Preserving Japanese History in Western Nebraska

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| WYOBRASKA HISTORY |


Vickie Sakurada Schaepler is anxious to unpack the original Buddhist shrine from the Japanese Hall in Scottsbluff. As she carefully places pieces in the shrine, she smiles and mentions how well volunteers have coordinated to get matching replacement pieces for the inside of the shrine. The originals have been lost to time, but their efforts to make it whole is not lost on Vickie. “They did such a good job,” she said. “You’d never know they weren’t the originals.”

Story & Photography by: Irene North


When you walk into the entrance to the Japanese Hall today, you are greeted by the images of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese, who settled in the valley and the story of their journey from Japan to the United States. The hall, now also a museum, re-tells the stories and history of Japanese-Americans in western Nebraska.

A decade ago, Vickie, coordinator of the Japanese Hall, had the inspiration to preserve the building and tell the story of the people who were welcomed here at a celebration of the life of Cecile Yamada Ikeya at the Japanese Hall.

Built-in 1928 at 1705 Ave. C, in Scottsbluff, the hall was used for Japanese language classes, dances, festivals, theater productions, sports clubs, and church services. Over time, the descendants of the Issei and Nisei, the second generation, moved out of the area.

Her decision to try to save the hall came after a Yonsei (fourth generation), asked Vickie, a Sansei (third generation), what was going to happen to all the pictures on the wall. During that day, she learned a lot about the history of the Hall, including how there used to be a second hall in the nearby city of Mitchell.

She began speaking with friends and relatives about the possibility of preservation. In 2015, she received permission to move the hall to the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. After a successful fundraising campaign, the building slowly traveled from Scottsbluff to its new home on Dec. 10, 2019.

| SIX THEMES

Once the Hall had been relocated, it was time to tell the story of the Issei, the Nisei, and the Sansei. The process to bring the information to the general public while honoring those who came before she was much larger than Vickie anticipated.

“I had no idea what’s involved in doing a simple text,” she said. “It took three reviews just to get it written up.”

The process may seem tedious, but Vickie and other exhibit subcommittee volunteers diligently developed what they wanted to include, then discussed what would be said, how it would be said, and how it would be presented.

The subcommittee eventually settled on and designed six themes to present to the public, and worked with Ian Scott and his team at Root House Studio to bring their history to life.

The themes are Sojourners to Settlers, Building Family and Community, Gaman: World War II, From the Camps to New Beginnings, Home in the High Plains, and The Legacy Continues. Gaman is a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin, meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” It is generally translated as perseverance, patience, or tolerance, an apt description of what Japanese-Americans endured during World War II.

Each theme required review. The exhibit subcommittee gave their ideas to a historian, who researched each topic and sent the information back to the group, who, in turn, made their own changes and reviewed the texts again. The discussions were lively and thoughtful.

“One person would say, ‘Oh, this is how I interpret this,’ and another person would say, ‘This is how I interpret it,’” Vickie said. “It’s a great discussion because we’re actually going through the text in detail.”

Vickie said these discussions were important because the points brought up, such as different interpretations, means they had to change a word or how a sentence was written. The goal was to be as accurate as possible at the end of the discussion. Vickie sighed, knowing it still might not be enough.

“Even with all that, we will probably get some criticism because there is still some other interpretation we didn’t think of,” she said.

One of the ideas discussed by the subcommittee was the issue of rights and racism and how to present it. The Cable Act of 1922, for example, is a complex, but vital part of how the Japanese were treated in America. Through a series of Acts as far back as 1804, women’s citizenship was tied to the nationality of their husbands. The Cable Act said a woman could reattain their citizenship unless they were married to someone who was not eligible for citizenship. At the time, Asians were not allowed to be citizens, so if a woman married an Asian, she could never get her citizenship back.

“We went back and forth in regard to that particular act because it is extremely complex,” Vickie said. “We were not sure if it would be interesting to readers even though it is to us.”

The “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907-08 is another topic of importance for Japanese-Americans. In 1906, the San Francisco school board moved to segregate Japanese school children. At the time, the children made up about 1% of California’s population. California was seeing a rise in anti-Japanese nativism and President Teddy Roosevelt sought to reach an agreement with the Empire of Japan. A deal was reached to accept the Japanese already in the United States while banning discrimination against Japanese-American schoolchildren.

The agreement also allowed immigrants’ wives, children, and parents to enter the country. Japan agreed to stop issuing passports to those who wanted to immigrate to America. The Japanese government, however, continued to issue passports to the then U.S. Territory of Hawaii, allowing the Japanese to move onto the continent. The deal was never officially ratified by Congress and ended with the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned all Asians from immigrating to the United States.

As a result, the idea of picture brides was created. Many Japanese-Americans in the Scottsbluff area had come to work on the railroads, replacing the Chinese. These young men eventually wanted wives, but immigration was no longer allowed. Women would send pictures to these young men and they would be married by proxy. Since they were now listed in Japanese registers, they were allowed to immigrate during this “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Many of the women did not know who the men were when they arrived, but there were exceptions. Vickie’s grandmother was one such case.

“She still had to marry my grandfather to come to this country even though he knew her,” she said. “She had to go through the ceremony with someone standing in for my grandfather.”

Once the ceremony was completed, a passport could be applied for. After arriving in Seattle, they went through the ceremony again and were married in a Buddhist church.

Two pictures at the Japanese Hall depict a part of this history. One is a photograph of about 100 women at Angel Island in California and another photograph is in Seattle. Both locations saw thousands of immigrants pass through their doors.

Vickie said Noi Sato was probably one of the first picture brides in the Scottsbluff area. She and her family were reclaimed, homesteaders.

“When she came over, she had to wait two weeks for her husband to show up,” Vickie said. “When she asked where is Nebraska, they couldn’t find it on a map.”

