Editorials supported World War II incarceration of people of Japanese descent, and news coverage denigrated those targeted
Oct. 26, 2022
Content warning: This story contains quotations from the newspaper’s racist coverage of people of Japanese descent before and during World War II. It is part of a series examining The Oregonian’s history of racism.
She was just a schoolgirl, no older than 8. Yet almost 70 years later, Vicki Nakashima still remembers that the magazine article, a piece of family history, felt important enough to bring to show-and-tell.
It stretched across two pages in The New Republic. Vicki’s father, Ted, had written it.
“I figured my father being in a magazine was important,” she said.
Under the headline “Concentration Camp: U.S. Style,” Ted Nakashima, a second-generation Japanese American, gave a searing view from inside the Puyallup Fairgrounds near Tacoma, one of the prison camps the American government initially used to detain people of Japanese descent during World War II.
He described an upended world. Guards with Tommy guns threatened to shoot anyone within 20 feet of the barbed wire fences. Kids played in raw sewage. Bathrooms were off limits after 9 p.m., no exceptions. The line for meals stretched for blocks.
“Dirty, unwiped dishes, greasy silver, a starchy diet, no butter, no milk, bawling kids, mud, wet mud that stinks when it dries, no vegetables — a sad thing for the people who raised them in such abundance,” he wrote in the June 15, 1942, article.
“Can this be the same America we left a few weeks ago?”
Less than a month later, Oregon’s oldest newspaper, an ardent supporter of the mass incarceration, fired back. The story was authored by a young reporter named Richard Nokes who, decades later, would rise to the position of editor.
The full-page rebuke brushed off Nakashima without doing a basic reporting task: visiting the Washington prison camp about which Nakashima had written.
Nokes’ article painted a selective picture of incarcerated life at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, now the Portland Expo Center, which Nakashima mentioned in passing and where the population peaked in June 1942 at 3,676 people.
The story described the Portland prison camp as “comfortable” and “a temporary refuge,” ignoring that its residents had been ripped from their lives. Nakashima was labeled “Japanese” in the headline, obscuring the fact that he was a U.S. citizen born in Seattle. His complaints were dismissed as “bitter.” The Oregonian’s photographs showed people posed, smiling directly at the camera, far from an accurate representation of life there.
The Oregonian’s future editor said he had spoken to hundreds of people imprisoned, writing that they had few objections.
In fact, he wrote, “a vast majority seemed to consider their detention a vacation.”
Glaring in its arrogance, The Oregonian’s article was in keeping with the newspaper’s racist history. From its first days publishing as a daily in 1861 until well into the 20th century, The Oregonian existed as a newspaper by white men, for white men. The consequences were profound. Its white supremacist worldviews — excusing lynching, supporting segregation, stigmatizing people of color — helped shape the state today.
The story attempting to disprove Nakashima’s personal experience was characteristic of The Oregonian’s racist coverage of imprisonment during World War II. News articles and editorials relied on euphemisms, slurs, stereotypes and labels to conceal the consequences and denigrate the 120,000 people imprisoned without due process, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.
“The average reader would think: ‘That can’t be bad, look at that,’” said Vicki Nakashima, 75, a retired state of Oregon employee who lives in Camas, Washington.
The story is something, she said, for which the newspaper owes an apology.
“It was not right to use the press for that kind of purpose,” she said. “I knew my father didn’t lie.”
Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive, apologized to Nakashima and her family in person in early October, as this story was being finalized.
“I don’t know if you understand how important that is,” Nakashima told Bottomly.
“The pain and hardships were immense and the apology by The Oregonian doesn’t right a wrong,” Nakashima later said. “But it does correct the record for future generations.”
An apology: Therese Bottomly, current editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive, apologizes for the paper’s historically racist coverage and outlines plans for how to better cover communities of color today
The Oregonian applauded after President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, creating the West Coast incarceration program less than three months after the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,403 Americans.
The newspaper’s editorial board supported the incarceration, falsely claiming that people of Japanese descent had clustered in dangerous places, near the airport, shipyards and Bonneville Dam.
“They might easily become the victims of race riots if there were sudden evidences of sabotage — if, for example, unexplained fires appeared in the northwest forests,” the editorial board opined a week later, on Feb. 26, 1942. “And, besides, it is important that we remember that such fires, or other sabotage, actually do remain a possibility.”
