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Local Professor Building History of San Diego's Japanese Americans

Considering that she literally wrote the book on Japanese American history in San Diego, it’s of little surprise that San Diego City College history professor Susan Hasegawa was previously familiar with the work of Clara E. Breed.

Breed was a children’s librarian in the San Diego Public Library system, later becoming head librarian and expanding its programming and services. For Japanese Americans during World War II, Breed advocated for and supported the community against the bigoted executive order that forced families into internment camps by exchanging letters with dozens of young children and sending them books and messages of encouragement during the war.

In celebration of Breed’s work, the library system is presenting “The Rebellious Miss Breed: San Diego Public Library & the Japanese American Incarceration,” which includes films, performances, exhibits, and discussions. As part of this monthlong recognition of Breed, Hasegawa will discuss “Japanese American History in San Diego” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the San Diego Central Library.

Hasegawa, a scholar of Asian American history with a focus on the San Diego Japanese American experience, took some time to talk about this history and the contributions of Japanese Americans who call San Diego home. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: Can you give us a quick preview of what you’ll be discussing in your lecture on Tuesday?

A: My presentation will explore the early history of Japanese immigrants in the county, dating back to the late 1800s. We’ll go into the growth of the Japanese American community in the early decades of the 1900s, and then the incarceration and trauma for the community during World War II. I’ll be looking at family stories. I’ll be looking at the letters that Nisei — meaning American-born — second-generation, Japanese American children and young adults were writing to the children’s librarian, at the time, Miss Clara Breed. What they’re telling of their experiences, how they see things that are happening. A lot of it will tie into “The Rebellious Miss Breed” exhibit and not only focus on World War II but after the war. What happens to these young adults and these children who became young adults, and their ongoing relationship with Miss Breed, because the story does not end with World War II. Japanese American families come back to San Diego, then they have to rebuild their lives, rebuild their communities. So, it’ll be a sweeping history of the Japanese American experience in San Diego, with personal and family stories of people who are still here.

Q: In a video you filmed for the Japanese American Historical Society, which was posted to YouTube in 2012, you talk a bit about the community’s history in San Diego. Can you talk about what first brought Japanese immigrants to San Diego?

A: In the late 1880s, you see the first documented Japanese migrants. So, these are Issei — meaning first-generation — migrants, and some of them were migrant farm workers. The Japanese American Historical Society has these great, archival photos of some of these bachelor immigrants who were working the fields. Some are getting jobs with the railroad, one got a job at the Hotel del Coronado, and then there are Issei who get into fishing and who were also fishermen in Japan. Then, they start wanting to start families here, so it was jobs and economic opportunities that brought them here.

Q: And what was happening in Japan, at the time, that compelled people to come to California?

A: In the 1850s, Japan “opened” after a long period of isolation. It was opened by the United States and its gunship diplomacy there to “open” Japan. At the same time, Japan itself decides to modernize and you have what’s called the Meiji Restoration. In that modernization, you need capital, so they also taxed people, so there are winners and there are losers. Particularly, in southern Japan, it had a very difficult time during the Meiji Restoration, and you have a lot of economic problems. You also have the Hawaiian plantations needing laborers, so you have Japanese immigrants then going to places like Hawaii, Brazil, California and elsewhere for economic opportunity. In 1882, the door closes on Chinese immigrants because of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment, but not on Japanese immigrants. Then, the door closes on Japanese immigrants some 20-plus years later, but the United States is still wanting workers and laborers, and immigrants will fill those jobs.

Read entire article at San Diego Union-Tribune