A1 Revisited: The Seattle Times’ coverage of the 1942 removal of 227 Bainbridge residents left a harmful legacy
Sometimes the only way forward is to look back.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of the first removals of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast. Starting with 227 residents of Bainbridge Island on March 30, 1942, women, men and children were forced to leave their jobs, schools, homes and the lives they knew for an uncertain future. By the end, 120,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds of them U.S. citizens — would be incarcerated in desolate camps in remote regions primarily in the Western interior during World War II.
Today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans is widely seen as one of the country’s grossest violations of civil liberties. But in the years leading up to it, the U.S. media’s anti-Japanese fear mongering, racism and war hysteria created a rationale for the suspension of civil rights that was accepted by the public.
A rare number of media outlets — most notably the Bainbridge Island Review — took a principled stand against incarceration. Others, including The Seattle Times, did not. Eight decades later, Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen called that decision a “low point” in the paper’s history.
Today we launch a project called A1 Revisited, scrutinizing our coverage of historic moments — starting with the day Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from Bainbridge — to begin to be accountable for the impact of past mistakes on our region.
There’s often a straight line drawn between the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. The logic goes, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor and then in response, a vigilant and fearful U.S. government evacuated Japanese Americans for both their own protection and the protection of the larger community from potential espionage or disloyalty.
But what that framework obscures is that anti-Asian and anti-Japanese sentiment long predated Pearl Harbor.
Tom Ikeda, executive director and founder of Japanese American history organization Densho, said that in the 1920s, decades before Pearl Harbor, for example, prominent Bellevue business owner Miller Freeman pushed for laws to prevent Japanese Americans from owning land. Later, Freeman, as the founder of Washington’s Anti-Japanese League, championed incarceration for Japanese Americans.
Much of the tension and agitation against Asian Americans stemmed from nativist fears of unfair labor competition and loss of white control of farming.
In 1942, a representative of the Grower Shipper Vegetable Association was quoted in the Saturday Evening Post, saying: “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the [racist slur for Japanese Americans] for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man.”
Likewise, suspicion of Japanese Americans was fostered by the media well before the war. Certain racist conventions — derogatory slurs; the conflation of Japanese Americans with people in Japan — were already in wide use in The Seattle Times’ pages before 1942.
Led by publishers Hearst and McClatchy, newspapers along the West Coast beat the drum for anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1920s and later Japanese American incarceration in the 1940s, scholar Greg Robinson wrote in his book “A Tragedy of Democracy.”
The Los Angeles Times famously published a 1942 editorial by W.H. Anderson arguing for the incarceration of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, saying: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched … so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents … grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.”
In The Seattle Times, news and opinion coverage during the removal of Japanese Americans from the Seattle area might not have been as explicit, but it followed similar patterns.
In the March 30, 1942, edition, for example, a prominent A1 (front page) headline reads “First Photo of [racist slur for Japanese military] Destruction at Cavite Navy Yard,” and then at the bottom of the page, “Tears, Smiles Mingle as [racist slur for Japanese Americans] Bid Bainbridge Farewell.”
Longtime Seattle journalist and author Frank Abe said the use of the same derogatory slur for Japanese to refer to both the Japanese military and Japanese Americans created a “false equivalency.”
“The use of the term for both groups confirms in the public mind the linkage of American citizens with a Japanese enemy,” Abe said. “It validates the notion that ancestry determines identity, not just loyalty but identity.”
Abe said the “happy spin” the reporter put on the removal of Japanese Americans on Bainbridge was “superficially sympathetic,” but it ignored massive violations of civil liberties, due process and equal protection. The story goes on to embrace a number of other common tropes of the time, Abe said, such as the idea of Japanese Americans as pioneers going on a grand adventure, happily doing their part for the war effort.
There was also the theme of praising the Army for the “efficiency” of the removal, which is portrayed as “unfortunate but inevitable,” Abe said. Every Japanese American quoted in the story was depicted as cheerfully resigned to their fate and even proud to do their part. The most sympathy in the story was reserved for a girl who had to leave her kitten behind.
Abe said the depiction served to assuage the “fear and ignorance” of the Seattle public. “It eased their guilt. It assisted them in looking away, because [though Japanese Americans] may have ended up crying … they’re also smiling.”
The pervasive use of a slur to describe all people of Japanese descent allowed the public to see their fellow community members as outsiders and threats, Seattle poet, author and activist Larry Matsuda said. “They use the derogatory term of ‘Jap,’ which is dehumanizing,” Matsuda said. “When you say ‘Jap,’ we’re no longer citizens. We’re Japs. We’re foreigners.”
And not just foreigners but enemies.
Vince Schleitwiler, a fourth-generation Japanese American in Seattle, teaches Japanese American studies and comparative studies at the University of Washington. His own family history illustrates the hypocrisy of the U.S. policy of treating Japanese Americans as enemies.
“I have German American family who were not incarcerated during World War II. My grandfathers on both sides of my family served in the military, but only one served while his family was in camp,” Schleitwiler said.
“We can recognize how media coverage built either a political will to incarcerate Japanese Americans, or a sense of its tragic inevitability … It had to be built,” he said. “The reason people are interested in this now is because they see it happening again,” he said, citing the incarceration of migrants and the mass incarceration of African Americans as events today that people believe are natural or inevitable.
On the opinion side of what was then called The Seattle Daily Times, the sentiment was often more dehumanizing.