In another picture, the bride was upset when she was shown a picture of a sod house and told this was where she was going to live.

“She was really angry at first,” Vickie said. “Then, she realized everyone lived in a sod house.”

Sometimes, the pictures were not accurate. The picture might have been 10 years old or the right picture wasn’t sent. It could lead to confusion, but pictures weren’t as cheap or easy to come by as they are today.

| SUPPORT YESTERDAY AND TODAY

Ask any Scottsbluff resident and they can recount at least one story of their grandparents or someone else standing up and supporting their Japanese-American neighbors.

In her research, Vickie has found stories of locals who rented land to the Japanese to work on and bankers, who respected the Japanese-Americans as honest Americans they enjoyed working with.

“I found a Star-Herald [newspaper] article where the banks didn’t freeze their assets during the war,” Vickie said. “It was a banker who convinced my grandfather to take out a loan.”

When her grandfather got sick, her grandmother worked the fields and took what little cash they had to pay the loan. The banker refused to take the money.

“He said, ‘I’m not accepting this money. Go and feed your kids first,’” she said.

Her family, who co-owned the popular Eagle Cafe in downtown Scottsbluff, were also shown support.

The Eagle Cafe stayed open during the war,” she said. “It was the locals who continued to patronize the restaurant.”

Vickie doesn’t shy away from the prejudice and racism of the time, despite most people supporting Japanese-Americans.

“There were some bad things that happened here,” she said. “There was a burning of the cross at the Japanese Hall.”

She prefers to praise the people who were supportive and asserts there were more people who did good things for others.

“Sometimes we forget the people who supported them,” she said. “We also had no camps here.”

She spends 20 minutes speaking of the many people who stood up and helped the Japanese-Americans, preventing them from being placed in internment camps. She praises all the unknown people who kept the Eagle Cafe running, so the money could be used to help relocate people from the camps to western Nebraska. There are enough stories to fill a book of people doing the right thing.

Nebraskans found ways to sponsor students and their families, including Boys Town Founder Father Flanagan and workers at the Sioux Ordinance Depot. Around 80 Nisei worked at the depot.

Vickie tells the story of Dennis Morimoto’s cousin, who was born at the depot and has it written on his birth certificate, and how Sharon Bartlet was able to bring her mother and sister to work at the depot. Vickie also heard from a friend who lived there at the time about how many Japanese classmates they had in school.

There are still many supporters today, but Alfred Miyagishima and his sister, Jeanie, seemed to always be there whenever she was depressed and thought no one wanted the project to happen. They lived in the area in the 1920s and 1930s but moved to California in the 1940s. Someone gave them Vickie’s name and said she was trying to save the Japanese Hall.

“They would say, ‘this is important. This is about saving the legacy of the Japanese in Nebraska,’” she said. “They were always there when I needed a champion to tell me ‘you can do this.’”

Although Vickie received a commendation for her work in preserving the Japanese Hall by the Japanese Consulate in Chicago, she is quick to point out it wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of dedicated volunteers and donors. The list of volunteers includes John Miyoshi, construction supervisor, who has overseen the repairs, restoration, and renovation at the Japanese Hall, George Behringer, whose leadership and fundraising made the project possible, and Matt Sakurada, Vickie’s cousin, who publishes the newsletter and used his civil engineering skills to assist with logistics surrounding the move of the building.

Vickie singles out well-known local, Miyeko “Mickey” Hara, as an inspiration who kept Vickie going during times she didn’t think the Japanese Hall could be saved. Mickey wrote a book about the Issei in the area, collecting stories of the first generation of Japanese to live here, making sure those stories weren’t lost.

“She was the first champion of the history of this area,” Vickie said. “Without her book, I would have never learned much about it.”

Vickie’s desire to preserve history is similar to that of Mickey’s.

“It’s about preserving a history that people are starting to forget,” Vickie said. “I don’t want people to forget my grandparents.”

| THE LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE

When Vickie originally came up with the idea of saving the Japanese Hall, some were skeptical. They wondered who would want to see Japanese history. Along the way, she’s found supporters and others who are intrigued about a piece of history that would fade away without this preservation.

The Japanese Hall doesn’t just preserve artifacts of the history of the Japanese in Scottsbluff. It has gathered stories from people who have ties to Nebraska from eight of the ten internment camps run by the U.S. government during World War II.

“I hope we can continue to add to that collection,” she said.

She also plans to continue to tell the story of the Japanese in Nebraska from the Issei to the new immigrant who has just chosen to call this place home.

In 2012, Vickie had a dream to save the Japanese Hall. Along the way, she encountered naysayers who said it was impossible. She had an even bigger group of supporters, who cheered her on. She’s now in the home stretch of saving an important piece of the history of Scottsbluff to make the names Hara, Ishii, Miyagishima, Miyoshi, Sakurada, Sato, Ugai, Ushio, and more come alive again.

As Vickie sits back and recounts more stories of the Hall, she remarks on how well the shrine, which was brought to the hall in 1949 has held up. Like the hall, it is a tangible piece of history, a reminder of a people who farmed, worked the fields, owned businesses, and helped shape western Nebraska nearly 100 years ago.

The Japanese Hall is more than a building. It is a collection of memories of people who came to America for a better life. It is the history of hope and joy of a culture and its people. The building is alive once again through the dedication of others who want to remember and share the Issei, the Nisei, and the Sansei, who were welcomed and found a home in the North Platte Valley.

The Japanese Hall plans to open its doors at the beginning of 2023.


| RESOURCES

For more information, visit their website. Or make a donation
Visitors email japanesehall@legacyoftheplains.org.

To signup for their quarterly newsletter, email Jhallnews@legacyoftheplains.org.


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