institutions in short order and to act as liaisons with other ethnic and progressive organizations. For instance, in 1944 the JACD's last Issei board members resigned and Nisei took full control. In the process, the JACD expanded its social component by sponsoring dances and get-togethers. Meanwhile, with the help of Nisei migrants, the Japanese American Citizens League set up an office in New York in 1943, and in 1944 a local branch was created (fittingly, the organization's first interracial chapter). Meanwhile, new migrants threw themselves into journalism. Eddie Shimano worked as an editor at the pro-immigrant quarterly Common Ground , while Ina Sugihara was employed by the Religious News Service and contributed to Commonweal and The Crisis. Miné Okubo contributed illustrations for several newspapers before publishing her landmark book Citizen 13660 in 1946. Several newspapers were founded during this period, though most proved short-lived. In 1943, Shuji Fujii, former editor of the left-wing Los Angeles newspaper DOHO, created a New York version. The following year, the New York Jiji published several issues as a pendant to the monthly JACD Newsletter . In late 1945, an English-language journal, The Nisei Weekender , was founded. More successful was the weekly Japanese-language Hokubei Shimpo , which began a 40-year run in 1945. While Issei-owned, it made use of Nisei writers and editors, especially after it began an English-language section in 1947.

Once the West Coast reopened to Japanese Americans in 1945, migration of Issei and Nisei to New York slowed (although waves of migrants were recruited for work in the frozen vegetable industry at Seabrook Farms in nearby New Jersey). Political activism also stalled somewhat. The JACD, after morphing in 1948 into the Nisei for Wallace and then the Nisei Progressives , finally folded in 1950. Nevertheless, the New York community retained its cosmopolitan character in the postwar years, and was notable as home to a galaxy of well-known intellectuals and creative artists, including Isamu Noguchi , Miné Okubo, Hideo Date, Michi Weglyn , Yuriko Amemiya, and Yoko Ono.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics . Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Last updated Jan. 30, 2024, 12:50 a.m..