Japanese on Dakota land.

Blonde wood table top with phonograph records of Japanese music marketed for an English-speaking audience, phonograph record of American folk music, and an old Japanese character dictionary.
Phonograph records and Japanese character dictionary rescued June 2006 from a pile by a dumpster in Hyde Park, Chicago.

Midwesterners tell me about Japanese Americans they’ve known. The Japanese American favorite aunt. The Japanese American classmate who got the girl in the end. The Japanese American classmate who was elected student body president and homecoming king, yet who could not find a prom date. The Japanese American teaching mentor who taught with a sense of social justice forged in his prison camp childhood. The Japanese American neighbor who cheerfully returned winter Pearl Harbor day greetings with summer Hiroshima day greetings every year. I may be the only person who writes about them. I may not remember these stories accurately. Yet the impression remains: Japanese Americans enter the frame of everyday Midwestern lives. They lodge in memory to reemerge in conversation. Sometimes Japanese Americans remain in the frame they entered. In rare cases they change that frame. But they usually leave just like they came, a sudden or gradual change in circumstances for themselves or the storyteller. Their presence in the frame is usually unexpected in Middle America, here meaning not simply the Midwest but also a white-normative middle-class mindset commonly accepted as traditional.

Sometimes I feel like people don’t expect me in their frame. My twenty-first century life can feel like the set of a 1980s John Hughes movie. One pre-rush hour afternoon I was crossing the intersection of Cleveland and Ford Parkway in Saint Paul when an elderly white man grinned, tossed me a confident “Konnichiwa!” and disappeared. At the time neither of the two Asian restaurants at that intersection were Japanese. I found myself shoved inside the frame of a single story only to leave that frame before I even realized I’d entered it. Technically I was less than two miles from home. Times like those I used to wonder what I’m doing in this land where I’m always a novelty despite being of the third generation born on US-controlled soil.

Now those times of public ignorance seem idyllic. As much as those encounters irritated me, they did not dramatically reduce my odds of growing old. I write now in the time of a pandemic for which many people continue to blame people who look like me. Just over a month ago, an Asian American man in a Minneapolis suburb had his car vandalized and means of livelihood stolen. And in this time of pandemic-enforced isolation other communities of color march into the frame as has not been seen since the 1960s. Less than two weeks ago Amir Locke was deprived of his right to grow old in Minneapolis. Outside ICE facilities in downtown Saint Paul immigrant rights activists assert the right for families to grow old together. In greater Minnesota Indigenous activists and allies remind us that if we do not protect our water together, none of us may grow old.

It is time to widen the frame so that we Minnesotans, Americans, dwellers of planet earth may better take care of one another and help each other grow old. As a historian my first question is, how did we get here? How did we get here, in these times where communities of color usually dwell outside the frame? How did I get here, to this life where I don’t interact regularly with other Japanese Americans, let alone other communities of color? What does it mean for me to be a Japanese American on Dakota land?

To be truthful, before I moved to the Midwest in 1997 I did not expect to find stories of Japanese Americans here. I am descended from sugarcane plantation laborers in US-controlled Hawaii, and most of my relatives live in Hawaii or on the West Coast. But in Chicago, even without looking I encountered Japanese American stories outside my university community. The Japanese American gift shop owner who nervously eyed the Irish pub across the street every Pearl Harbor day. The elderly Japanese American downstairs neighbor whose existence I did not know until his children left the contents of his apartment by the dumpster to move him somewhere else. A scratched Brownie camera inscribed with his name. Japanese phonograph records. A crumbling yellow Japanese dictionary.

Many Japanese American families moved to the Midwest from the prison camps where they lived during World War II. Chicago’s most famous Japanese American resident ran a Japanese goods store on Belmont that is now closed. After World War II Japanese Americans were the largest Asian group in Minnesota. The story of community leader Ruth Tanbara has attracted more attention thanks to Minnesota Historical Society’s MNopedia and a recent exhibit at the Minnesota History Center. During World War II Japanese Americans also lived at Bdote (also known as Historic Fort Snelling) to train for the Military Intelligence Service, decoding messages intercepted from the Japanese Imperial Navy.

The history of Japanese on Dakota land stretches back before even that, however. Books such as They Chose Minnesota reveal the historic role of Asian immigration in Minnesota. Chinese and Japanese laborers helped build railroads to Minnesota. They lived in the Twin Cities as bellhops and other service workers. Those railroads provided easier access to Asian goods. And some Japanese and Chinese immigrants opened shops to sell East Asian goods. Japanese Americans lived in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest at the same time that my ancestors lived in Hawaii. Whether or not they realized it, these Japanese Americans were part of the settler colonial project in Minnesota just as my ancestors participated in settler colonialism in Hawaii. In this way, I feel a connection between the Dakota land on which I stand and the native Hawaiian land that my great-grandparents settled. Furthermore, these late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Japanese immigrants left Japan within a global imperial context: as the British built an empire on which the sun never set, the United States, too, spread its power westward. Through gunboat diplomacy such as the 1853 arrival of Commodore Perry in Japan and the 1887 Bayonet Constitution signed by King David Kalākaua. Through armed conflicts such as the 1862 Dakota War and the 1898 Spanish American War. It lies beyond the scope of this project to unpack how and why these events intersect or run parallel to bring me and other Japanese Americans to Dakota land. But as I scan this short list I believe that if even one of those events did not happen I would probably not be here on Dakota land today.

