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Starting Over—and Over and Over Again

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

The Japanese phrase Ikoi No Kai translates in English to “the gathering place.” It could also mean a haven, a welcoming spot where people gather for fellowship. 

For Janice Matsunaga Okamoto, the basement area at the Epworth Methodist Church in Southeast Portland is just that: an inviting space where at least four days a week she joins several dozen friends for lunch and conversation.

Sometimes there is singing, or music played on traditional Japanese instruments. Often they play a Japanese card game called hanafuda, mahjong, or work on puzzles. In spirited moments, Janice and others have been known to dance around the room.

It is a happy place, all right. And for Janice Okamoto, Ikoi No Kai is also a way to connect with a past she barely remembers.

“Keeping the culture alive,” she said.

Janice was born in Portland, Oregon, just a month before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Her parents ran a dry-cleaning business in what was then the thriving Japantown section of Portland. The neighborhood was bounded by West Burnside Street and the Willamette River, with most of the housing and businesses located east of Southwest Broadway. 

Steady waves of immigrants from Japan had begun arriving in Oregon late in the 19th century. The economy in the Pacific Northwest was flourishing, with a booming lumber industry and active canneries. Railroads were under construction. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had curtailed the flow of labor from that country, so young men from elsewhere in Asia had little difficulty finding work. Okamoto’s own grandfather, Mr.Takeichiro, was among the thousands of young men from Japan who made their way to Oregon and settled in Japantown. 

As part of the Oregon Art Project, funded by the federal Works Progress Administration, the American photographer Minor Martin White in 1940 captured this image of the International Hotel, at the intersection of NW Third Avenue and NW Everett Street, in the heart of Portland’s Japantown. Photo: Minor White Archives/Oregon Historical Society

The neighborhood grew and grew. At its busiest, around the time Okamoto was born, Japantown was home to 86 hotels and apartment buildings, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. At its height, Japantown boasted 14 restaurants, 12 barber shops and 18 laundries and baths. There were eight grocery stores, five gift shops and two general merchandise stores. Three medical doctors and four dentists had offices in Japantown. Four newspapers reported on the area’s events. Carpenters, photographers and a jeweler were based there, as well as two candy stores, a tire shop and, for recreation, two pool halls.

Up and down the West Coast, similar districts also developed. Seattle and San Francisco each had a Japantown. In Los Angeles, Little Tokyo all but bumped up against City Hall. Sacramento claimed the West’s fourth largest Japantown. 

Little Janice came home from Wilcox Memorial Hospital to live with her parents and brother above the dry-cleaning business on Northwest Glisan Street. She was an infant, too young to have any inkling about geopolitics when Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. Soon enough, her own short life was also upended.

As was customary in 1919, a whole family ran this produce stand on NW Sixth Avenue in Portland’s Japantown. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

Executive Order 9066

In Portland and elsewhere, anti-Asian hatred exploded, seemingly overnight. Signs that read “No Japs Allowed” appeared in storefronts. Men and women who had been born in the United States suddenly fell victim to angry insults. “You dirty Jap” was the phrase hurled regularly at anyone with Asian features.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcibly removing Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses. The president’s proclamation did not mention any specific group of people. But the result was the round-up of about 120,000 Japanese Americans. Around 60% of them were American citizens.

As head of the Western Defense Command, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt administered the incarceration program, whose ostensible purpose was to block the spread of espionage. Testifying before Congress, DeWittt said, “I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty.”

The evacuees were first sent to “assembly centers,” and then to one of 10 incarceration camps scattered around the West. They had only days to settle their business and personal affairs. There were cars to dispose of, pets to rehome. With sadness, Janice’s mother, Ayame, had to leave her treasured doll collection behind. Some families staged backyard bonfires, destroying any family letters from Japan that might conceivably be used against them.

Nearly 4,000 men, women and children moved through the Portland Assembly Center–formerly a cattle yard–before they were transported to prison camps watched by armed guards and surrounded by barbed wire. Photo: The Oregonian Archives/Oregon Historical Society

Each evacuee was permitted to bring only as much as he or she could carry.

For Janice’s mother, that meant baby Janice, cradled in one arm, and her son, clutching her spare hand. Janice’s father carried the family’s one suitcase. Music was an important part of Henry Matsunaga’s life, and just before he closed the door on their home and business one last time, he slipped a harmonica into his pocket.

“That business,” Janice said of the family dry cleaning enterprise, “it was sold at a very low price.”

Before the president’s order to evacuate all persons deemed a threat to national security, Portland’s assembly center had been the International Livestock Exhibition Pavilion. Now, instead of farm animals, nearly 4,000 people crammed into what quickly became known as the “Barbed-Wire Barn,” according to the Densho Encyclopedia. Each family was assigned a number to mark their possessions and the cubicle — formerly a stall — to which they were assigned.

“It was all guarded with barbed wire, and surrounded by soldiers, with their rifles,” Janice said. “I guess we were considered ‘enemy’ because of our features.”

An article in the Densho Encyclopedia written by Henry Shig Sakamoto said that families complained of lack of privacy, fly infestations and an unremitting stench traceable to years of horse and cattle droppings. Poor ventilation added to the extreme heat in the building. The Densho Encyclopedia reported that an inspection by U.S. Public Health officials one July day noted an interior temperature of 107 degrees. Still, as they awaited word of where they would next be sent, the detainees tried to make the best of a situation that was both unwanted and deplorable. They set up a school and a doctor’s office. They held church sessions. They circulated a newspaper to keep their community informed. 

Newton Uyesugi, a Methodist minister and a past president of Portland’s Japanese American Citizens League, wrote from inside the assembly center: “We are doing our utmost to keep up the morale of the people. I must say there is not one of us who would rather not be outside of these walls since this is so abnormal. Having a great number of people cooped up together in one place is not exactly to anyone’s liking; but the general attitude is that since we must stay here, we will make the best of it.” (Uyesugi’s letter is published on the website of the Oregon Secretary of State.)

Brothers Gerald Sakura, 5, David Sakura, 6, and Chester Sakura, 1 ½, (left to right) caught their first glimpse of the Minidoka War Relocation Authority Center as they arrived from the Puyallup assembly center on Aug. 17, 1942. Photo: Francis Stewart/National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

While the detainees were languishing in livestock stalls, the federal government was hastily constructing the internment camps. In May 1942, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, about 400 people were moved from the assembly center to work on farms in Malheur County. Others were packed into trucks and taken to Portland’s Union Station. The trains’ windows were covered over so no one could see where they were traveling. When the train stopped after a two-day trip, they had arrived in a remote area of Idaho, not far from Twin Falls.

According to several accounts, including the Densho Encyclopedia, the camp that came to be known as Minidoka was not even fully complete when the incarcerees were loaded into long barracks with tar-paper walls and roofing. Each barrack measured 120 feet by 20 feet and was divided into six living units, each of which had one lightbulb and a coal-burning stove for heat. The barracks had no insulation, and most walls did not reach to the ceiling. Bathrooms were a row of toilets, one for men and one for women. The camp’s location in Idaho’s high desert was about 4,000 feet above sea level, making it quite hot in summer and just as cold in winter.

At the left of this 1943 overview of the Minidoka Relocation Center is a corner of the dining hall, where 275-300 incarcerees shared meals. The sanitation building (center background) housed showers, lavatories, toilets and washtubs. Many residents of the long row of barracks that made up Block 44 (at right) planted flowers or vegetable gardens in front of the barracks. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

 In an interview that is part of a collection of oral histories at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon in Portland, Dorothy Saito offered her first impressions of Minidoka after she arrived with her family from Seattle.

 “Terrible,” Saito said. “The wind was blowing and there was sage brush all over. The living facility was just a cabin.”

 The government did provide cots and mattresses, Saito said. But the toilets and showers were all outside, and “everything was communal.”

 Overall, said Saito, “it was very, very desolate and discouraging. It was very sad for all of us to look and see where we had been dumped.”

 She continued: “But you kind of learned to look around and — not accept, you never accepted — learned to live with it.”

In preparation for planting rye grass, students from Hunt High School cleaned and raked the areas between classroom barrack buildings in May, 1943. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Life at Minidoka

Janice was too young to form lasting memories of daily life at the camp that was formally known as the Minidoka War Relocation Center. Her mother, Ayame, told her later that “different ladies would carry me all over the place, I guess because I cried a lot.”

The Matsunaga family was assigned to Block 34, Barrack 5. Among their neighbors in Block 34 was a family they knew somewhat from worshiping at the old Oregon Buddhist temple, then located at the intersection of Northwest 10th Avenue and Everett Street. Their surname was Okamoto, and one of the little boys in the family, George, would one day become Janice’s husband.

