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Life of Iconic Internment Family

Social media and web historians are doing a disservice to the memory of Seattle’s Shigeo and Chiseko Nagaishi. Photographs of racist vandalism that their family endured have become standard imagery for discussing Japanese internment. But somehow Shigeo and his family are barely mentioned as people, and discussion of their lives is nowhere to be found.

Let’s put those photographs back in context.

Nagaishi Family Homecoming, 1945 and 2014
Nagaishi Family Homecoming, 1945 and 2014 by author. View full size on Flickr

The Photograph

On May 10, 1945, Shigeo and his wife Chiseko brought their three children home to 1610 South Walker Street in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. It was the end of a three-year journey of unjustifiable imprisonment.

Their eldest daughter Haruko was now 6, half of her life spent behind barbed wire. Their two-year-old Kikue Minnie (born days after arrival at Minidoka) and one-year-old Amy Emiko had spent their entire lives being punished as potential enemy agents of the United States of America.

The family was greeted by racist graffiti scrawled across their garage “No Japs Wanted” and a direct threat on their lives with “Death” and a skull and crossbones painted on the steps to their front door. The windows of their garage were bashed in, and the electrical wiring of their car cut up.

Shigeo, the father

Shigeo was born in Tacoma, