Before there was a bridge across Lake Washington, Bellevue was the farthest drive from Seattle of any town on Lake Washington, unless you took the little ferry from Leschi to Meydenbauer Bay. It was also known generically as a “Jap town”—dominated by the immigrant Nikkei farmers who had begun settling the area in 1890, transforming its vast tracts of forest-turned-stumplands into arable farmland, where they established a community of 5-to-7-acre “truck farms.”
Their best-known product was the immensely popular strawberries that Bellevue farmers specialized in. The town first held a Strawberry Festival in June 1925, and these events—run by white locals—drew huge crowds who crossed Lake Washington on the ferries that would get them to Bellevue. At its peak it drew 15,000 people to what was then a town of 2,000. There were parades and beauty pageants. The annual Strawberry Queen contestants, however, were always white.
As it happened, 1925 was the same year that Miller Freeman took up residency on the Eastside, purchasing a mansion in Medina. For the Japanese community, this meant their chief political nemesis was now their neighbor.
Freeman had made a fortune for himself as a publisher—first, of a popular trade magazine called Pacific Fisherman, and then expanded from there—and had made himself famous with his startling political pronouncements. Born in 1875 in Ogden, Utah, he was a slender, handsome man of medium height, with angular features and a piercing gaze. He came from true pioneer stock, and found himself as a young man learning the newspaper trade in Anacortes, Wash.
In 1897 he struck out on his own with a little farming newspaper and soon made a fortune by coming up with a publication for commercial and sport fishermen. Pacific Fisherman proved wildly popular, as did several trade publications that followed. By 1912 he had a parcel of trade publications to his name: The Town Crier, The Washington Farmer, Pacific Motor Boat, The Pacific Coast Dairyman, The Oregon Farmer. It was from the pages of these papers that Freeman launched his crusade against the Japanese.
It began with a fight over salmon. In 1904, Freeman—an ardent Republican and state committeeman—fired off a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt reporting that two Japanese schooners had been fishing in waters off Alaska. Roosevelt responded by sending a Coast Guard cutter to Funter Bay, where the schooners were operating, seizing them and imprisoning and later deporting their crews. “There was no diplomatic note-writing, and no war,” Freeman later wrote.
According to Freeman, he then prevailed upon the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to establish regulations forbidding “aliens ineligible for citizenship”—in other words, all Asians, but specifically the Japanese—from fishing in Alaskan waters. Freeman apparently believed the incident played a role in inspiring Roosevelt to pursue the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement”—in which Japan agreed to cease permitting any further immigration from its shores—two years later. As he later described it:
“I got on the warpath of wholesale immigration of Japanese to the Pacific Coast in 1907, and joined up with others in making such a rumpus about it that Theodore Roosevelt finally took it upon himself to notify Japan that colonization of our Pacific Coast areas would have to be stopped.”
There is nothing in the historical record that would indicate Freeman’s advocacy played any role in Roosevelt’s actions. But the die was cast. All his life, Freeman saw Japanese immigrants as a greater threat than any other: the “Yellow Peril.” Like many of his contemporaries, Freeman ardently adopted a conspiracy theory that the Japanese emperor intended to invade the Pacific Coast, and that he was sending these immigrants to American shores as surreptitious shock troops to prepare the way for just such a military action.
Freeman frequently cited a 1909 book promoting this theory, Homer Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance, which detailed the invasion to come and its aftermath. It had mapped out the most likely landing spot as Grays Harbor County on the Washington coast.
Freeman saw the rising rivalry over Ajlaska’s salmon fishery as an early salvo in this coming war. He declared in the pages of Pacific Fisherman: “If we follow the false doctrines preached by the pro-Japanese press, we will soon be making Japan a present of the Pacific Coast in order to preserve our friendly relations and build up a large American-Japanese commerce for Nippon steamships to handle.”