The Oregonian’s publisher, Palmer Hoyt, pushed that narrative when he testified before a Congressional panel the same day. He warned federal lawmakers “a mere dozen saboteurs, given suitable climatic conditions, could have the state in flames overnight,” the paper wrote at the time.
Like other West Coast papers that supported the incarceration, The Oregonian’s news coverage called the imprisoned people “evacuees” and the places they were taken “evacuation centers” or “relocation centers.”
While the sentiments expressed by The Oregonian were widespread, many Americans also rightly criticized the government for violating the fundamental rights of its citizens. When Minoru Yasui intentionally got arrested in March 1942 in an effort to challenge the legality of a curfew targeting people of Japanese descent, The Oregonian labeled him an “alien” in a front-page headline. He was a U.S. citizen born in Hood River.
Yasui was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the country’s highest civilian honor, for a lifetime of fighting for human rights and his bravery in challenging an unjust detainment that, adjusted for inflation, cost families several billion dollars.
Peggy Nagae, the Portland attorney who led Yasui’s effort to vacate his conviction in 1984, said The Oregonian’s description of Yasui and other Japanese Americans wasn’t accidental. “It’s language to incite,” she said.
In a country where studies have documented rising violence against Asian Americans since COVID-19 began, Nagae said the words evoke the same discriminatory language and reactions as when former President Donald Trump described the coronavirus with racial slurs.
Oregon tallied more than 60 anti-Asian bias incidents in 2020. Those incidents are notoriously underreported; a 2022 Pew Research Center nationwide survey found nearly one in five Asian Americans worries daily or almost daily about being attacked or threatened because of their race or ethnicity.
“The violence that is still happening today,” Nagae said, “is the same type of violence that was perpetuated by The Oregonian back then.”
After being uprooted from their lives, Ted Nakashima and his wife, Masako, were imprisoned in the euphoniously named Camp Harmony at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, an initial stop before moving to the Tule Lake permanent prison camp in Northern California.
His article in The New Republic didn’t name the Washington site, only mentioning two relatives kept in Portland at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition, another temporary camp. But his location was soon identified.
Nakashima lamented how wasteful the incarceration was. He had been helping the war effort before being detained, doing architectural drafting for the Army Corps of Engineers and designing defense housing. He and his wife were building a house in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. She had painted the bathroom walls a light coral, finishing three weeks before being imprisoned.
With their futures rendered uncertain by Executive Order 9066, they left their home and said goodbye to friends and the life they’d been building. Nakashima abandoned the architectural degree for which he’d been studying at the University of Washington.
“It all seems so futile, struggling, trying to live our old lives under this useless, regimented life,” he wrote. “The senselessness of all the inactive manpower. … Thousands of men and women in these camps, energetic, quick, alert, eager for hard, constructive work, waiting for the army to do something for us, an army that won’t give us butter.
“I can’t take it!”
Nakashima’s allegations alarmed the federal officials leading the war effort. Not because they worried about the deplorable living conditions he revealed, but because they thought his story would feed enemy propaganda.
John McCloy, assistant secretary of war and one of the architects of the forced removal, met with Col. Karl Bendetsen, the Army official who executed the incarceration program, to discuss Nakashima’s story three days after it was published. McCloy’s diary labeled Nakashima a “disgruntled [slur].”
Nakashima was interrogated, professing his loyalty to the United States and saying the article had been “prompted by a feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction and by a desire to improve conditions in the Assembly center by making the true situation known,” according to War Relocation Authority records his family obtained.
McCloy soon spoke with the chairman of the American Red Cross about the humanitarian organization investigating prison camp conditions “so that they can say everything is all right in them,” his diary says.
The Army also pressured The New Republic. Six months after Nakashima’s piece ran, the magazine wrote that it had sent a special investigator to Camp Harmony at the Army’s request. The investigator fact-checked Nakashima’s claims, reporting that “there seems no doubt that the conditions of which Mr. Nakashima complains were temporary and unimportant.”
The Oregonian struck a similar tone, but far sooner.
