Idaho judge ignores a centennial affront to the descendants of Japanese farmers
Maureen Dowd's New York Times column this month on the threat development poses to a Civil War historic site where President Lincoln once dodged bullets reminded me to check on the status of a similar threat I wrote about last spring. At that time, the issue of whether a massive factory farm would be allowed to despoil Minidoka, site of a World War II internment camp where American citizens of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned, was pending the decision of an Idaho court.
As I learned last week, while I was out of the country in August, Judge Robert Elgee of Idaho's Fifth District ruled in favor of the developers who plan to build a 13,000-head cattle feedlot adjacent to Minidoka, rendering it a historic attraction in name only. Given the contributions of Japanese immigrants to American farming, the desecration of this National Historic Site by a so-called farm would be especially egregious.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, The National Park Service, and Idaho landowners and environmental groups all oppose the project. Friends of Minidoka are asking for contributions to help fund an appeal of the judge's ruling.
A century ago, a generation of Japanese farmers, recruited to the United States to grow food for Americans, was vilified as an economic threat to white farmers. Three decades later, at the beginning of World War II, many of these same immigrants, along with their US-born children and grandchildren, now transformed in the public imagination to a homegrown security threat, were shipped off to prison camps, including Minidoka. There, they used their farming skills to support the war effort.
Nearly four decades after the war, former prisoners and their descendants received an apology from Congress, and in 2001 President Clinton designated the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho a National Monument, creating a perpetual reminder of the devastating consequences of government-sanctioned racism.
In a cruel twist of irony, the threat represented by the proposed confined animal feeding operation (CAFO, or factory farm) landed Minidoka on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of American's Most Endangered Historic Places. Whether the CAFO will swallow up the historic site now depends on whether opponents of the proposed development can afford to appeal the August 3 ruling.
The history behind the congressional apology to Japanese Americans is long and ugly. In January of 1909, an article in The New York Times described the formative role of Japanese immigrants in the agricultural development of the American West:
In California farmers were originally less in number, and for this reason the California authorities many years ago adopted a policy of inviting immigrants from abroad. The result was immigration to California of Japanese laborers in large numbers and it is no exaggeration to note that the present development of agricultural enterprise in California was practically due to the efforts of Japanese laborers or farmers.
That same year, the first of many anti-Japanese bills was introduced in California, followed four years later in 1913 by the Webb-Harley Law. Japanese immigrants were already denied the opportunity to become US citizens by federal law restricting that right to "free white persons," but the Webb-Harley Law - which remained in effect until 1952 - decreed that "aliens ineligible to citizenship," could no longer purchase land or even rent it for more than three years, effectively preventing Japanese immigrants from farming independently.
Apparently, though, depriving the Japanese of land ownership did little to alleviate tensions in California. According to The Reader's Companion to American History, one of several motivations for US imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was the desire of other West Coast farmers to eliminate competition.
On February 21, 1942, two days after President Roosevelt gave his military the power to relocate Japanese-American citizens and non-citizen Japanese immigrants, The Times reported:
Japanese farmers in the Salinas Valley, which produces 57 percent of the lettuce and a third of the carrots for the vegetable markets of the country, are surrendering their leases on many tracts of rich land ...
Agricultural experts, intent on seeing that increased farm production quotas for 1942 are realized, have objected to proposals that all persons of Japanese ancestry be moved out of the Pacific Coast "combat zone" on the ground that such an evacuation would create a big shortage of garden products. One hears a different story from white farmers ...
In the end, Japanese immigrants who had purchased land before Webb-Harley passed, and Americans of Japanese ancestry who owned their own farms, had them taken away as a matter of government policy. Rumors spread like weeds, with Agricultural Commissioners of the San Joaquin Valley ordering inventories of the insecticides owned by "alien farmers" as "an outgrowth of warnings recurrent in California now and then among those who do not trust Japanese farmers that 'too much arsenic' might sometime be put on vegetables prepared by them for the markets." Flashlights used by farmers to navigate to their outhouses at night became, in the imaginations of Army commanders, signals to Japanese submarines off the California Coast.
While the government had no respect for the Japanese famers' land rights, their skills were nevertheless in great demand, as food was needed to feed an army and a hungry nation. Plans were hatched to "get the non-citizens, many of whom are looked upon as potential fifth columnists, out of the vital defense areas and at the same time help meet the threat of reduced crops at a time when the Department of Agriculture is calling for unprecedented production." So the imprisoned Japanese farmers were once again put to work growing food for the nation that despised and discriminated against them.
By the summer of 1942, the US Military's propaganda machine had successfully recast the uprooting of more than 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans as an act of kindness and a source of pride. In one of a series of on-the-ground reports on the evacuations and internments, Lawrence Davies of The New York Times described the arrival of about 1,000 Japanese "volunteers" from Los Angeles at the Manzanar "pioneer colony" like this:
[T]his correspondent was stuck by the feeling of relief and security evident among the eager evacuees. Roy Takeno, English editor of The California Daily News, confirmed the impression; it was, he said, the predominant topic of conversation in all groups of his fellows. For the first time since Pearl Harbor men of Japanese blood did not have to be afraid. They had reached a haven where they could not be blamed for any flashing lights along the shoreline or for the firing of a shotgun near the airport.
Of course, given the escalating hostility toward Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans from both white Americans and other immigrant groups, there is every reason to believe the relief Davis described was very real. Much of the rest of his report painted a rosy picture of life in the camps.
Despite the temporary nature of these communities, the residents try to make them homelike. Within two weeks after the first newcomers arrived neat rows of radishes, carrots and beets began pushing up their shoots around the dwellings. Flowers miraculously appeared in window boxes. Tables, chairs, vanity sets - fashioned from scraps of lumber left by carpenters - soon furnished the bare apartments...
Baseball games . . . organized into regular leagues, are a popular form of recreation. Another pastime is the Saturday night dance, attended . . . by couples attired all the way from slacks and boots to the latest Hollywood fashion.
Today, not even a decade after the Minidoka Internment Camp was promised permanent preservation as a National Historic Site, it is threatened with becoming permanently overshadowed by the massive waste lagoons, poisoned air and putrid water that characterize Idaho's dairy CAFOs.
To quote one area resident who wants the project stopped,
If you imagine visiting a park near a CAFO, you wouldn't even want to get out of the car, let alone have a picnic, peruse the waysides [or ] look for names on the Honor Roll ...
Or, as Dan Everhart, president of the board of Preservation Idaho, put it, allowing the CAFO to go forward "would be a de facto closing of the [historic] site because no one would be able to get out of the car."
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