Segment from The Melting Pot

100% American

WBEZ’s Curious City brings us the story of a bustling Japanese-American neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side that faded away.


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JOANNE: We’re going to turn now to Chicago with a story from Curious City. That’s a radio program and podcast produced by WBEZ. The staff answers listeners’ questions about Chicago and the region.

Listener Irene Brown says that, when she was younger, her parents often took her to a bustling Japanese neighborhood in Lakeview on Chicago’s North Side. But that neighborhood, now, is gone. Today, the area is dotted with sports bars and chain stores.

So Brown wanted to know, what happened? Curious City reporter Katherine Nagasawa went in search of the answer. She brings us the story of the hard choices Lakeview’s Japanese-American community made in order to assimilate.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: The reason the Lakeview neighborhood disappeared is complicated, and part of it has to do with how Japanese-Americans got to Chicago in the first place. They didn’t come by choice. The US government forcibly relocated 20,000 Japanese-Americans to Chicago during World War II. And that group was pressured to shed their ethnic identity, their language, and their culture in order to survive. That story doesn’t start in Chicago. It starts on the west coast in the 1940s.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: December 7, 1941. No American will ever forget this Sunday morning in Hawaii. High overhead, Jap raiders are on the loose. Without warning, they circle Pearl Harbor and the city of Honolulu, a surprise attack born of infamy.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: It was the beginning of World War II. Approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were living in what were called Japantowns on the west coast. These were, essentially, Japanese neighborhoods, similar to other immigrant neighborhoods around the country.

But with the threat of an invasion from Japan, the US government was worried about the loyalty of the highly concentrated west coast Japanese-Americans. So they incarcerated them, in what were later called internment camps, around the country.

MAN (ON RADIO): We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: But keeping 120,000 people locked up was expensive, and the country needed workers. So after a couple years, the government changed its focus to reintroducing Japanese-Americans back into society. Researcher Laura Fugikawa says the government didn’t want Japanese-Americans to return to the Japantowns they left on the west coast. They wanted them to spread out and assimilate.

LAURA FUGIKAWA: The government told them that part of the reason you ended up in these camps was because you hung out with your own kind.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: They were basically saying, you’re too Japanese. So when the government allowed Japanese-Americans to leave the camps, they set specific conditions. One, they closed the west coast to Japanese for the duration of the war. And two, they forced them to answer a series of questions about loyalty before they were allowed out.

LAURA FUGIKAWA: So one of the questions said, you have to promise that you’re not going to hang out with other Japanese-Americans.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: They also told them to avoid speaking Japanese and to develop, quote, “American customs.”

LAURA FUGIKAWA: So the government says, we’ll let you go, as long as you stop acting what we think of as Japanese, and as long as you integrate into the society.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: So how do we get from the camps to Lakeview? Well, in 1943, the government chose Chicago as the first city to pilot their vision for Japanese assimilation. They believed Chicago would be more tolerant to Japanese-Americans.

Unlike the west coast, Chicago didn’t have the same pre-war racial prejudice towards the Japanese, since there were so few of them living in the city at the time. And when they first arrived, Japanese-Americans found it was easy to find jobs in Chicago’s light industries, like garment manufacturing, bookbinding, and candy factories.

ROSS HARANO: So you could get a job at McClurg. You could get a job at Curtiss Candy. You could get a job at Baby Ruth. All these places wanted these, say, because they’re good workers.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: That’s Ross Harano. He was born in a camp and just a couple years old when his family arrived in Chicago, along with a wave of 20,000 other Japanese-Americans. Harano says his family, along with many others, received housing assistance from the government and other local agencies. To encourage assimilation, the government made sure to settle people in different neighborhoods on the South and Near North Sides.

ROSS HARANO: So there wasn’t any clustering. It was sort of– you understood what you had to do. You had to, basically, be unseen.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: But once the government stopped paying attention, Japanese-Americans did begin to cluster together, moving out of the South and Near North Sides. By the 1960s, the biggest cluster was in Lakeview between Belmont and Addison Streets. Lakeview was thought of as safe and affordable. And it was close to white, middle class neighborhoods, which was in line with the government’s directive to assimilate into the dominant American culture.

To understand what it was like to grow up in Lakeview and why the neighborhood disappeared, I met a group of people who grew up in the area. We went to the Nisei Lounge bar, one of the last establishments still left from that era.