The 2,125-word story rebutting Nakashima’s 995-word article was written by Nokes, then a 27-year-old reporter who had been covering Portland schools. Nokes penned a first-person account of his visit to the local prison camp in The Oregonian’s Sunday magazine, a forum that gave reporters latitude in how they wrote stories.
Nokes noted that Nakashima’s article had caused a “coast-wide furore” but “showed nothing so much as that freedom of speech and press exists even for those unfortunate people whom we have found necessary to intern.”
In Portland’s prison camp, Nokes concluded, conditions were “not nearly as bad” as what Nakashima described. The silverware and dishes were clean, and the meals were adequate. The story emphasized niceties and downplayed the inhumanity of forcing thousands of people to spend months in stinking stables converted into makeshift rooms shared by entire families.
Army inspectors would note around the time of Nokes’ visit that the dishes were low quality, dishwashing was not satisfactory and kitchens weren’t up to Army standards, according to a history of the site compiled by Densho, a Seattle nonprofit that documents the incarceration.
Of the hundreds of people Nokes said he spoke to, just two were quoted by name. One was Nakashima’s brother, George. The “conditions here are really very good except for the lack of privacy and the terrifying noise,” Nokes quoted him as saying.
Nokes acknowledged the living quarters were cramped, cold, drafty and noisy, that a single woman complained about flies and the stench of cow manure carrying into the prison camp from a nearby farm. He said a rat and lice infestation preceded a suspected scarlet fever outbreak.
Nokes called those “shortcomings,” but made a sweeping generalization that “all the Japanese appear to make allowances,” knowing their stay was temporary before being permanently moved to inland prison facilities.
Despite the scarlet fever, the stench, the lack of privacy, the cold, the rats, the flies, the lice, the cramped quarters, the terrifying noise, the elderly people falling ill, Nokes said the imprisoned people reported no “real or fancied grievances.”
Jeanne Shioshi, 99, spent four months incarcerated with her family at the Expo Center site while it operated from May to September 1942 before being taken to Wyoming and Idaho, where she was imprisoned until 1945.
Shioshi, the editor of her Redmond high school’s newspaper, says she can vaguely remember The Oregonian’s reporter and photographer visiting because she was working on the newspaper at the prison camp and “these were very important people.”
Shioshi winced when a reporter read Nokes’ description of the imprisonment as a vacation.
“It felt like we’d been put in a prison camp,” said Shioshi, who lives in Southeast Portland. “I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was just because of race, because of nationality.”
People had no privacy, using showers without walls and toilets without stalls, she said. Clouds of flies were so thick that dead ones dropped off flypaper strips hanging over tables in the dining hall. Temperatures soared above 100 across three days in June and July. And the stench of manure was overwhelming at times. It was shocking for the 19-year-old, who innocently stopped on her drive to the prison camp to pick a bouquet of rhododendron blossoms.
“We were enclosed in a barbed wire fence, armed guards going by,” Shioshi said. “This was not a vacation.”
The incarceration was built on a lie, one that was reinforced by The Oregonian, a newspaper that for decades had been hostile toward Japanese immigrants.
After Pearl Harbor, then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox falsely claimed that people of Japanese descent in Hawaii had aided in the bombing.
In 1982, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a federal panel that examined the incarceration, wrote that the government, including the FBI, quickly investigated and concluded people of Japanese descent in Hawaii had not assisted with the attack. But government officials didn’t try to convince the public otherwise.
During World War II, no acts of espionage or sabotage were committed by American citizens of Japanese ancestry or by resident Japanese immigrant on the West Coast, the commission said.
“The country was unfairly led to believe that both American citizens of Japanese descent and resident Japanese aliens threatened American security,” the commission wrote.
Newspapers across the country echoed the federal government’s false claims, helping to stir up fears of attacks by people of Japanese descent. “The press amplified the unreflective emotional excitement of the hour,” the commission concluded.
Col. Bendetsen, the military architect of the imprisonment, briefed members of the media in Portland and other West Coast cities, asking them to censor their coverage of the incarceration and withhold sensational photographs, remembering that Americans captured in Japan could be tortured.
In its rebuke to Nakashima, The Oregonian quoted from a recent address Bendetsen had given. “It is doubtless true that many persons of Japanese ancestry are loyal to the United States,” Bendetsen said. “It is also true that many are not loyal. We know this.”
