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'Exiled to Motown' exhibit showcases the history of Japanese-Americans in Detroit

Gary North
Detroit Historical Museum

The Detroit Historical Museum is set to host an exhibit called “Exiled to Motown” that showcases the Japanese-American Experience in Detroit from World War II to the present day. 

The title refers to the factors that led Japanese-Americans to settle in Detroit and other Midwestern cities. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order in 1942 that authorized the military to forcibly relocate people for the “protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material.”

As a consequence, more than 100,000 people of Japanese origin were sent to internment camps in Montana, New Mexico, and North Dakota.

After the war, the War Relocation Administration worked to resettle Japanese-Americans, helping many to find work in Midwestern cities like Detroit. In total, about 25,000 Japanese-Americans relocated to the Midwest. 

Among those relocated was Kaname James Fujishige, who was incarcerated at the Gila River Camp. While there, he used material leftover from construction of the barracks to build a small nightstand. The nightstand was inherited by his son, Terrence Fujishige, who recently refinished the piece and added a popular Japanese woodblock print to its top. 

“In camp, the only way you can get out is if you came East of the Mississippi during the war,” the younger Fujishige said in an audio interview that accompanies the exhibit. “So my father [...] he found a job to work in a dental office for dentists and also go to school at the same time.”

Fujishige recalled how his father’s craftsmanship helped him find a job as a dental technician when he moved to Detroit, and to build a home in Greenfield-Wyoming area of the city.

“They built the house from a dirt lot in 1958,” he said, before later moving to the east side of the city. 

Credit Gary North / Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Some of the items included in the 'Exiled to Motown' exhibit are objects Japanese-Americans made and brought with them from internment camps to Detroit.

While Japanese-Americans may have found a warmer reception away from the West Coast where Asian-Americans communities had come to draw scorn, the push for relocation may have also been a means of facilitating cultural assimilation, said Celeste Shimoura Goedert, a co-curator of the “Exiled to Motown” exhibit. 

She relates the resettlement assistance as the U.S. government telling Japanese-Americans who left the camps, “‘Safety or not, you have a chance at employment.[...] And also you will be isolated. It's more so we're safe from you. We're sending you to Detroit so that we are less worried about Japanese-Americans being a threat.’”

The same phenomenon played out again, Shimoura Goedert said, when local leaders pinned the decline of the Big 3 auto manufacturers in the 1980s on the influx of more efficient vehicles from Japan. 

“In this environment of Japan bashing, I think that idea gets turned on its head again of, ‘We sent you out to be in an isolated place because you were a threat and now you're still a threat.’” 

That experience was epitomized in the killing of a young Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin, who was presumed to be Japanese by the two autoworkers whobrutally beat him in Highland Park in 1982. The story of Chin is told through the exhibit to mark the changing realities faced by Japanese-Americans. 

That sort of prejudice has seen a revival, with many wrongfully pinning the rise of the coronavirus in the U.S. on people of Chinese origin, following, in some cases, references by former President Trump to Covid-19 as the “the Chinese virus.” The result has been an increase in hate crimes against not only Chinese-Americans, but people of Asian descent more broadly.

The climate of heightened anti-Asian violence is the backdrop into which the “Exiled to Motown” exhibit opened last week, making its message only more impactful, said Tracy Irwin, the Chief Exhibitions and Enrichment Officer at Detroit Historical Society. 

“There's just all of this anger that's built up and it's misplaced,” she said, noting that the exhibit offers context to a community with a rich history in Detroit that is often overlooked. 

Irwin said she hopes the exhibit “creates a spark” that encourages people to learn more about the different cultures and communities that make up metro-Detroit. 

“Exiled to Motown” will be on view at the Detroit Historical Museum through October 3rd.

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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