The Untold Story of Japanese Americans and Nationals Detained at Ellis Island

“Like any family, my family just didn’t talk about internment.”

This is how Gerald Yamada grappled with his first year in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II. He was born in 1944 at the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas before moving to California after the war had ended.

Yamada remembers a terse response he received as a child when he questioned his mother about his birthplace.

“I asked my mom, ‘Why was I born in Arkansas?’” said Yamada, recalling a conversation he had in the fourth grade. It was the first day of fourth grade at his elementary school in California, and he had just learned that he was the only student born out of state. The rest of the day, his classmates called him “Okie” or “Arkie” – derogatory names for agricultural migrants from the West South Central.

“She said, ‘The government sent us to Arkansas.’ Period,’” Yamada recalled.

At a time when some elected officials are pushing back against immigration to the United States, Yamada has worked to embrace patriotism and fight racial prejudice in the United States, including sharing stories about Japanese Americans’ history of internment during World War II. Yamada has served as the president of the Japanese American Veterans Association, an organization with around 1,000 members, since 2019.

But there is one slice of that story that even Yamada had not discovered until today: the incarceration of a tiny batch of Japanese Americans and nationals at Ellis Island, on the American East Coast, during the war.

“That’s news to me,” he said. “I’m quite familiar with Japanese American history during World War II, but I’m not aware of anyone being incarcerated at Ellis Island in New York.”

Even before President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 authorizing the forced removal and relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, plans to incarcerate Japanese New Yorkers on Ellis Island began in fall 1941, according to The New York Times. By December that year, 279 Japanese people were detained on the island along with 248 Germans and 81 Italians, according to the National Park Service.

“It was much more common for Japanese New Yorkers to be arrested, even though they weren’t nationalists, or in favor of Japan,” said Anna Pegler-Gordon, a history professor and author of “Closing the Golden Door: Asian Migration and the Hidden History of Exclusion at Ellis Island.”

“In general, the immigration authorities were more careful about arresting Germans and Italians, only if they were sort of clearly Nazis or pro-Fascist government of their home countries,” she said.

The unique composition of Japanese New Yorkers in the early half of the 20th century contributed to this community coming under special suspicion by the government. Many were predominantly first-generation, including elite individuals who arrived in the U.S. for economic and diplomatic reasons. They also had extensive connections with Japanese nationals and businesses, becoming the perfect bait to be framed as enemy aliens, said Pegler-Gordon.

Ichiro Shirato, a Japanese American social worker who worked on the island during World War II, depicted his experience in an interview with the Ellis Island Oral History Project. He noticed that many Japanese detainees were executives at corporations or organizations, including Japanese banks, trade business corporations, manufacturers, and shipping and chinaware companies. Shirato stated that at its peak, Ellis Island held around 350 Japanese people in Ellis Island.

But the Japanese were not the majority prisoner population at Ellis Island for very long. Pegler-Gordon wrote that while they were the focus of the initial arrests, the trend shifted to Germans who accounted for the majority on the island in 1942.

And the two groups were treated differently.

Matt Housch, Ellis Island archivist, pointed out how Japanese and German prisoners were physically separated during mealtimes. “Why do that? Is it to keep them separate, because you think there will be tension? Is it because there is tension, or is it because you see these people as different classes who shouldn’t be together?” Housch said.

“Racial segregation was very common, so I’m not sure that they would have felt the need to justify it,” Pegler-Gordon said. “It could have been more that they would have felt the need to justify it if they didn’t segregate people.”

Even at Ellis Island, Japanese detainees were framed as the “model minority” – a pervasive stigmatization of Asian Americans as the nice, hard-working racial cohort in the U.S.

“I once heard from the guard that members of the Japanese group were the least complaining group, in comparison to the Italian group and German group,” Shirato said. “Whether they were asked to do the cleaning of their living quarters or they volunteered to do, I don’t know, but I understand that they organized themselves and took turns in doing various cleaning chores.”

Pegler-Gordon pointed to a news embargo imposed on stories pertaining to internment on Ellis Island to account for the dearth of research and representation. She said that this media embargo has made historians difficult to verify single-source information that detailed the lives of internees on the island. “Usually if you have one source discussing it, you want to find out some other corroborating evidence,” Pegler-Gordon said. “And in this case, I found the document which said that there was a news embargo on a lot of information about the Japanese, German and Italian detainees. So that was why I wasn’t finding it in the media.”

“It wasn’t that it didn’t happen, it was just that it wasn’t reported.” Pegler-Gordon said.

Private and public archive projects have sought to fill those gaps. “Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration” is a national archival project led by Duncan Ryuken Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California, which compiled a comprehensive list of Japanese American internees who were imprisoned in relocation centers. Out of more than 125,000 identified individuals, only 82 are listed as detainees of Ellis Island.

“When we talk about internment camps on the United States soil during World War II, we never talk about Ellis Island,” Housch said. “And it needs to be added to the list.”

About the author(s)

Suah Cho is a South Korean reporter whose journey is defined by her commitment to shed light on underrepresented Asian narratives for a global readership.