Ellen Suzuki – IE Business Manager – Incarcerated during WWII didn’t stop her family’s dream.
As Asian Pacific Islanders living in the United States, we have all asked questions relating to our immigrant past: how did we get here? What is our relationship to the motherland? And more importantly, how do we make sense of our identities in the U.S. as descendants of immigrants? The Examiner had an opportunity to ask some of these questions to its long-time business manager, Ellen Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese American living in Beacon Hill.
Though Suzuki could not recall specific details of her grandparents’ story, she was able to piece together her family history from memories of her childhood experiences as well as recollections of family members.
“[My paternal grandparents] came probably in the early 1900s [from Japan],” Suzuki remembers, almost wistfully. “My dad was born in 1912, so I would assume that my grandparents came around that time.”
Her grandparents’ reason for immigrating to America was as simple as it was universal: they came for the hope of a better life. The promise of American democracy, in addition to the economic potential of this burgeoning nation, motivated her grandparents to dream of life in a country that seemed bursting with opportunity.
After traveling to America by boat, Suzuki’s grandparents eventually settled in Seattle, a city that, though not exactly teeming, was home to a sizeable Japanese American community. Many of the immigrants in this community had already come to the U.S. in the late 1800s to work in sawmills, canneries, railroads, and farms. By the time Suzuki’s grandparents came to Seattle, they found a rapidly growing Japanese American community concentrated in the downtown area.
“There must have been a strong Japanese community because they could survive without speaking English,” recalls Suzuki. “On Jackson Street, there were a lot of merchants. In the old days, even when I was young, there were a lot of Japanese here.”
Suzuki’s family worked hard to make a new life in the U.S. Soon after arriving in Seattle, Suzuki’s grandfather set up shop as a clockmaker.
“My grandfather used to repair watches and clocks. I remember he used to wear an eyeglass in one eye – to magnify.”
By the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese Americans had found their niche in the local economy. Seventy-five percent of the milk and vegetables in Seattle came from Japanese farms, with 25,000 acres of farmland being cultivated by more than a thousand Japanese American farmers.
Before long, Caucasians in the area began to take notice. The Alien Land Law, enacted in 1921, limited property ownership for Japanese Americans in Washington state. Hate crimes and discrimination of Japanese Americans became rampant all along the West Coast. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment culminated in Executive Order 9066, signed by Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.
During this time, over 110,000 Japanese, including Suzuki’s family, were expelled from their homes into ten prison camps scattered all over the U.S. Suzuki’s family was incarcerated at Camp Minidoka in southern Idaho in 1942, where she was born a year later. She remembers that despite their incarceration, her brother was able to find employment outside of the camp.
“I remember that you could find a job outside of town, as my brother did in December of 1945,” she said. “You could also get out of camp if you went further inland.” Her family returned to Seattle in 1947.
After the internment, Suzuki’s grandfather continued his job as a clockmaker in Seattle until her grandparents passed away in the 1950s.
The Suzuki family story is a poignant reminder of the trials we must all endure as descendants of immigrants. It points to the complex dynamics underlying all immigrant stories, and reminds us of the sacrifices our predecessors undertook to create a meaningful life in the U.S., sometimes in the face of glaring discrimination.
Even in the wake of the civil rights movement, the “us vs. them” issue continues to resonate today in the debates on immigration and citizenship policy. How do we define what it means to be American? How can we extend the rights and privileges of living in the U.S. without sacrificing our own identity as a nation?
As we examine the history of immigrants in the U.S., which, on further reflection, is the history of America itself, we can find answers to the questions we face in our own lives as APIs. Understanding our past is a way of forging a substantive future. Suzuki’s story reminds us that, despite differences in culture and ethnicity, America is truly in the heart.
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