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Japanese Americans

In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo and introduced the isolated Japanese Empire to the rest of the world. In the years that followed, Japanese men and women would travel throughout the United States in search of jobs, better lives, and better opportunities for their children. Japanese Americans fought hard for years to establish themselves in a new world and have persevered in the face of harsh discrimination and prejudice. 


Japanese Immigration to the United States

Beginning in the 15th century, the Japanese Empire strictly controlled emigration. Most Japanese were not permitted to emigrate, however, after the 1850s many did so illegally in search of better economic opportunities. The first immigrants from Japan settled in Hawaii in the 1860s to work as contract laborers on sugar plantations. After 1880, Japan loosened restrictions on emigration, and between 1886 and the early 1900s, over 400,000 Japanese left for the United States. Many of them settled in Hawaii and worked in agriculture.

Many of the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii were recruited by plantation owners, who offered to pay for their voyage if they agreed to work on the plantations for a period of three to five years. However, early plantation workers in Hawaii were subjected to extremely harsh working conditions, and some were literally treated like slaves. To escape these conditions, some Japanese immigrants broke their contracts and escaped to the mainland United States.

Around 1900, thousands of Japanese immigrated directly to the mainland United States. Japanese men and women in the U.S. found work on railroads, mining camps, lumber yards, and some were able to open their own general stores, restaurants, and small hotels. In addition, Japanese Americans were extremely skilled and successful farmers and were eventually able to purchase land throughout the western United States. One of the most famous of these Japanese-American farmers is George Shima, who by 1913 owned nearly 30,000 acres in California (before the enactment of the Alien Land Act) and produced over 80% of the state’s potato crop.

Like many other Asian immigrant groups, the Japanese experienced discrimination. Anti-Japanese legislation in California would restrict Japanese immigrants to certain jobs, prevent them from purchasing or even leasing land, and put an end to Japanese immigration altogether. In California, several Japanese-American communities were the targets of racially motivated violence, as were Japanese-American owned businesses. 

World War II and Japanese-American Internment 

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, would change the lives of Japanese Americans throughout the nation. In the days after Japan attacked the naval base in Hawaii, U.S. security personnel began rounding up and arresting Japanese Americans. They were attacked in public places and their homes and businesses were the targets of violence. The violence, discrimination, and civil rights violations that Japanese Americans experienced during this time is one of the darkest periods of American history and remains fresh in the memories of many Japanese Americans today.

When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, over 120,000 Japanese-American citizens including entire families were ordered to report for “relocation.” Many were forced to sell their homes and businesses immediately, often for a fraction of their actual worth. Men, women, and children were transported to different parts of the nation far from their homes into what were called “War Relocation Centers.”
While daily life and experiences differed between relocation camps, all those who were detained there were stripped of their rights as citizens. They were constantly watched by armed guardsmen in watchtowers, and had no privacy. They were never charged with any wrongdoing and were not granted due process of law.

Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens, primarily men, who were considered “enemy aliens” and thought to pose a high security risk, were sent to “internment camps” rather than to relocation camps. In the internment camps they lived in prison-like conditions. All were considered to be “detainees” until a hearing was held to decide if they should be imprisoned for the rest of the war. Those who were not imprisoned were sent to join their families in the relocation camps. The internment camp in Santa Fe was an all male camp where so-called “enemy aliens” where detained.

During World War II, many Japanese Americans tried to display their loyalty and patriotism by enlisting in the Armed Forces. Over 300,000 served in uniform. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was an all Japanese-American unit, and became famous for being the most highly decorated unit in the armed forces, with many Japanese-American officers being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A New Mexican who served in the 442nd, although he never saw combat, was Hiroshi "Hershey" Miyamura. Following World War II, Hershey Miyamura re-enlisted in the Army and fought in the Korean War. After spending two years as a POW, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions that saved many American lives.

Japanese Americans in New Mexico

Japanese immigration to New Mexico was relatively slow, and not until after 1910 did census information report that Japanese families had moved to New Mexico. Many took coal mining jobs, worked on the Santa Fe Railroad, or worked on farms. Japanese immigrants also opened a few small, family-owned businesses in New Mexico in the early 20th century.

Japanese Americans were particularly skilled in agriculture, and in New Mexico several Japanese families rose to prominence because of their successful farms. The farms of the Tashiro and Nakayama families were able to operate and survive the Great Depression at a time when most business ventures were forced to close. Roy Nakayama, a horticulturalist and professor at New Mexico State University, developed the “NuMex Big Jim” variety of green chile and the Nakayama scale for measuring the hotness of chile. Most of the commercially grown chile crop in New Mexico comes from plants originally developed by Roy Nakayama.

World War II and Japanese Internment in New Mexico
Only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-American railroad workers were banned from their jobs and prohibited from entering their homes, which were often part of the railroad company’s property. In Clovis, New Mexico, for example, a group of Japanese Americans were put under house arrest and eventually moved to a Civilian Conservations Corps camp in Lincoln County.

However, Clovis was the only city that formally isolated its Japanese-American residents. In New Mexico, the issue of internment was considered a local one, and cities and communities were given the chance to vote on whether or not they would intern Japanese Americans during the war. Clovis was the only city that voted to do so; the majority of New Mexicans were opposed. Residents of Gallup prepared petitions to oppose the internment of Japanese Americans in their town. In Albuquerque, the majority of residents were so opposed to internment that the issue never even came to a vote.