They’re from a generation that was shaped by the government’s efforts to force assimilation. You can see traces of it in the first names their parents gave them– Ken Funamura, Elaine Kaneshiro, Mike Higa, and Tracy and Linda Oishi. But as kids, they weren’t really aware of everything their parents had gone through to get to Chicago and Lakeview. They just knew it was a nice place to grow up.

MALE SPEAKER: We’d get out of school at 2:30 there and, basically, what we would end up doing, we would go right over to Wrigley Field. Because they would open up seventh inning there.

ELAINE KANESHIRO: All the churches used to host dances not too far from here, at Viking Hall. And so, during my high school years, that was my social life.

MALE SPEAKER: Our parents would say, go out and play. So we would go out to Lemoyne School, where I went to grammar school at. And they would flood the playground lot there, and and we’d go on out and ice skate there.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: There’s nothing particularly Japanese about these memories. They could be anybody in Chicago. But looking back, the group said they now see that their very American childhoods came at a cost for their parents, who had been traumatized by the war and resettlement. Here’s Linda Oishi and Mike Higa.

LINDA OISHI: I mean, my dad was like, you know, you guys are 100% American. Don’t ever forget it. We were also striving to break away from the stigma of the war, subliminally.

MIKE HIGA: My father-in-law actually went so far as to tell his children, you are not going to learn Japanese. And they wanted to assimilate so badly that they actually went to that extreme. And they probably lost a bit of history doing that.

LINDA OISHI: I mean, not that we were blaming ourselves or feeling, you know, responsible. It was like we were totally identified as being the enemy. Other ethnic groups were not identified, like the German-Americans or the Italian-Americans.

They were not identified as being the enemy. It was because of our faces. So you can’t get away from that. You can’t run away from that.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: But there was a way to try to get away from it. And that was to do what the government wanted the Japanese to do in the first place– achieve white, middle class markers of success. When you look at that post-war generation that grew up in Lakeview, you find professionals dispersed throughout the city and suburbs, a group that a recent study found had the highest level of intermarriage to whites of any Asian ethnic group.

I wanted to know, what was the cost of all of this? I asked everybody how their experiences might have been different had there been less pressure to assimilate and if there was still a neighborhood to anchor the community. Linda Oishi feels like, in that case, she might have felt like she didn’t have to make a choice between being Japanese or being American.

LINDA OISHI: Would we have to decide, are we American first or are we Japanese first? And what do we push? Do we push our culture, which is, you know, Japanese language, dancing, music?

I mean, we have all these wonderful art things– pottery, kimono making, all this stuff that is just being lost though this third and fourth generations. I don’t want that to die. I want it to be part of my kids and my grandkids. But how do you do that?

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: Without strong ties to Japanese culture or a neighborhood like the one that used to exist in Lakeview, it’s harder to do that. But Elaine Kaneshiro says it’s possible. It just requires effort. As she’s gotten older and reflected more about what her family lost during the war and in the camps, she says it’s been more important for her to seek out other Japanese-Americans, even if there’s no neighborhood.

ELAINE KANESHIRO: I am still part of a Japanese community here in Chicago. And in that setting, I am very comfortable. There is still, even though we don’t see each other a lot, there’s a commonality there. There’s a connection there that is important to me. So I think there’s a community. Maybe it’s not geographic.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: Sure enough, a couple weeks after I spoke with the group at the Nisei Lounge, I saw Elaine Kaneshiro at an event there.

HOST: Can I get you a beer or glass of wine or something?

ELAINE KANESHIRO: No, actually I’m fine.

KATHERINE NAGASAWA: It was a fundraiser for a local project that sends young, Chicago Japanese-Americans on a pilgrimage to one of the incarceration camps in California, a way of reconnecting to that history. For a few hours, the lounge was filled with Japanese-Americans across generations– third generation sanseis drinking Old Style beer with fourth-generation yonseis.

They live all across Chicago and in the suburbs. But when it came time for this scattered community to choose a place to meet and think about history and heritage, they chose the Nisei Lounge, right at the center of the old neighborhood in Lakeview.

NATHAN: Katherine Nagasawa reported this story. It came to us from WBEZ’s Curious City. Support for Curious City comes from the Conant Family Foundation. If you want to learn more about the story, Curious City has an interactive feature, with lots of photos of Japanese-Americans moving to Chicago and living in Lakeview. Just go to