Driven by fears of an invasion, Freeman’s career soon moved into a military phase. After reading a 1910 article in Harper’s Weekly calling for the formation of a Naval Militia in Puget Sound, he sprang into action. Freeman contacted the Secretary of the Navy and offered to spearhead the drive to form just such a body, comprised of ships provided by the Navy and a phalanx of yachting volunteers. He organized a meeting at the Seattle Yacht Club and lined up a muster roll.
In short order, the state Legislature made the naval militia an official entity, and Freeman was named its commander. The Navy provided the militia with an aging ship, and Freeman spent the next several years organizing drills, preparing for the Japanese invasion.
Such an event was nearly inevitable, in Freeman’s view. He warned his recruits that they should enter the naval militia fully expecting to see battle action. “I want to warn you all that a conflict of arms with Japan is highly probable,” he told the Seattle Times, adding: “The safety of the nation is in the people and the people must be aroused to action if our coast is to be saved from devastation by a foreign enemy.”
Freeman sturdily denied that his campaign was driven by racial animus, saying that he “harbors no enmity toward the Japanese. They are a wonderfully bright people, frugal and industrious. But they are Orientals. We are Caucasians. Oil and water do not mix.”
Over the ensuing decades, that became Freeman’s motto. And the Japanese remained a consistent obsession, a lens through which nearly every political project he undertook was understood.
Freeman left the state Legislature in 1910, preoccupied with running the Naval Militia. He had continued making irregular warnings about the dire machinations of the Nipponese government in his trade publications.
The Gentlemen’s Agreement did slow the flow of Japanese to the West Coast considerably. Immigration plummeted from a high of 10,000 workers in 1908 to about 1,700 per year in the years immediately following. However, the agreement contained a clause allowing the immigrants already in America to send for their wives from Japan. Most of these men were single, but were able to make Japanese-style arranged marriages through go-betweens back home. These new arrivals were called “picture brides” because most of them had only ever seen their new husbands by photograph—as had the men their new wives. By 1919, Japanese immigration had grown to 8,000 a year.
California nativists, eager to stanch the flow, applied Freeman’s “aliens ineligible for citizenship” language in devising the nation’s first “Alien Land Law” in 1913, making it illegal for the Issei to own land in the state. A statewide prohibition appealed immensely to Freeman, who founded the Anti-Japanese League of Washington in 1916 and began campaigning for an alien land law in the state. At first he met with little success, but in 1919, he found the opening he sought.
Freeman was appointed by Gov. Louis F. Hart in early 1919 to the state’s Veteran Welfare Commission, which was charged with reemploying returning veterans of the Great War. Though some economists noted at the time that the problem was a complex (but probably short-lived) one caused by slow-acting market forces, for Freeman it became abundantly clear that there was a singular cause: the Japanese, once again.
His opening salvo was a July speech before a group of 170 grocery, laundry and retail store owners that he titled “This is a White Man’s Country.” In it, Freeman decried the steady stream of picture brides into the region since 1907. Freeman declared that Japanese mothers bore five times as many children as white women. Soon, he warned, the entire Pacific Coast would be overrun completely. He also claimed (falsely) that they owned and controlled large amounts of property in the state.
Freeman’s speech brought a pointed response from S.K. Arima, publisher of the Japanese North American Times: “The opinion of the commission is a great mistake. If there is, as the commission asserts, need to restrict Japanese immigration more severely than it is now, it must mean to restrict Japanese brides who come to America to live with their husbands. But not to allow young Japanese in this country to bring their brides to live with would be inhuman, unjust and un-Christian. Besides, Japanese women are never in competition with returning soldiers.”
Arima’s response appeared on the front page of the Seattle Star on July 25. The next day, Freeman’s campaign exploded on the paper’s front pages with an 84-point banner headline across the front page of the Seattle Star demanding: DEPORT JAPANESE.
Beneath the lead-in was a small portrait of Miller Freeman, with a caption: “Sees Menace in Japanese Here.” The first paragraph laid out Freeman’s case: “That by getting control of 47 per cent of Seattle’s hotels, and by leasing land when forbidden to own it, Japanese violate the spirit of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the United States and Japan, was the charge made Friday by Miller Freeman, secretary of the veterans’ welfare commission.