The government didn’t know that. And while it imprisoned thousands of people of Italian and German descent, they didn’t face the mass incarceration that people of Japanese descent did on the West Coast, where first- and second-generation Japanese Americans were used as scapegoats, reigniting the racism they’d faced since arriving in Oregon in 1880.
“When people talk about World War II, it seems to justify what happened,” said Chisao Hata, creative director for the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, whose parents got married while incarcerated. “But when you understand the entire history of immigration and the laws and attitudes, it was just another racist act that took place. It wasn’t an isolated event.”
After coming for jobs on the railroad, then in the timber and salmon canning industries, Japanese immigrants faced a hostile populace in Oregon.
Labor unions disdained their acceptance of lower pay. The federal court system ruled them ineligible for citizenship. In 1898, a team of Japanese railroad workers in Clatskanie was assaulted, threatened and forced to leave. A letter to the editor in The Oregonian described the scene, where a white railroad employee warned the Japanese workers: “If you don’t go, we will blow you to hell with dynamite.”
The Oregonian was no different. The newspaper used racist slurs to describe the new immigrants, mocked their names and employed demeaning stereotypes.
A surge of racism, including efforts to restrict the sale of property to Japanese immigrants, followed their settlement in the Hood River Valley in the 1910s. White orchard owners banded together in 1919 to form the Anti-Asiatic Association. The newspaper called it the “Hood River Japanese problem.”
Hood River was “menaced” by Japanese farmers, The Oregonian wrote in a 1920 news story that uncritically quoted organizers’ claim “that unless something is done, the Hood River valley will become Japanese land in 10 years.” The county’s Japanese population was actually declining, census records show.
In Portland, the Portland Realty Board, which had counted The Oregonian’s longtime publisher, Henry Pittock, as an affiliate member, weighed whether to prohibit home sales in white neighborhoods to people who were Black or Asian, saying they would lower property values.
As legislative efforts ramped up to forbid land ownership by people of Japanese and Chinese heritage, The Oregonian celebrated the exclusionary effort in a 1922 editorial, making clear that it wanted to guard against allowing “brown men” into the country.
“They are so prolific that in another generation we may have several hundred thousand Japanese, who, being native born, will be citizens and old enough to vote, though carefully educated by their parents to be loyal subjects of the mikado,” The Oregonian editorialized, using a term for the Japanese emperor. “The problem will then be how to keep this a white man’s country, especially as the fecundity of the white stock is falling.”
At the time, people of Japanese descent represented just 1% of Oregon’s population.
It would take the World War II incarceration program two decades later to achieve many of the aims of those anti-Japanese efforts, imprisoning tens of thousands of the United States’ own citizens without due process, costing innocent people their homes, their jobs, their businesses and their college opportunities.
Thousands never returned to the West Coast; those who did faced efforts to keep them away in places like Hood River and Gresham.
Linda Tamura, professor emerita of education at Willamette University and an author of two books about the history of Japanese Americans in Oregon, said the words that The Oregonian used helped create the impression that people were simply being relocated, not having their constitutional rights violated.
Tamura, whose family was incarcerated while her father, Harry, served in the U.S. Army, said the trauma persisted when people returned home only to face continued hostility from some locals who wanted them gone.
“They could see it verbally, written, nonverbally. They learned to not talk about it,” she said. “That continues through the generations. We learned to be discreet, to wonder but not always ask questions, because they simply didn’t want to bring it up.”
The Oregonian revisited the imprisonment in February 1979 as Portland prepared for its first day of remembrance of the incarceration. By then, Nokes was the editor.
In a column, Nokes suggested he had censored himself in the article he’d written about the Portland prison camp 37 years earlier.
“I recall thinking at the time: ‘Wouldn’t Japan’s newspapers have a field day if they knew that their citizens and Americans from Japanese forefathers were being incarcerated in ‘pig pens?’” Nokes wrote.
He recalled the prison camp in bleaker terms, saying it was “a grim place” and noting that incarcerated people had lost their livelihoods. Nokes, who died in 2004, urged readers to remember the prevailing mindset in the “desperately fearful” early days of the war.
