By John Sammon
It was a rare act of decency, and has been largely unknown until now.
Monterey has the unique distinction of being one of the very few communities to welcome back Japanese Americans returning from prison camps after the end of World War II, just a small minority of good Samaritans, but worthy of an exhibition set to run through October.
Titled “Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience,” the exhibit will be located in the Casa Gutierrez, a historic adobe building built in 1842, today part of the Monterey State Historical Park at 590 Calle Principal in Monterey.
The exhibit, to run from Sept. 22 to Oct. 27, will be open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“It shows a different side of the Japanese American story during World War II,” said Tim Thomas, board member of the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL) Monterey Chapter and the curator of the organization’s Heritage Center. “Just after the war ended the community (Monterey) stood up and tried to help Japanese Americans to return to the area. They circulated petitions to welcome the return of Japanese Americans. This was one of the few places that did so.”
Japanese and Japanese Americans had been an important part of the fishing industry in Monterey before World War II as well as agriculture along with other groups including Sicilian immigrants and their first generation children.
In 1942 the U.S. Government decided to lock up Japanese American men women and children living along the West Coast for no reason other than ethnicity suspecting them of treachery. The prisoners lost their jobs, homes and possessions and were herded into prison camps mostly located in remote desert regions of the American Southwest.
Some of the inmates died from the shock. Some committed suicide.
Entire communities of American citizens of Japanese ancestry were extinguished overnight. Only three Japanese American “Japantowns” survived the war, in San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Part of a national exhibit, the event is sponsored by the Go for Broke National Education Center (GFBNEC) in Los Angeles and is co-hosted by the Monterey JACL.
“Go for Broke” refers to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. During World War II even though their parents and families had been imprisoned, young Japanese American men in the camps elected to fight for their country and became one of the most decorated units in the United States Army. The heroics of the 442nd became legendary.
GFBNEC is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the memory of Japanese American veterans of World War II and is located in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles at 355 E. 1st St., Suite 200 in Los Angeles.
Thomas said Monterey was unusual during the war. It was an artist colony inhabited by people we might describe today as “progressive.”
“A total of 15 petitions were made collecting signatures of people to welcome Japanese Americans back after World War II,” Thomas said. “Two of the resident supporters were the author John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers (a Monterey poet who wrote poetry about the Central Coast of California).”
Toni Jackson the girlfriend of Ed “Doc” Ricketts, the marine biologist who was a friend of John Steinbeck and whose 1939 tidal pool study “Between Pacific Tides” is still considered a classic, spearheaded the welcome home effort.
More than 440 Monterey residents signed the petitions asking for kindness and civility toward returning Japanese Americans. The documents had been lost until they were recently rediscovered by Thomas and have been largely unknown by the public.
There was push-back, people who didn’t want the Japanese Americans to return because they were racist or viewed Japanese Americans as business competitors or both. In Salinas farmers and growers attempted to mount a movement to stop the Japanese Americans from returning.
The Monterey City Council did nothing at the time; neither did the Monterey Board of Supervisors. In fact the supervisors adopted a resolution telling the Japanese Americans to keep out.
The Monterey Board of Supervisors officially apologized for this action in February of 2018.
Event organizers said the acts of kindness represented by the petitions remain just as relevant today given the possibility of other ethnic groups being targeted because of their ancestry or place of origin.
Mitchell T. Maki, CEO of the Go for Broke National Education Center said even with opposition Monterey’s response to the plight of Japanese American residents was a rare exception during World War II.
“In Monterey, local families have handed down stories of kindness, generosity and support, from teachers and clergy, lawyers and business leaders, shopkeepers and housewives,” he said. “These courageous everyday people did not tolerate discrimination against others based on the color of their skin, the God whom they worship, or their country of origin. Today they exemplify the best that America has to offer.”
Larry Oda past JACL national president and Monterey JACL Chapter member said the Monterey community was unique in its welcome of returning Japanese Americans who in return were grateful for the community’s activism and support. He indicated that Monterey’s long history of being an immigrant community built around a shared experience of building a new life led to a greater understanding and tolerance.
“We were fortunate there were those in the community who understood the greed and prejudice that motivated those opposed to our return, who understood the political process to counter the opposition, and rallied the community to welcome us home,” Oda said. “We are eternally grateful for their support and it gives us incentive to pay it forward. We celebrate their friendship and proudly display the efforts of their labor.”
The exhibit will tour the country thru the summer of 2019 visiting 10 communities where citizens extended a helping hand to Japanese Americans including communities in Salem, Oregon, Honolulu, Hawaii, Kingsburg, California, Oberlin, Ohio, St. Paul, Minnesota, Peoria, Illinois, Chicago and a JACL branch in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The project has been funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, and a Japanese American Confinement Site grant.
Established in 2008, the JACL Monterey Chapter is located in a historic building built in 1926 at 424 Adams St. in downtown Monterey.
A museum at the site titled the JACL Heritage Center is being readied for an opening at the end of the year which will feature photos and artifacts telling the story of the Japanese and Japanese Americans on the Monterey Peninsula.
For more information the Monterey Chapter JACL website is located at www.jaclmonterey.org.
The Go for Broke National Education Center website is located at www.goforbroke.org.