Bainbridge Island incarcerees walking to train, March 30, 1942 | Photo: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Unsettled Territory:Japanese Internment

Japanese Internment

When the 227 Japanese Americans living in the Seattle suburb of Bainbridge Island woke up on March 30, 1942, they had no idea when they’d sleep in their beds again. They quietly packed what they could carry and left their homes, under orders from the U.S. military.

The day marked the beginning of what would become one of the country’s worst violations of constitutional rights in U.S. history: the incarceration of roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps* throughout the country. Decades later, the U.S. government admitted that the evacuation was wrong, calling it a “national mistake”. But at the time, it had widespread support.

“I fairly regularly meet people who have never heard that Japanese were incarcerated during World War II... and so they are shocked really, when they come to hear it. And I think that makes them want to learn about it even more.”
-- Donna Harui, third generation owner of Bainbridge Gardens

In the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the country was whipped up by fear and paranoia. While the Nikkei (those of Japanese descent) had always faced racism in the U.S., they were now seen as enemies of war. It didn’t matter if they were citizens or born on American soil. Nor did it matter that there was no evidence to suggest they were spies or traitors. In fact, roughly 5,000 Japanese Americans had already volunteered or been drafted into the U.S. Army.

Nonetheless, one military official, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, wrote that “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”

The final blow came on February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the military the power to forcibly remove thousands of people of Japanese descent from designated parts of the West Coast.

Meet Donna Harui

Among the Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island, was the family of Zenhichi Harui, the owner of the renowned Bainbridge Gardens. Harui came to the U.S. in 1908 and developed a general store, a gas station, and a 20-acre garden, known for its traditional Japanese style. Visitors flocked to see the bonsai pines bent over peaceful ponds of goldfish. When the family heard they could avoid incarceration if they moved to Eastern Washington, they decided to leave the business behind, hastily leasing it out in hopes that they could return someday. 

“What would you take if you only had six days to leave your home… and they weren’t telling you where you were going to go?”

— Donna Harui

Donna Harui, third generation owner of Bainbridge Gardens, smiling while holding a plant starter.


The Mitsuwado store, located at 522 Main Street in Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown. The store sold a variety of items including books, records, record players, and fishing tackle. Circa 1930, Seattle, Washington. Photo: Densho, the Mamiya Family Collection

Seattle’s Japanese American Community

By the time WWII broke out, the Nikkei community already had deep roots in the Northwest, where some had been living for more than half a century. Beginning in the 1880s, many worked in lumberyards, farms, mines, fisheries and railroads. As their community grew, they developed a Nihonmachi, or Japantown, around S Main Street and Sixth Avenue. Many launched successful laundromats, hotels, groceries and other small businesses. By the 1930s, more than half of the Nikkei in Seattle were born in the U.S. Meanwhile, they faced discrimination at all turns. Immigrants from Japan were not able to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Washington state also had an alien land law that prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from purchasing property.

“Right before World War II, (Seattle) was booming. People were doing well, starting to do well financially. Generations were starting to be able to go to college with more regularity. Then folks summarily lost everything. They were forced to give up homes and businesses and pets and friendships with folks that were not Japanese Americans... everything was sort of taken from my community.”
--Erin Shigaki, Seattle artist, activist, and storykeeper
Photo of Gordon Hirabayashi

Portrait of Gordon K. Hirabayashi, Seattle, July 1, 1944 | Photo: Art French, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Local Opposition to Internment

A small but vocal minority spoke out against internment, one of which was Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington (UW) who was convicted by a U.S. Federal District Court in Seattle for refusing to comply with orders of exclusion and curfew. His case was taken up by the Supreme Court, which ruled against him. But decades later, in 1987, his conviction was overturned. After his death, he was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Other officials and students of UW also testified against internment, and the university was able to transfer more than 50 students to schools inland to avoid evacuation.

Inside the Camps

Those evacuated from Bainbridge Island were temporarily taken to the Manzanar Relocation Center in California, while those from Seattle and a few from Alaska were taken to the Puyallup Assembly Center on the site of the Western Washington Fairgrounds.

The camps were enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by military police. Inmates lived in cramped, dark barracks—-it was not uncommon for eight people to share a 20-by-25-foot room. They used communal bathrooms and waited in long lines to eat in a mess hall. Still, they attempted to create a sense of normalcy, with many working in essential roles such as health workers, clerks, barbers and more.

By fall of 1942, most who’d been held in Northwest camps were relocated to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Twin Falls, Idaho, where they once again lived in barracks and again attempted to build temporary lives, performing work, attending school, forming sports teams and music groups and doing their best to keep up morale. The majority (60%) of those held at Minidoka were Nisei (meaning “second generation”), and were born in the U.S., making them U.S. citizens. The remainder were Issei (born in Japan) and barred from citizenship at that time regardless of how long they had lived in the country.


The end of Japanese Internment

When the camps were finally closed, internees were given $25 and a train ticket to start over, though this was hardly enough to rebuild their lives. Some lost their homes during the war and had to temporarily live in trailers, cheap hostels or even barracks. Some returned to find their property stolen or vandalized. Yet over time, they rebuilt the Nikkei community.

In 1988, following decades of advocacy, President Ronald Reagan signed HR 442, which provided reparations for those still living who had been detained.

“The history has not been talked about enough, has not been taught enough, and in fact, continues to be censored as I have in talking about this history.”
-- Erin Shigaki, Seattle artist, activist, and storykeeper

The Japanese American Community Today

Today, the Greater Seattle Area has one of the largest communities of Japanese and Japanese American people in the country. The fact that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is the son of a former internee is a testament to how far the city has come.

Harui’s granddaughter, Donna Harui, now carries the torch at Bainbridge Gardens, which continues to thrive 65 years after it was founded. Nearby, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial was erected to recognize the historical injustice and educate visitors about the history of the community.

Those wanting to experience Japanese culture can find it all over: at casual neighborhood joints, Asian groceries such as Uwajimaya and restaurants run by world-renowned chefs. There are stunning gardens, such as Seattle Japanese Garden and Kubota Garden. There are businesses that have been standing for more than 100 years, such as the Historic Panama Hotel Bed & Breakfast, built in 1910, where some families stored their belongings while they were incarcerated.

Many descendants of internees have drawn comparisons between their families’ experience and the lived experiences of other immigrant groups today, arguing that we must learn from our country’s mistakes.

Around the area, much effort has been devoted to preserving the history of internment. For instance, local nonprofit Densho hosts a large digital library of video interviews with former internees. Sites of historical significance can be seen on the Japanese American Remembrance Trail, a 3-mile urban hike in Seattle, or at a museum exhibit and memorial on Bainbridge Island. These are just a few ways to learn about the long, rich history of the region’s Japanese American community.

Asian American artist and activist Erin Shigaki gazing at one of her public art pieces in the Chinatown-International District.

Asian American artist and activist Erin Shigaki gazes at one of her public art pieces, displayed in the Chinatown-International District.

Unsettled Territory celebrates the often untold, yet evocative, moments that have helped to shape Seattle’s cultural heritage.
We invite you to come and explore.



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