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Issei in Scottsbluff

November 21, 2010

It’s possible I have Japanese immigrants to thank for my relocation to Scottsbluff.

Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Back in June 2009 when I was visiting to decide whether I could live in western Nebraska, one of my criteria for living here was the availability of tofu at the grocery stores. I figured tofu was an index of a community’s progressive nature. (My favorite grocery store at which to purchase tofu, which was a walkable distance from my house, has since closed —grumble, grumble— but that’s another story.)

The German-Russian and Mexican immigrants to the region are mentioned fairly often. It’s easy to see their influence on the cuisine in the region. Cabbage burgers and grebel. Multiple Mexican restaurants, many serving meals smothered with the local specialty of pork chili.

But that tofu at the grocery store might not be the result of general American eating trends. It’s possible it may have a place in the cuisine of the region because of the Japanese ancestry of some of the local residents.

I haven’t seen it mentioned too often, but many Japanese settled in the Scottsbluff area several generations ago. Those issei, the first generation, stayed. And now we have nisei, sansei and yonsei — the second, third, and fourth generations (maybe working on the fifth by now?).

My interest in Japanese culture in Scottsbluff was piqued by an ad I saw in the paper two weeks ago for the Japanese Friendly Circle Bazaar.

It advertised Asian food.

Hmmmmm . . . Asian food?

I had to check it out!

Well, glory be! Bento!!!

I snapped up a couple of bento for lunch for husband and myself. Here’s an inside look:

Chunk of chicken, chunk of pork, thin tofu pocket stuffed with rice and egg, and a roll with fancy bits of egg in it.

Don’t forget dessert! Manju!!!

These ladies' hands were a blur as they packed up a half-dozen manju for me.

Some Americans aren’t too fond of manju because it hasn’t got our accustomed level of overpowering sweetness. The outside of this steamed manju was chewy, similar in texture to the tapioca pearls in bubble tea (which The Emporium sells here in town). The inside was a not-too-sweet sweet bean paste. It was perfect for a mid-morning snack with coffee!

So, how did the Japanese folks wind up here in the first place?

The railroad and the sugar industry.

For your edification, I’m posting a portion of the text from a 1995 survey of historical buildings in Scotts Bluff County, prepared for the Nebraska State Historical Society. You can download the full PDF report here.

Japanese-Americans were another ethnic group involved as workers in the sugar beet industry in Nebraska. The 1895 Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and Japan’s shift from isolationism prompted single male laborers to migrate to the United States to work for money to send home. Most Nebraska Issei, a term for first generation Japanese in the United States, were born in the late 1800s, grew up on farms in Japan, and arrived in the United States through ports at San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, as well as Canada and Mexico. Hiram Kano, a prominent Nebraskan of Japanese heritage and an agricultural specialist, noted that “nearly all of the 46 prefectures into which Japan is divided sent some immigrants to Nebraska; the largest number came from Hiroshima, with Okayama Prefecture second.”

The Japanese initially arrived in Nebraska under the direction of the railroad companies. In 1910, when railroad construction was finished in the state, approximately 500 Japanese found themselves unemployed. While some 200 Japanese went to work in the meat packing industry in eastern Nebraska, many of the remainder traveled to work for the Great Western Sugar Company. The completion of the railroad corresponded with the erection of the sugar factory in Scottsbluff and the utilization of 12,000 acres for sugar beet crops. In 1918, Scotts Bluff County reported that approximately 200 Japanese worked in the sugar beet industry. In 1925, approximately 150 Issei operated farms along the Platte River in Nebraska producing sugar beets, potatoes, and corn. As a result of their strong work ethic, many were awarded with trophies from the sugar company for yielding the most sugar beets per acre.