Trying to bring some musical joy to camp life at Minidoka, Janice Okamoto’s father, Henry Matsunaga (far left, behind the little boy Robert, Henry’s eldest son), and his brother Roy Matsunaga (far right, in the tuxedo jacket) organized the Norakuro Band. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Meals were served in a communal mess hall. According to Saito, children formed fast bonds. They played outdoors together and explored the 900 acres that were given over to the camp. The young people also took to sharing meals together, defying the long-standing tradition of family meals.

“I think that kind of broke up the families,” Saito remembered in the Japanese American Museum of Oregon interview. 

Saito had a job, working at the camp’s reception desk.

“Anyone who wanted to leave the camp had to go through us,” she said.

She recalled her salary: “I was paid $12 a day.” Then she corrected herself: “No, not a day. A month.”

The salary was a pittance. “I think what we thought, or what I thought, was: ‘Well, you’ve got a job. You’ve got to make the best of it until they let you out.’”

But every day, she said, “it didn’t get any better.”

Government photos from Minidoka show well-dressed men and women, smiling at their typewriters or other places of work. A report in the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Project said these happy images were staged by government photographers.

In fact there were moments of cheer at Minidoka. Henry Matsunaga and his brother Roy formed the Norakura Band. They pushed back the tables and turned the mess hall into a dance hall. The young teenagers even poured Cream of Wheat cereal onto the floor so they could slide and dance better. Many of these teens would meet their future husbands or wives at these dances.

“They wanted to remember how music brought people together,” Janice said.

“There was a piano, a saxophone, a trumpet,” she said. “Somehow they got them, maybe from Sears or Montgomery Ward.”

Party clothes — like the warmer attire that was needed in Minidoka’s harsh winters — also were ordered from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. or Montgomery Ward catalogs.

A woman from the camp taught Japanese dancing. Someone else offered lessons in flower arranging. Outside, under watch by the camp’s armed guards, kids and grownups alike played endless games of football and baseball. 

A family portrait at “camp”: Henry Yoshio Matsunaga, left, holds baby Nancy, born at Minidoka. At right, Janice offers a stern glare while her mother, Ayame, smiles broadly. Janice’s brother Robert stands in the foreground. Photo Credit: Okamoto Family Archives

 Children at camp attended school, albeit with limited textbooks and other supplies. Every morning, the children placed their right hands on their hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

 The mess hall food was no one’s idea of gourmet fare. Some people, including Janice’s mother, Ayame, got sick after eating the mess hall fare. So a group of incarcerees planted a vegetable garden.

 Yet life at camp remained highly regimented. “Lines for your meals, lines to do your laundry, lines for everything,” Janice said.

To survive, to preserve some sense of dignity, Janice said the families incarcerated at Minidoka embraced a principle that in Japanese is known as shikata ga nai: “It cannot be helped.”

The Return Home

On Dec. 18, 1944, the government announced that all relocation camps would be closed by the end of 1945. As the camps gradually emptied out, evacuees were given $25 and a train ticket back to their hometowns.

But what the Matsunaga family returned to was not the Portland they had left. Japantown had disappeared, swallowed up by an ever-expanding Chinatown. As they searched for somewhere to live, they ran head-on into anti-Japanese bias.

 “No one wanted us to live there,” Janice said.

At last, the family found housing in what was then a separate city, halfway between Portland and Vancouver, Washington. Vanport was a community constructed in 110 days in 1942 by the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser with assistance from the federal government. Vanport served as a convenient home for wartime workers in Portland’s shipyards — many owned by Kaiser — and factories. During World War II, according to Smithsonian Magazine and the Oregon Encyclopedia, nearly all of Vanport’s residents were Black. 

Portland was — and remains — one of the whitest cities of its size in this country. Like the Japanese Americans who returned to Portland after their years of incarceration, Blacks in Portland often were unwelcome as renters until Vanport was built. At its height, with 40,000 residents, Vanport was Oregon’s second largest city.

An aerial image of Vanport, before the flood that destroyed it in 1948. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

Vanport sat on reclaimed marshland between the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River, approximately where Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway are located today. A series of dikes held back the river, keeping Vanport dry.

By the time World War II was over, housing in Vanport was racially stratified, Janice said.

“Up on the upper level were the Caucasians,” she said. “Then the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Native Americans and the Blacks were all in the lower parts.”