The story went on to detail how the Japanese “controlled” 218 of the hotels in Seattle (it would later turn out that “control” included mere managerial status, not necessarily ownership), and worse yet, were taking over all the state’s prime farmland. “Practically all the best farming lands in the vicinity of Seattle are in the hands of the Japanese – a condition true of nearly all of the farming land adjacent to all the cities of the Pacific Coast,” it read. “The law forbade foreigners to own land, and the spirit of the law is to prevent them from realizing the profits of our agricultural acreage. Yet these Japanese come here, lease the land, cultivate it, and take the cream. And the spirit of the law and the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is violated.”
As a result of this travesty, Freeman claimed, World War I veterans returning home from Europe were being shut out of the labor market: “By gaining control of business, the Japanese is [sic] crowding our returning veterans out of a chance to get a new start.” And if the trend continued, he warned, the result would be inevitable: “In the face of the flow of Japanese to the Pacific Coast, white people are ceasing to move here from the East. Eventually the whites will be forced to go elsewhere to make a living.”
Despite his contentions that he had no prejudice against the Japanese, racial separatism was a cornerstone of Freeman’s argument as he presented it in the pages of the Star. He voiced it largely by sprinkling his writing and speeches with popular aphorisms: “The Japanese cannot be assimilated. Once a Japanese, always a Japanese. Our mixed marriages — failures all – prove this. ‘East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.’ Oil and water do not mix.”
And his conclusion became a political benchmark: “It is my personal view, as a citizen, that the time has arrived for plain speech on this question. I am for a white man’s Pacific coast. I am for the Japanese on their own side of the fence. I not only favor stopping all further immigration, but believe this government should approach Japan with the view to working out a gradual system of deportation of old Japanese now here.”
The campaign eventually attracted a congressional hearing in Seattle on the question, chaired by Republican Rep. Albert Johnson, a one time newspaperman from Hoquiam, in Grays Harbor County, who counted Freeman as one of his mentors. Johnson had held one of the state’s five House seats since 1913, and had since become chairman of the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee. A parade of local civic leaders spoke, uniformly urging something be done about the tide of Japanese immigrants.
Johnson’s committee took no further action on the matter in 1919. The following summer, he began using the issue both on the stump and in Congress. He introduced a bill that year suspending all immigration for one year. It went nowhere, waylaid by a competing bill also intended to stop Japanese immigration.
Simultaneously, Freeman and the Anti-Japanese League stepped up their campaign for a Washington version of the alien land laws. Freeman outlined his reasoning in a 1920 speech: “Certainly I did not start out with any prejudice against the Japanese,” he said. “And the more I observe of them, the more I admire their perseverance and efficiency. They are not inferior to us; in fact, they constantly demonstrate their ability to beat the white man at his own game in farming, fishing and business. They will work harder, deprive themselves of every comfort and luxury, make beasts of burden of their women and stick together, making a combination that Americans cannot defeat.”
Freeman contended that the Japanese already had a leg up on establishing their hold in the Northwest. In an editorial in the Washington Farmer, he proclaimed: “Practically all the best farming lands in the vicinity of Seattle are in the hands of the Japanese. The free city market established by the city of Seattle for the benefit of all the people is controlled by the Japanese. They are establishing many commission houses and within a short time will have a virtual monopoly and sell all farm products.”
Gov. Hart, a Republican, campaigned in 1920 for his ultimately successful re-election on a promise to outlaw the leasing of any property by the Issei. One of his GOP primary opponents, John Stringer, took it a step further: “It is our duty to take every acre of land on Puget Sound away from the Japs and place it in the hands of our ex-soldiers.”
When the Legislature convened early in 1921, a flood of anti-Japanese bills awaited. The first proposal would have made it mandatory to post American citizens as guards at any Japanese-owned hotel. Another called for an official investigation of the Japanese immigrants. A third prohibited any “aliens and disloyal persons” from teaching in any public or private schools. All these faltered in the legislative process.
