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Borderlands: World War II Affected Japanese Immigrants 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

World War II Affected Japanese Immigrants

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Beverly Ramirez and Elvi Nieto

During the first decades of immigration to the United States, the Japanese may have suffered prejudice as a result of the discrimination that already existed against other Asians in the United States, especially the Chinese. Yet with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 and the subsequent full scale war between the two countries, popular sentiment turned in favor of the Chinese. El Pasoans reacted much the way the rest of the nation did.     

Local Chinese merchants called for a boycott of all Japanese-owned businesses and products. According to a 1938 El Paso Herald-Post article, Chinese shops in Juárez closed in protest of the Japanese-Chinese war.  In response to the strong anti-Japanese sentiment that was occurring not only in the borderland but also the rest of the country, Chinese merchants proudly displayed signs on store fronts reading, “We are not Japanese!


Image caption: The Kurita family posed for a family portrait taken in El Paso circa 1940. Standing left to right are Kenneth Kurita, Isabel Kurita Tanaka and George Kurita. Seated, from left to right, are Sam Kurita holding Judy Tanaka and Teru Kurita holding Joyce Tanaka. Photo courtesy of Sue Kurita.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. Immigrants and American citizens of Japanese descent were subjected to investigation and internment on the flimsiest evidence that they might be “dangerous” or simply because of their nationality. FBI agents entered homes, making arrests and taking cameras, radios, maps and guns to use as evidence that the Japanese might be spies. They were sent to concentration or “relocation” camps, but even before things got to that point, many were fired from their jobs, and insurance policies were canceled.

About six months prior to Pearl Harbor, the El Paso Herald-Post reported that President Roosevelt “issued a virtual declaration of economic warfare against Japan.”  The government froze all Japanese assets in the United States, estimated to be around $131,000,000. By February 1942, the United States government had ordered the imprisonment of 110,000 Japanese of which 70,000 were American citizens. Besides the relocation camps holding the Japanese from the Pacific Coast, smaller internment camps run by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) held Japanese, Italians and Germans. Three such camps existed in Texas at Seagoville, Kennedy and Crystal City.     

In his book The U. S.-Mexico Borderlands as Multi-Cultural Region, Ellwyn Stoddard wrote about Ruihei Okubo, an El Paso resident, who on Dec. 7, 1941, had been visiting friends in the Japanese community living in Juárez. Okubo, his wife Martha Aceves, their 6-year-old son and new baby were making their way back to El Paso when Okubo was arrested and put in isolation for three days. He was given a hearing, sent to jail for two weeks and then transferred to Fort Bliss where he was imprisoned for two months. Stoddard considered Okubo the first prisoner of World War II captured on U.S. soil.     

Dr. Tenesubura Hasekawa also spent the years during World War II in an internment camp. Shortly following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mexican officials searched his house. When authorities found a short wave radio in his possession, he was charged with espionage and sent to a camp where he remained until the war’s end.     

Even prominent El Pasoans were not immune from persecution during this tense time. Christine C. Armendariz wrote about Dr. Sadakazu Furugochi, who came to El Paso in 1922 and quickly became known for his generosity and humanitarianism. He opened his medical office on Stanton Street which stood as a foundation of the Japanese community in El Paso for almost 50 years. Dr. Furugochi treated not only the small Japanese community here but also cared for impoverished Mexican-Americans. He delivered babies for free, and if patients could not afford to pay his $2 medical fee, Dr. Furugochi treated them anyway. (Editor's note:  see pages 56-57 in the book Asian Texans) 

He took on a partner, a Dr. Yanagawa, and the two men established Nippon Gakuen, meaning “Japanese Academy,” in 1937 for Japanese children. (The term “Nippon” means “source of the sun,” referring to the sun goddess as the mother of the Japanese.) Located on Myrtle Street in downtown El Paso, the school was designed for children to maintain fluency in their native language.     

Armendariz described an incident on Dec. 8, 1941, when Furugochi, an avid short-wave enthusiast, was found repairing damage caused by an earlier storm to an antenna high upon the Franklin Mountains. He was arrested and sent to an INS camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although he could have been released earlier after a loyalty hearing, he chose to remain to treat other Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned by their own government – the United States.

When Furugochi was released, he returned to El Paso where he continued to reside and practice medicine. In 1960, he received a medal, the Fourth Order of Sacred Treasure, from Japan for his work in the internment camp. In 1971, he returned to Japan and died a few years later. Some of his ashes were sent back to El Paso and were buried in Evergreen Cemetery to honor his contributions to the city. His wife Ise is also buried there.     

In the midst of the persecution, false accusations and imprisonment during the war, many Japanese families were able to flourish in this area. Two such examples are the Yabumoto and Kurita families.

​Riuhei and Koharu Yabumoto came to El Paso from San Francisco. The Yabumotos owned and operated a pool hall in El Paso, but because of Riuhei’s desire to live in wide open spaces, they soon moved to the Anthony-Chamberino area. The Yabumotos bought 25 acres of land in New Mexico and began farming. Katsumi, one of their six children, joined the U.S. Army and served during World War II, much the way many second generation Japanese men did. The third generation Yabumoto family still operates their New Mexico farm that has now grown to occupy 350 acres. Their family’s oral history and photographs are now part of New Mexico State University’s Rio Grande Special Collection Archives.

Shigeo Oda came to the United States illegally in 1913. He was caught and held by the INS but jumped the train that was taking him to a detention center in Albuquerque. Taking advantage of his freedom, Oda settled in Boulder, Colorado. He sent for Teru Kurita, a college educated teacher, who at the time was in Kansas. They decided to marry, but since she was an only child and her parents had no namesake or heir, Oda willingly took her surname. He changed his first name to Mansaku but called himself Sam, and from then on was known as Sam Kurita.


Image caption: Sam and Teru Kurita at their home in 1965   Photo courtesy of Sue Kurita.   

The Kuritas’ produce farm in Boulder failed during the Great Depression. The family left Boulder for Anthony, New Mexico, where Sam was employed with the Yabumoto family for about seven years. The Kurita family then moved to a farm in El Paso near Ascarate Lake. In the 1940s, Sam Kurita began working for the Santa Fe Railroad. Teru Kurita worked with Dr. Furugochi in the clinic on Stanton Street as a medical secretary and midwife. Whereas Dr. Furugochi was known as “the father of El Paso” by poor Mexicans, Teru Kurita was considered “the mother of El Paso.”     

The Kurita children were able to take advantage of their parents’ hard work and sacrifices, fulfilling their parents’ dream of a college education for their children. Isabel attended the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (now UTEP) and married Dr. Paul Tanaka. George graduated from the University of Arizona School of Pharmacy. Kenneth attended medical school at Creighton University, specializing in OB/GYN. Both sons returned to El Paso after graduation and lived and worked in the city.  Kenneth’s oldest daughter, Sue Kurita, is a county court judge in El Paso, while his son, Kenneth Jr. works as a sign language interpreter and teaches the deaf at Burges High School.     

As the second generation of Japanese grew, most forsook their parent’s occupations such as farming, instead preferring to pursue higher education. Many of these educated Japanese Americans left the area. They became teachers, engineers, architects and other professionals. Only about six percent of the second generation Japanese actually stayed in farming.     

The early Japanese residents of the El Paso Southwest lived relatively modest, inconspicuous and reserved lives. Because of this, they have received much less attention than other, more vocal minorities. However, these Japanese-American families continue to contribute to the betterment of our multicultural region.

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