Before I moved to the Midwest my understanding of its people was shaped largely by media such as John Hughes films and the Peanuts comic strip. As a child of the 1970s and 80s I embraced Peanuts as a desirable American norm: rituals around holidays, school, and the ever-present need to fit in. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz hailed from Dakota land in Saint Paul. Along the 87 bus route you can still see the barbershop where he painted Peanuts characters on the window. During the civil rights era Schulz introduced a Black character, Franklin. Perhaps he too felt compelled to build a world where his Black neighbors may grow old. Schulz might have dined at the famous Nankin Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis. After returning from World War II military service he probably noticed his new Japanese American neighbors. To my knowledge the Peanuts gang had neither Asians nor Native Americans nor any other nonwhite characters. I also loved the work of Schulz’s contemporary Morrie Turner. His Wee Pals characters adorned my first lunchbox. And I wonder how my life might have been different if his comic strip enjoyed the same popularity as Peanuts within my middle class suburban frame. Wee Pals might have made it easier to imagine myself and other people of color growing old within that frame.

Widening the frame is just one task among many to make spaces where we may all grow old. I return to my earlier question, how did we get here? What does it mean for me to be a Japanese American on Dakota land? I am researching a Japanese American family who moved to Minneapolis in 1919 starting with the diaries of the patriarch Tometaro Kitagawa housed at the University of Minnesota. I cannot create an accurate picture of who they were as people, so I will focus on understanding their world. What kind of Minnesota did they enter in 1919, particularly as a home for Indigenous, Black, and other Asian people? What historical events and broader trends shaped that world? How might they have experienced that world as Japanese Americans? How might they have changed the frames of people with whom they interacted? As I research this family, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of things people might have said to them as they crossed busy intersections in downtown Minneapolis, as they boarded the streetcars to go to the moving picture show, as they wandered the halls of their newly built public school in a predominantly white subdivision. How might the things they heard resemble or differ from the things I heard growing up in a predominantly white New England small town in the 1980s, or the things I hear in the Midwest today?

In this blog I will write about the people and places I encounter as I find the answers to these questions. At times I have been pleasantly surprised at what I have found in Minnesota archives and other places that conventionally hold few stories of Asian Americans. I write this in the hopes of creating a dialogue with other BIPOC artists, historians, and other researchers who are likewise trying to write about their own place in Minnesota history. In the process, I hope to invite community conversation on how to uncover the stories and convey their significance in understanding our world. I wish to make the case that Asia has been a part of life in the Americas ever since initial European contact, both explicitly and implicitly. The Kitagawa family followed a series of Japanese merchants who brought Asian goods to the emerging consumer class in Minnesota. Their story is one of assimilation into white middle class culture, but it is also a story of struggle. We can find the children in yearbooks and occasional newspaper articles. How did they change Minnesota? To what extent were their stories Minnesota stories? And how were they also American stories?

In my next blog post I will introduce the oldest daughter Nobu as I understand her. She appears to be the first and only Japanese American girl in most of the spaces that she entered in Minnesota. Her 1933 Washburn High School yearbook caption read, “She is accomplishment.” I will write about my journey chasing that caption written amidst the cooperation and competition for Pacific Empire between the United States and Japan, growing anti-Japanese immigration sentiment, and counterintuitively a continued demand for Japanese kimonos and other goods.

By Patti

Patti Kameya was born on Tongva land before it became "the OC." She writes, forages wild plants, and treats historical amnesia in the Dakota homeland of Saint Paul, Minnesota.


  1. You can unearth lots more stories of Japanese Minnesotans in the MN Historical Society’s collections.


  2. Thank you for your words, Patti! I am so intrigued. I was born in the Midwest US and lived there in the 1950’s & early 1960’s before moving to the West Coast with my family, I tenaciously cling to that coast all these years later, largely because of early experiences near where you are…


  3. I am Tometaro Kitagawa’s granddaughter, Sharon. Marilyn Lauglo, my 1st cousin, told me about your article and I would like to correspond with you. I am sure there are many questions that I could answer for you.
    I did not grow up in Minneapolis, but lived there when my father was in Europe with the 442nd. I was an army brat and my experiences in Japan from 1947 to 1954 were strange as I look back on it. Being only one of very few Sanseis living in Tokyo during the American occupation is unique.


    1. Thank you so much for reaching out to me! I am so grateful to you and Marilyn. I just found your father’s entry in the MIS registry through the Japanese American Veterans Association website. I agree, it must have been remarkable to live as a Sansei in occupied Japan! I will send you an e-mail soon.


      1. My father was not with MIS. He was in Europe, not the Pacific, with the 442nd Regiment, 100th Battalion. I am curious to see where the reference to MIS is seen.
        He worked for MacArthur after the war during th occupation in G-2 in Tokyo.


      2. Thank you for the clarification. I conflated MIS and G-2. I just sent a note with some questions and references.


  4. My apologies, Patti
    My father did attend Fort Snelling when he returned from Europe after VE Day. He was there to prepare for his next assignment, working in military intelligence (G-2) in Tokyo at MacArthur’s headquarters.
    I was confused as I thought only those who served in the Pacific as interrogators and interpreters were MIS.
    The MIS registry had all the names of those who attended MISLS. The language school started at the Presidio in San Francisco, then moved to Camp Savage, then moved to Fort Snelling and finally in 1946 was relocated to the Presidio in Monterey where it was later renamed DLI/FLC (Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center).
    I now understand your interest in Fort Snelling and the Dakota War of 1862.
    Thank you for sending the MIS registry.


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