As the first generation born in the United States of Japanese immigrant parents, the nisei were Americanized. Still, their lives on the West Coast were upended by the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Feb. 19, 1942, the U.S. government issued Executive Order 9066, forcing their removal. More than 100,000 U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps.
Before then, however, a visitor to San Luis Obispo in the 1920s and ’30s would have seen Japanese-American residents entering into the spirit of local Fourth of July or La Fiesta de las Flores celebrations.
Coming into town on South Higuera Street, the visitor would have passed the Watanabe Co. Fruits and Vegetables store near South Street. On July 4, 1928, it was decked out with American flags and patriotic bunting. Small flags topped the roof, and a large flag stood next to the gasoline pump. Kids in kimonos, holding flags, posed for snapshots.
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In the ’30s, you’d see Japanese-motif floats decorated with flowers and a large American flag for La Fiesta de las Flores, a fundraiser created by Irish Catholic Father Daniel Keenan and Young Louis, son of labor contractor Ah Louis, to support the renovation of Mission San Luis Obispo.
A float encircled with an American flag and a “Japanese — Pismo Beach” banner won first prize in the Pismo Beach Pioneer Day Celebration on Aug. 1, 1936.
The nisei joined their issei (Japanese immigrant) parents in Boy Scouts, baseball, donating landscaping to Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo and planting cherry trees at San Luis Obispo High School.
Such historical vignettes of America’s melting pot can be deceptive. Japanese immigrants had arrived in this county by 1904, and by the late ’20s, most had decided the United States was their permanent home. But their road toward establishing new roots in this land was not an easy one.
As war clouds surrounded Europe and the Pacific, young nisei men were inducted into the Army.
“5 Japanese Selectees Feted Here,” observed the Telegram-Tribune on Feb. 19, 1941:
“Hailing their (induction) … at the Anderson Hotel (they) were given a ‘send off’ by nearly 150 county members of the … Japanese-American League and the … Japanese Association.”
William Nagano of Morro Bay was quoted as saying, “Our conduct in service will reflect on all Japanese Americans in the United States, and we will do our very best.”
Mayor Fred Kimball added, “The importance of your training to all of us is that the upbuilding of our army has a tendency to bring us all together, shoulder to shoulder, for the protection of our democracy.”
In October 1941, when the city of San Luis Obispo had 8,000 people, per the Telegram-Tribune, more than 1,000 people attended a dinner-dance at SLO High sponsored by the Japanese American Citizens League to honor inductees at Camps SLO and Roberts.
Major Samuel Pickett, representing Camp SLO Commandant Col. Henry Bull, spoke about the important work they were doing for national defense. Some 150 leaders of the Japanese community in Los Angeles came. Cal Poly’s orchestra played. C. L. Smith, school board secretary, and Sheriff Murray Hathway were there.
Then came Executive Order 9066. Well before schools closed in June 1942, all Japanese-American families in the county were removed, forfeiting graduations, losing crops, cars, tractors and farms.
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From 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, artist Paula Zima and I will discuss the significance of Teddy Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to San Luis Obispo during a meeting in the Senior Center, 1445 Santa Rosa St., in Mitchell Park. Paula will bring a miniature statue of Roosevelt that is envisioned for Mitchell Park. The discussion is free. Paula is the sculptor of “Bears” at the entrances to Los Osos and “Bears with Indian Boy” in Mission Plaza.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.