But the fourth and centerpiece bill, a basic Alien Land Law forbidding ownership or leasing of land by all “aliens ineligible for citizenship” – flew through both houses nearly unimpeded, passing the House 71-19 and the Senate 36-2. Hart signed it in short order.
Flush with political victory, Miller Freeman had the final say on the matter. In an article addressed to the Japanese community, he minced no words: “The people of this country never invited you here. You came into this country of your own responsibility, large numbers after our citizens supposed that Japanese immigration had been suppressed. You came notwithstanding you knew you were not welcome. You have created an abnormal situation in our midst for which you are to blame.”
The final blow came in 1924, when Albert Johnson, using his offices as chair of the U.S. House Immigration and Naturalization Committee, introduced an immigration bill in Congress that would limit immigration to a two percent quota for each nationality. However, folded into the legislation was its chief feature – an Asian Exclusion Act, which prohibited any immigration by “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” More than the quota system, the exclusion became the focus of public discussion.
The bill easily passed the House. After Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge claimed a letter from the Japanese ambassador warning of “grave consequences” for the bill’s passage was a “veiled threat” against the United States, it also passed the Senate and soon became law.
As it turned out, there were indeed grave consequences, but they were of the long-term variety. Passage of the 1924 Immigration Act sparked anti-American riots in Tokyo, and is credited with destroying a then-nascent democratic movement in Japan. It also helped pave the ascent for final control of the Japanese government by hardline militarists who shortly adopted a bellicose anti-Americanism that finally became manifest on Dec. 7, 1941.
One year before that, the Eastside had been permanently transformed with the arrival of the Mercer Island Floating Bridge, which opened in 1940. The man responsible for its construction was none other than Miller Freeman.
Freeman not only took up residence in Medina in 1925, he began buying parcels of land around the Eastside – though, true to form, he evidently never leased them to Japanese farmers. He had bigger plans. Among the early visitors to his new property in Medina was Dr. Henry M. Suzzallo, president of the University of Washington and a longtime friend. He asked the publisher why he would choose to remove himself from the bustle of Seattle.
“I wanted to get away from the pressure of the city during the home hours,” Freeman replied. “I wanted a place for the boys to grow up off the city’s streets. … In short, I want to go rural, to put affairs of everything but family behind me when I leave the office.”
“Don’t kid me,” replied Suzzallo. “You will soon be sparking ideas all over Medina. … You will be into all kinds of projects. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if you got involved in a scheme to bridge the lake.”
Suzzallo was either prophetic or just knew his man too well. Indeed, Freeman envisioned a future for the Eastside built around a metropolitan Bellevue, and even drew up a map for a modern Bellevue that bears a striking resemblance to the city as it existed by the 1990s.
In 1937, he took up the cause of building a bridge between Seattle and Bellevue, promoting the idea of a state transportation engineer named Homer Hadley to construct a floating bridge from Seattle’s Central District across the lake to Mercer Island made of concrete pontoons. But when local newspapermen caught wind of Hadley’s idea, they practically laughed him out of town. The Seattle Times ran derisive editorials and its cartoonist depicted Hadley’s concrete pontoons washing up on shore.
Miller Freeman, with perhaps other ends in mind, came to Hadley’s defense. In the pages of his Seattle newspaper holdings, including The Town Crier, Freeman called Hadley a visionary. Freeman also used his pull with Republican legislators to obtain funding for Hadley’s proposal in Olympia. Other newspapers joined in, including the Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Star. And the Bellevue American, to no one’s great surprise, pronounced Hadley’s plan a capital idea.
Soon, no one in Seattle was laughing. Final plans were drawn up, and construction of the Mercer Island Floating Bridge began in 1938. It opened to great fanfare – and a widely despised 25-cent tol – in 1940. Drivers marveled at the bridge’s stability, and it quickly transformed the Eastside from a sleepy farming community to a significant residential and commercial center. Now, instead of an hour away, Bellevue was within 15 minutes’ drive of downtown Seattle.