The opinion pages regularly ran a syndicated Hearst column by Henry McLemore, who was unabashed about his ideas for how Japanese Americans should be treated. In one January 1942 op-ed in The Seattle Times, for example, headlined “This is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting [racist slur] Feelings,” McLemore wrote, “I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don’t mean a nice part of the interior, either. Herd ’em up, pack ’em off and give ’em the inside room in the badlands. Let ’em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it. … Sure, this would work an unjustified hardship on 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the California Japanese. But the remaining 10 or 20 per cent have it in their power to do damage — great damage — to the American people.”
Unsigned editorials — the voice of the paper’s opinion stance — were often less strident, but nonetheless helped to uncritically justify harsh treatment of Japanese American people depicted as security threats. Abe described one Seattle Times editorial, titled, “If They Want to Play Rough, It’s High Time to Be Tough,” as “hysterical and ill informed. It’s just disinformation,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum was the response of Walt and Milly Woodward, the owners and publishers of the Bainbridge Island Review, one of the few publications to stand up to Executive Order 9066 at the time. In addition to editorials opposing incarceration, the paper engaged incarcerated Japanese Americans to write for the paper about the camp experience.
Seattle Times Publisher Blethen said while it’s easy to second-guess past decisions, the Woodwards’ courage is an inspiration. “I always wish that that generation of the Blethen family had had the same kind of gumption and compassion that Walt Woodward had, and was willing to stand up the way he did,” he said.
Blethen said the process of looking back is a healthy thing to do. While The Seattle Times can’t change past mistakes, “at least we can be very thoughtful about it going forward.”
The legacy of a photo
Slurs, hateful rhetoric and omissions were not the only ways The Seattle Times dehumanized and removed the agency and voice of Japanese American story subjects. The paper’s photographs caused as much harm as its words and painted a picture of Japanese Americans happy about their treatment.
One of the most jarring aspects of The Seattle Times’ coverage of the Japanese American removal and incarceration is the expression on the faces of those forced to leave.
On Aug. 16, 1942, for example, the centerpiece of the front page was photos depicting Japanese Americans leaving the Puyallup Assembly Center, euphemistically called “Camp Harmony,” for the Minidoka Relocation Center, near Hunt, Idaho.
Most of the people visible in the photos are smiling cheerfully. The Japanese American prisoners had spent months in the Puyallup site, living in rough-hewed barracks, with little privacy, stripped of their freedom and surrounded by armed watchtowers. Now, they were being shipped to parts unknown. And yet they were smiling.
One woman who was smiling in a front-page photo was Mitsuye Yamada, then 19. Before incarceration, Yamada and her family lived on Beacon Hill and she attended Cleveland High School. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, her father, an issei — or first-generation Japanese American — was arrested by the FBI, like many other community leaders.
The arrest was devastating for her family, Yamada said. They had no idea where her father was, or when or if he was coming back. Now 98, Yamada reflected at her home in Irvine, California, as she described that period as “the most overwhelming sadness.”
Not only did they fear for his safety, the family also had to figure out how to survive, with their bank accounts frozen by the government after the arrest.
Like most of the 13,000 Seattle-area Japanese Americans sent to incarceration camps, Yamada’s family was sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in 1942. After she got there, Yamada wrote a poem titled “Evacuation” about her experience being photographed in Puyallup:
As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
The Seattle Times
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day
Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.
When she saw her picture in The Seattle Times, “I recognized the irony of the situation,” Yamada said. Later, she said, she understood “they were going to use this photograph as a salve to their guilty feelings about what happened.”
Her poems were eventually published in 1976 in a book called “Camp Notes and Other Poems,” and Yamada went on to become an accomplished poet, author and human-rights activist.
Like Yamada, Larry Matsuda’s family was first incarcerated in Puyallup and then Minidoka. In Seattle, Matsuda’s family operated small grocery stores, but after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, white patrons stopped coming and their businesses could not survive the impacts of discrimination.
Matsuda was born in Minidoka in 1945.
The reverberations of his family’s incarceration lasted long beyond their time in the camp.
After the war, Matsuda’s father could not re-establish his once-successful businesses. He got a job as a janitor but then lost that, too. Later on, Matsuda’s mom became clinically depressed and ended up at Western State Hospital. “You talk about post-traumatic stress, these are the kinds of things that I think they suffered,” he said.
“Nidoto Nai Yoni”
As you enter the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, there’s a sign reading “Nidoto Nai Yoni” or “let it not happen again.”
While it refers to the Japanese American incarceration, it also applies to the media’s role in justifying and making the incarceration acceptable for the public.
Joseph Torres, the senior director of strategy and engagement for media advocacy organization Free Press, was involved in the organization’s Media 2070 reparations project, examining the role of the media in perpetuating anti-Black racism. Torres said the recent wave of news organizations such as The Baltimore Sun, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times looking back at their coverage is an important start.
“The role of the U.S. press has historically been upholding white racial hierarchies — that’s been a primary role,” he said. “Acknowledging the harm is the first step. But then institutions need to work with the community on what does repair look like?”
Torres said part of the work for the media is to give the community a say in defining what healing is for them.
That can involve breaking down some of the walls or customs that prevent newsrooms from representing community views directly — unfiltered. To that end, we collaborated with Densho on this project, soliciting feedback on our 1942 coverage and diving into the organization’s library of resources about the incarceration.
In the moment, it’s often hard to see the parallels between our present and our past. Japanese American social justice groups like Tsuru for Solidarity exist to remind us that today’s migrant border camps or immigrant detention centers are contemporary echoes of our history.
“We need to learn from our mistakes, and let it not happen again,” Matsuda said. “That’s just a plea from a minority. And it’s hoped that it resonates with the majority so that they can influence change,” he said.
“Because liberty and justice for all, was not for all.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.