But the mixture worked: “We all got along, all kinds of races.”

Vanport housing, she remembered, “was almost the same as the barracks (in Minidoka), but a little nicer.”

Once again, the Matsunagas relied on a coal-burning stove for heat.

“My brother’s job was to get the coal from the coal bin and feed the stove,” she said.

Even by the standards of soggy Portland, the winter and spring of 1948 had been particularly wet. By late May, both the Columbia and Willamette rivers had reached 23 feet, eight feet above flood stage. On May 30, during Memorial Day weekend, officials from the Portland Housing Authority distributed flyers to Vanport residents that read:

“Remember. Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.”

Men linked arms to form a human chain to help Vanport residents flee the rising water. Photo: Oregon Historical Society

It was a sunny day, and many families were out enjoying the good weather. That was a break for Vanport, which claimed only 15 casualties after the dikes broke at 4:17 p.m. 

“The horn did blow,” Janice said of the siren that warned Vanport citizens of incipient high waters. 

The Matsunagas packed everyone into their car, then swung by the movie theater to pick up her brother, Robert. Two other families, the Kasubuchi and Ikada families, joined them as they made their way up Denver Avenue, the main exit road from Vanport.

“We were all crowded into the car like sardines,” she said. “We didn’t bring anything. We just got in the car.”

All three families ended up bunking in at the old Buddhist temple on 10th and Everett. The following August, when they were finally allowed to go back to the area that had been Vanport, nothing was left.

Once again, the Matsunagas had lost everything. Once again, as they tried to find a new place to live, they saw doors slammed in their faces by prospective sellers or rental agents. 

Back in Portland after their incarceration at Minidoka, the Matsunaga family sat for this family portrait: From left, Henry Yoshio, holding Nancy, Robert and Janice, sitting on the lap of her mother Ayame. Photo Credit: Okamoto Family Archives

In the end, North Portland was the only place they could buy a home, Janice said. Her parents, Henry and Ayame, purchased a house on North Hunt Street in 1952. Janice sold it more than 50 years later after her mother’s death. The house had two bedrooms. One housed her mother and father. All three girls — the family had grown to include Nancy and Joyce as well as Janice— took the second bedroom. Her parents converted a laundry room into a place for her brother Robert to sleep.

Housing was not the only way in which bias against Japanese Americans persisted in Portland in those years after World War II. Henry Matsunaga — his given first name was Yoshio — had trouble finding work until he was hired as a dishwasher at Henry Thieles Restaurant. Later he got a job at a hotel, “but not out in front of people,” his daughter said, “always in the back where he would not be seen.”

Janice Matsunaga graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1959. Her mother, an expert seamstress, fashioned Janice’s graduation dress. Photo Credit: Okamoto Family Archives

Her mother, an accomplished seamstress since their days running the dry-cleaning business, found work as a power sewer at the DENNIS Uniform Co. Later, Janice’s father signed on as a delivery driver for DENNIS. During the summer, the whole family headed out to work in Oregon’s agricultural fields. 

“We picked strawberries, cucumbers, boysenberries, beans, raspberries, you name it,” Janice said. “We didn’t know what summer vacation was.”

For Janice, the money she earned from the field work seemed like a fortune. “It gave me the money to buy Pendleton skirts and saddle shoes, like the popular girls,” she said.

Some Family History

Though both her parents were born in the United States, her grandparents had immigrated from Japan. In a culture that rewarded first-born sons with full inheritance rights, Janice’s grandfather had the misfortune to be the second son. Convinced that no opportunity for success awaited him in his home town of Chiyoda-cho, Hiroshima-ken, he boarded a ship and made his way to the Pacific Northwest.

When it came time to find a wife, he turned to matchmakers in Japan. Like thousands of other young women who left Japan to begin new lives with men they had never met, Janice’s grandmother was a picture bride. According to this practice — known as shashin hanayome — matchmakers arranged for a Japanese man living in the United States to exchange photographs with a single woman in Japan. Under U.S. law at the time, the wife of a man living in this country was permitted to enter legally. The small cultural hitch was that the groom of a picture bride did not actually attend the wedding ceremony in Japan. Rather, he entered the name of his bride into the family registry, thus making the marriage official.

Many of these picture bride unions ended in disappointment, when a young woman arrived in the U.S. to find a man who looked not a bit like his photograph or whose job was vastly less remunerative than had been described. New husbands, too, sometimes rejected the picture bride that had been sent to them.