Japanese American Citizens League
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was founded in 1929. Its original intent was to foster good citizenship and civic participation. The JACL soon became a major civil rights organization working for the “progress of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans in combating prejudice and bigotry.” The JACL now proudly works for the civil and human rights of all Americans from all backgrounds. (1)

The New Mexico Chapter of the JACL began in 1947 when 15 Japanese-American families in Albuquerque and Gallup started the “Albuquerque Nisei Club.” As more families began moving to New Mexico in the 1950s, the organization grew and became affiliated with the national JACL. After a period of inactivity, the New Mexico JACL was reactivated in 1976. Since then, the organization has been actively working with other community groups to promote diversity and the “brother/sisterhood of all cultures in New Mexico.” Membership in the NMJACL is open to everyone. (2)

The NMJACL also maintains a library of Japanese and Japanese-American Resources. This extensive library is housed on the University of New Mexico Campus as part of the Multicultural Library in the Education Administration Building.

Many members of the NMJACL have been very active in human and civil rights in Albuquerque. Sei Tokuda is a recipient of the Frank J. Miranda Jr. Bridge Award and treasurer of the New Mexico Human Rights Coalition. Jennifer Yazawa is a longtime member and former chair of the Albuquerque Human Rights Board.

Japanese Americans in New Mexico are also involved in politics. In 1992, Kenneth Miyagishima was the first person of Japanese descent in New Mexico to be elected to public office. In 2007, he was elected Mayor of Las Cruces.

Ruth Hashimoto
Ruth Hashimoto was born in Seattle and grew up in California. On the afternoon of the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents arrested her father who was a minister in the Japanese Konkokyo religion. He was transported to the Lordsburg, NM prisoner of war camp and later to the Santa Fe internment camp. In September 1942, Ruth and the rest of her family were sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation camp in Wyoming. Most of the relocation camps were situated in isolated areas where the land or climate made them even more difficult places to live. In the winter, the Wyoming camp had blizzards, knee-deep snow, and 35 degree below zero temperatures. The barracks where families lived were made of wood and had tar paper roofs.

In October of 1943, Ruth began teaching conversational Japanese at the Army Intelligence Japanese Language School at the University of Michigan. She taught young recruits and retired military officers to speak Japanese so that they could go on to serve as officials in Japan at the end of the war. In 1951, Ruth and her family moved the Albuquerque where she would work at Kirtland Air Force Base for over 20 years. (3)

A fortuitous meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1960, coupled with her experiences and the experiences of all Japanese and Japanese Americans in the relocation camps inspired Ruth to fight for human and civil rights and volunteer in many capacities in a wide variety of organizations.

One of Ruth’s many accomplishments was the formation of the Albuquerque Sister City program in 1965. She was instrumental in the formation of the first sister city relationship with Sasebo, Japan in 1966. Albuquerque continues to have a strong relationship with its Japanese sister city. In 2007, dignitaries from both Albuquerque and Sasebo dedicated the “Sasebo Japanese Garden” inside the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in the Albuquerque BioPark. 

Japanese Culture in Albuquerque

There are many opportunities to participate in the celebration of Japanese and Japanese-American culture in Albuquerque.

Taiko Drumming
The art form of “taiko” weaves together marital arts choreography and synchronized drumming. In Japanese, taiko means “great drum.” Taiko drumming dates back 2,000 years and was used in battle, religious ceremonies, festivals, and insect control.

New Mexico Taiko, led by Calvin Kobayashi, was one of the first Taiko groups in the Southwest when it was founded in 1981. New Mexico Taiko performs at venues and celebrations throughout the year and throughout the city. They also make and sell traditional handmade drums and bells. (4)

Shigin or musical poetry singing is a 2,000 year old Japanese art form. Originally derived from Chinese poetry, shigin has many different styles that all involve singing the same poems to different melodies. The poems express all facets of human life and emotions and can be about many things, including history and culture.

In Albuquerque, Michiko Masuda Pierce is a master of shigin. She began studying the art form in 1974 and in 1990 earned “Somoto Daihan,” the highest degree possible. She has taught over 50 students and regularly gives public performances. In 2008, she was awarded the Arts Alliance Bravo Award for Excellence in Music.

Okinawan Dance
At a time in Okinawan history when the study and practice of karate was limited to samurais and the nobility, lower class groups such as farmers and fisherman developed their own form of self-defense. These self-defense moves were hidden in dances. The art of Okinawan dance developed from this.

Albuquerque’s Miyagi Ryu Okinawa dance group under the direction of Yaeko Miyazato performs traditional Okinawan dances. Their dances are done in authentic, elaborate, traditional costumes brought over from Okinawa. (5)

Aki Matsuri, Japanese Fall Festival
The largest celebration of Japanese Culture in New Mexico is the popular “Aki Matsuri” or Japanese Fall Festival. The festival, sponsored by the NMJACL, features a diverse sampling of Japanese and Okinawan culture including: Japanese and Okinawan dancers, marital arts demonstrations, tea ceremonies, shigin, origami, bonsai, ikebana (flower arranging), kimono demonstrations, and traditional foods. Aki Matsuri is usually held in the early fall.



1. Japanese American Citizens League:
2. Japanese American Citizens League:
3. Everett M. Rogers and Nancy R. Bartlit, Silent Voices of World War II. (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2005) 151-154.
4. New Mexico Taiko:
5. Miyagi Ryu Okinawa Dance Group:

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