The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 shocked people in Winters. They felt like they were on the brink of attack, maybe even from members of their own community. The basement of the Legions Hall was transformed into a Red Cross center, equipped with a fully functional field hospital. Guards were placed on the town’s waterworks and fire station.
“Many Japanese aliens are now residing in and around the city of Winters, who could at a moment’s notice commit destructive acts of sabotage and espionage,” one Winters Express article reads.
Mojiro “Charlie” Hamakawa, a respected member of the Japanese community in Winters, had lived in California long enough to see growing resentment towards Japanese immigrants. He immigrated to America in 1908 at the age of 16, and within two years became the manager of Horai Co., the premiere Japanese general store in Winters.
Hamakawa, along with five other prominent Japanese men in Winters, wrote a letter to be printed on the front page of the Express.
“We wish to assure our American friends that the unwarranted attack upon the United States by Japan has been a severe shock to us. (W)e shall remain loyal and law abiding residents to the last person as we have been for many years past.”
They said they would serve America in “whatever capacity that we may be called upon.”
Within three months, half of the men who had signed that letter would be arrested by the FBI.
Within a few years, Hamakawa’s store, and the rest of Winters’ Japantown, would be destroyed.
The Japanese government legalized emigration of laborers in 1885, and many young men came to California. They were drawn to the American ideals of democracy, freedom from feudalism and the promise of work.
For a time, the Japanese were welcomed in Winters. They worked in the fruit orchards and introduced new irrigation practices. After the 1892 earthquake, the Express reported that only the Japanese laborers were brave enough to go searching through the rubble.
Soon the single men brought brides and raised families. They hosted an annual picnic, with booths decorated in American flags and Japanese lanterns. On Independence Day, they put on performances for the entire community at the Vasey Bros. Hall (now the Opera House) featuring fireworks and patriotic scenes.
But in July 1915 the Winters City Council passed an ordinance declaring it a “town nuisance… to lease or in any way allow Orientals to reside or conduct business in any portion of said town.” The vote was unanimous.
The ordinance excluded Block 4, located near the railroad bridge, which included the Horai Co. as well several boarding houses, restaurants, and a Buddhist temple.
Horai Co. remained open, and Hamakawa continued to serve the Winters community. During the Great Depression, Hamakawa greeted migrant workers with a line of credit for food and supplies to start them off in Winters.
The Horai Co. didn’t close until Dec. 8, 1941.
Pearl Harbor aftermath
After Pearl Harbor, events happened quickly. Racial tensions that had festered for decades, coupled with the fear of war at California’s doorstep, bubbled over.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the FBI ordered the closure of all businesses owned by Japanese nationals. On Dec. 12, the Express reported that ethnically Japanese people could no longer withdraw money, cash checks or earn wages.
In January, the Japanese community turned over all their guns, radios and cameras to the Winters chief of police. The FBI conducted surprise raids on their homes.
On Jan. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of “alien enemies.”
By February, the Winters Japanese were put under curfew. They could travel no more than five miles from their homes, and only to go to work. At night, they had to remain indoors.
Some Japanese residents petitioned the Winters Police Department for exemptions from the curfew, but the police granted none.
On Feb. 20, Winters City Council, along with other organizations, published a letter demanding that all Japanese be sent to government-run “concentration camps.” By the next week, three of the men who had signed the letter to the Express declaring their allegiance were arrested by the FBI.
At noon on May 22, people gathered to watch as the last Japanese residents of Yolo County and their American-born children boarded the train to the Merced Assembly Center. They took only what they could carry.
They had to sell or secure their property quickly. Yolo Briggs reported seeing refrigerators sold for as little as $10. Jack Vasey, who was close to many members of the Japanese community, bought as much of the Horai Co. as possible. He and his brother Gregory stored boxes of Japanese residents’ personal belongings in their building.
Japanese people living north of Putah Creek were sent to the Granada relocation camp in Colorado, a “desolate prairie where a short time ago only sagebrush, cactus and Russian thistle survived.”
Winters resident Betty Vasey Coman saved letters internees sent to her father, Jack Vasey. People thanked him for money or groceries, and told him about the daily dust storms that could fill the barracks with inches of dirt.
The internees all wanted to know about life in Winters.
Hatsuye “Hattie” Nishikawa wrote several letters to Vasey. Her sister had been an honor roll student with Betty.
“How is everyone in Winters?” Hattie asked. “We all miss our hometown and our friends. Also the delicious fruit. It is impossible to get anything here like the Winters fruit.”
Some American-born men in the camps joined the military intelligence service, including Hamakawa’s sons, Edward and William. They had been smart boys who had been forced out of Winters weeks before their high school graduation.
In the military intelligence service, Edward and William, along with several other Winters boys, interpreted Japanese broadcasts, learned interrogation skills and taught Japanese to other soldiers. Other young men volunteered to join the 442nd Combat Team, a segregated regiment of Japanese-American soldiers.
America was preparing for a ground war in Japan, but victory came sooner than expected.
Both Winters and the Granada Relocation Camp celebrated the victory over Japan on Aug. 14. In Colorado, people hoped this meant they would be released soon, and that their boys would be coming home. They didn’t know that there was little to return to in Winters.
In Winters, the celebrations culminated in what the Express called, “a spectacular fire in Jap Town.” A large crowd gathered to watch the houses, the temple and the Horai Co. burn.
The cause of the fire was never determined.
Few families returned to Winters after they were released. Some settled in the Midwest, and many moved to Sacramento. Hamakawa and his wife Yae stayed in Sacramento for two years. They were too afraid of the tensions in Winters to return.
There had been petitions going around, asking ranchers to pledge not to hire Japanese. There was still a sign posted outside of city limits telling the Japanese to keep out.
Gregory Vasey, Jack’s brother, recounted a day when a young Japanese woman and her child came into town for supplies. A crowd began to form around her as she walked down Railroad Avenue.
What began as jeers became more hostile. She and the child ran down an alleyway, where Jack Vasey opened the back door of his business and pulled them inside. He locked the back door and rushed to lock the front as the crowd called for him to hand the two over.
Winters police could not be reached. When the Yolo County sheriff finally arrived, he carried the two through the crowd to his car, while admonishing the mob to behave “like American citizens.” Vasey recalls that he and his brother lost loyal customers that day.
The fire-damaged buildings of Japantown were razed, and the land was bought by the city. Block 4, once a bustling Japanese neighborhood, is now Rotary Park and the Winters Community Center.
There is nothing left to show that downtown Winters was once a place where the Horai Co. served a community for nearly 50 years, and a young woman clutched her child closer and searched an angry crowd for a friendly face.