But Janice’s grandparents had the advantage of coming from the same village. Through family friends, they at least knew of one another. Both were Buddhists. Their children were born in Oregon, guaranteeing them full rights as U.S. citizens. 

Janice’s late husband, George Okamoto, designed the Oregon Buddhist Temple on Southeast 34th Avenue that replaced the old temple on NW Everett Street. This photograph was taken at the temple’s dedication on Nov. 6, 1966. The congregation celebrated its centennial in 2003. Photo Credit: Okamoto Family Archives

At the Buddhist temple, the Matsunagas worshiped alongside other families from Japan, including the Okamotos. During a fateful robbery at the small grocery store where her grandfather worked, Mr. Takeichiro was killed. His wife was so bereft that she took her three sons–Henry Yoshio, Roy and Noburo–back to Japan. But when Henry Yoshio was a teenager, he and his older brother Roy returned to Portland. 

Sometimes fortune seems to cycle through the generations. Janice’s parents met at Portland’s old Buddhist Temple. George Okamoto was home from the University of Oregon for a weekend in 1959 when he went to the annual obon festival at the temple. The obon celebration honors the spirits of one’s ancestors with the belief that the spirits and souls of loved ones can come back to visit.

George, however, had his eye on someone who was very much alive. On the dance floor, he spotted a comely young woman and asked a friend, “Who’s that gal?”

But when he invited Janice to join him for coffee, she said no. (Well, she explained, “at the time I didn’t drink coffee.”)

A week later, he invited her to a movie and dinner. Their families were ecstatic when they began to date, because they knew each other, both from the temple, and from the same block “at camp.” In 1963, They became the last couple to be married in the original temple in Portland’s Old Town.

On Feb. 24, 1963, Janice Setsuko Matsunaga became the bride of George T. Okamoto. Photo Credit: Okamoto Family Archives

For 22 years, George Okamoto worked in the Portland office of a prestigious national architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Okamoto designed the new Oregon Buddhist Temple that replaced the original temple on NW 10th Avenue and NW Everett Street. He also worked on the original Japanese pavilion at the Portland Japanese Garden. After the Skidmore firm closed its Portland office, Okamoto continued to work on what his wife called “many of the important buildings” in downtown Portland.

“From this family that had been mistreated came many contributions to the infrastructure of the city,” she said.

George Okamoto died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.

For her part, Janice Okamoto worked for a time as a waitress at a series of Japanese restaurants: first Sapporo, then Ginza and eventually Zen. She claimed the lunch shift, so she could be home when her children got home from school. Later, she worked for the Portland public schools’ nutrition program. 

What To Make of the Past?

Janice Okamoto made a point of donating whatever family relics remained from their time in Minidoka to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.

“A desk, chest of drawers, tool box, lamps, chairs, a Buddhist altar, and storage trunks that had our name and assigned WRA number,” she said.

Without ever discussing it, her family had concluded that the experience was long behind them. 

“My parents just put the camp behind them. They never talked about it,” she said. “It was like a forgotten subject, a chapter that was erased from history.”

Instead, over and over, her parents told their children to get a good education and “never dishonor the family name.”

They also urged them that, when things got tough, not to give up: “It’ll get better,” Janice said.

Despite the upheaval bestowed on them by the U.S. government, her parents never expressed bitterness, she said.

“It was shikata ga nai,” she said. “It can’t be helped.”

With so many years behind her now to think about the incarceration experience, Janice believes her parents’ approach to the subject was healthy.

“It was their way of accepting what happened to them, the loss,” she said.

Ironically, Janice Okamoto has forgotten the Japanese she spoke as a young child. By the time the family returned to Oregon, “it was frowned upon to learn the language. They said, ‘You’ve got to be American.’”

After the Okamotos’ daughter Elaine graduated from the University of Oregon, Janice took her to visit Japan. Her son Gary graduated from Cornell University, then took a job in Japan, where he worked for 14 years. He and his wife Ryoko now live in Salt Lake City. At home they speak Japanese with their three boys, Chris, Andy and Brandon.

Janice said she speaks and understands only “words” in Japanese. But she celebrates her circle of friends at Ikoi No Kai and is proud of her son’s mastery of his ancestral tongue.

“Keeping the culture alive,” she said.


Special thanks to the Oregon Historical Society and the Oregon Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO), Portland, OR for access to the interviews and historical photos that made this story possible.