Still, he wrote, “none of this is an adequate defense against what was done to Japanese-Americans.” He stopped short of admitting any wrongs or apologizing for The Oregonian’s role in fomenting anti-Japanese sentiment.
A year earlier, The Oregonian’s editorial board had opposed a national effort to make $25,000 reparations payments to people who’d been imprisoned. Nokes, who oversaw and participated in the editorial board, brought that up in his column and defended the board’s opposition, saying it was far better to “pledge that such an act would not happen again.”
“Money, as they say, isn’t everything,” Nokes wrote.
He said he wouldn’t attend Portland’s remembrance ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 that February because “I shall be on the beach at Waikiki.”
Nearly a decade later, under new leadership, The Oregonian editorial board supported reparations. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 that paid $20,000 to survivors, about $50,000 in today’s dollars, a sum the editorial board said was hardly excessive considering their lost income and trauma.
Gregory Nokes said his father, who joined the Navy in 1943 and served as an officer in China before returning to the newspaper, was a rally-around-the-flag guy who took pride in his role elevating Bill Hilliard to succeed him in 1982 and become The Oregonian’s first Black editor.
“I don’t think Dad had a racist bone in his body,” Nokes, a former Oregonian reporter and editor who has written three books about Oregon’s history of racism, said in an email.
“I was just a kid then, but I recall Dad objecting to moving innocent Japanese into the camps,” he added.
His father’s coverage of the incarceration was likely influenced not only by the Pearl Harbor attack, he said, but also by the Japanese Navy’s shelling of Fort Stevens in Clatsop County in June 1942. The incident, which caused no major damage but left craters at the beachfront installation outside Astoria, marked the only time the U.S. mainland was shelled during World War II.
“You can understand how that evolved because of fears about what was going on,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t make it right.”
In 2010, while researching family history, one of Vicki Nakashima’s cousins discovered The Oregonian’s rebuke to her father and emailed it to Vicki.
“Uncle Ted was really attacked by this major Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper,” he told her. “What a strong, brave, articulate guy.”
“I always knew I took after my outspoken Dad,” she replied.
The imprisonment of Vicki Nakashima’s parents ended in the winter of 1942-1943, federal records show. They secured work release to go to Payette, Idaho, before eventually finding jobs on a Spokane chicken farm.
The family didn’t move back to the Seattle area until 1957, when Vicki was 10. Ted Nakashima, who died in 1980, resumed a career in architecture but never completed the degree he had to abandon when incarcerated.
Reading Nokes’ story angered Vicki Nakashima. But thinking it would be fruitless, she didn’t ask The Oregonian for an apology. In the years that followed, two major West Coast newspapers that supported the incarceration said they were wrong.
The Los Angeles Times in 2017 called its editorial support of the incarceration “shameful” and “explicitly racist.” The Seattle Times in March also issued an apology, saying it was “deeply sorry for our harmful coverage of the incarceration of Japanese Americans and for the pain we caused in the past that still reverberates today.”
Vicki Nakashima contacted The Oregonian/OregonLive after reading the Seattle Times’ apology. She said Nokes’ story shocked her, seeing how the paper glossed over the conditions in the prison camp where people were forced to live in livestock stables, atop boarded-over ground where farm animals had defecated.
The incarceration wasn’t something her parents talked about; it only came up in passing. While Nakashima rode a horse growing up, it wasn’t until her early 20s that her mother explained why she never wanted to go to Nakashima’s horse shows. The smell reminded her of the stall where she’d lived at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.
Nakashima knows her father’s bravery in writing about his imprisonment served as a beacon for her life, a guide that helped her stand up for others.
It led her into a career that incorporated advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion, both as Oregon’s director for multicultural health and later as a volunteer with Partners in Diversity, a nonprofit that promotes a more diverse workforce.
Imagine, she says, the courage it would have taken to openly criticize the government then.
“I’m sure it crossed their minds that they might be kicked out of the United States or something horrible might happen to them,” she says.
She doesn’t know whether her father ever saw The Oregonian’s rebuke. But she has an idea what he would think.
“That was just unbelievable,” she said. “Unbelievable. It was blatant lies. Fabrication. It was the worst of what people say about Japanese.
“It was hate. It was hate and racism.”
— Rob Davis
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