Several major world events influenced the sugar beet industry in Scotts Bluff County. During World War I, to ensure an adequate supply of sugar, the federal government required all sugar companies to raise sugar beets prices by $4.00 per ton, increasing the amount to $10.00 per ton. At the time of World War 11, most Japanese in the United States were forced into internment camps. However, since many of the beet growers in Nebraska were Japanese, they were allowed to remain on their farms and produce for the war effort.**

The Issei who lived in Scotts Bluff County retained strong cultural ties to their Japanese homeland. To ensure this link, a Japanese newspaper, Neshyu Jiho (Nebraska News), was one of just over a dozen of its kind distributed in the United States in 1920. Chartering organizations, such as the Lincoln County Association, the Nebraska Japanese Association, and the Mitchell Business Association, in the North Platte Valley also fostered a sense of unity for the Japanese. In 1928, both Japanese Americanization halls (not extant) and Japanese language schools were developed in Scottsbluff and Mitchell. Even as late as 1949, an organization known as the Scottsbluff Kyudokai was formed to unify Japanese in the region.

Federal and state legislation threatened the rights of Japanese living in Scotts Bluff County for almost fifty years. It was not until June of 1952, when Congress enacted the Walter-McCarran Act (also known as the Naturalization Act of 1952) that the perspective regarding Japanese aliens in the United States changed. This act, which nullified the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, provided that Japanese aliens living in the United States could apply for citizenship and that family members of citizens could transplant to the United States. At the time, approximately 30 percent of the 700 Japanese living in Nebraska were aliens. In response to the act, a school for citizenship was established in Scottsbluff and the mean age of its student body was sixty years old. In 1960,905 Japanese-Americans lived in Nebraska and a decade later, the state boasted 1,314.

-pages 50-52 of 1995 Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey Reconnaissance Survey Final Report of Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska

**NOTE: Not all Nebraska Japanese were safe. Father Hiram Hisanori Kano was sent to an internment camp after being arrested after a sermon in North Platte, per “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains” by David J. Wishart.

Domo arigato. Sayonara.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw, except the excerpts from the historical society document

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 5:51 pm

    Bravo, Katie!

  2. November 22, 2010 5:08 pm

    Our history lesson for the day–most don’t know some of this!

  3. Katie Bradshaw permalink*
    February 25, 2011 10:03 pm

    Cool. I got an email from someone connected to “the Hall,” as the building where the bazaar was held is called:

    The seaweed wrapped sushi, if it is the one that is usually served at our family gatherings, contains:
    * seaweed
    * white sticky rice (not sure on seasonings)
    * scrambled egg
    * pickled ginger (might not be in there)
    * steamed spinach
    * smoked eel (I think that is in there)
    * steamed fish cake (Google Kamaboko to see what that is)

    The ” thin tofu pocket stuffed with rice and egg” is, I think, actually scrambled egg outer shell. The term “brownie cap” is what I think my relatives call it.

    Most of my relatives farmed in the area, and are retired from it. Farms in the area were located around Henry, Morrill, Mitchell, and Scottsbluff.

  4. October 8, 2011 9:35 am

    A friend tossed me the link to this post. THANK YOU!!! A wonderful and often missing bit of Nebraska history!

  5. Yoko Ortiz permalink
    August 11, 2013 11:44 pm

    We moved in Alliance Ne around June. I’m so happy to read your blog. Thank you so much for post about this.
    I would love to go to this bazaar this year if they will have it again!!

  6. Jeanne Miyagishima Turnage permalink
    May 24, 2016 9:55 am

    I do not know if this site is still in contact with you Katie. I have a need to talk to you regarding Issei history. Please reply.

    • May 24, 2016 10:07 am

      Hi Jeanne. Yes, this blog does still connect to me. But a better person with whom to discuss Issei history would be Sandra Reddish, Executive Director of Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. She has done scholarly research on the Issei in Nebraska. You should be able to reach her at director@legacyoftheplains.org

      • Jeanne Miyagishima Turnage permalink
        November 14, 2016 11:17 am

        Thank you Katie, I just opened this site. I have met with Sandra Reddish. The silver platter that was presented to my father may be in display at the Legacy Museum. Thank you for your interest and initiating important Japanese history.

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