The Bellevue Japanese farming community had in the ensuing years become fairly prosperous. Now their produce was not being just trucked out to the Seattle market, but was being shipped via rail all over the country. However, the city fathers and the land developers around them viewed the farms as a problem, because they were lands ripe for development into residential neighborhoods. Now that Bellevue was a short commute from Seattle, it seemed natural. Using them for farms seemed like a waste.
The opportunity to force the Japanese farmers off their lands finally came on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor.
A number of Nikkei civic leaders were arrested by the FBI within the first day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Confusion and fear reigned throughout the community. Then, Miller Freeman sprang into action. He called for and got a meeting of Japanese community leaders with the apparently self-appointed “Special Committee” whose work was announced in a front-page brief in the Bellevue American.
Among the people who were present at this meeting were three of my interviewees – Akira Aramaki, Tosh Ito, and Tokio Hirotaka. Another man featured in ‘Strawberry Days’ – Masami Inatsu, a veteran of the 442nd Battalion – was there. Inatsu died in action in France.
Freeman was evidently quite proud of these meetings, because he had his secretary keep minutes from them that are preserved in the Miller Freeman archives at UW. It is largely a record of Freeman browbeating the farmers and informing them they were about to lose everything.
“We want to deal with you frankly; don’t want anybody’s feelings hurt, but we are at war and we can’t pussy-foot about it,” he told them. “There are some things that are going to be required of the Japanese in this district; some of which has already been imposed upon you, such as restrictions on finance and on travel, etc. War just having broke out, there are still a lot of details to be worked out.”
Freeman added that he would “like to make a model in this district of our relations with the Japanese who are here in justice and fairness, and which may be a model for the rest of the country wherever there are Japanese who are colonized.”
Five weeks after Freeman’s meetings, on Feb. 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war to designate areas as military zones from which people could be excluded. It paved the way for the incarceration of 110,000 Americans. One of the intermediary steps involved congressional hearings held at cities affected by the presence of Japanese Americans along the Pacific Coast. Rep. John Tolan of California chaired these hearings.
At the Tolan hearing in Seattle in early March 1942, Miller Freeman took front and center stage. The headline the next morning in the Post-Intelligencer pretty much said it all: “Freeman Calls Japan Society ‘5th Column’.” His testimony favored immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry to the interior, where they could be kept under guard.
Freeman was joined by a chorus of other voices making similar proclamations and wrapping themselves in the jingo’s American flag, including a number of land-development interests. It was the same at other Tolan hearings on the Coast.
The hearings were a risible façade anyway, since the Nikkei communities’ fate had already been decided March 2 when the West Coast Army’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, announced that everyone west of the Cascades was in a “military exclusion zone.” This meant that everyone of Japanese extraction was being ordered to “evacuate” by the military.
On March 24, the first such “evacuation” – of 227 Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island – took place. They were taken to Manzanar, Calif. By early May evacuation notices went up everywhere along the Pacific Coast. The Eastside community – 60 or so families, over 300 people – were herded aboard a train in Kirkland on May 20 and shipped out of town. Most never returned.
The majority of Bellevue’s Nikkei community spent their first months in incarceration, first at an “assembly center” in Pinedale, Calif., near Fresno; then at a “relocation center” (euphemism for a concentration camp) in Tule Lake, Calif. Most relocated, about a year into the process, to the camp in Minidoka in southern Idaho, since that was where most of the Seattle community, with whom the Bellevue Nikkei had their closest social connections, had been “relocated.”
When the camps finally began closing in late 1944, and for good by early 1945, only a handful – 12 of the 60 families – actually returned to Bellevue to resume farming. That was because only 15 of them owned their farms. The leased properties on which the majority of the Nikkei community had farmed were either already being developed into residential neighborhoods, or were in the process of becoming so. (One of the larger tracts of leased farmland became a private country-club golf course.)
Miller Freeman enjoyed his final years as the grand old man of Republican politics on the Eastside. When the toll on the Mercer Island bridge expired in 1947, the event was celebrated in local media, with Freeman given the honor of paying the final toll.
A version of this article ran on the Daily Kos on February 29, 2020.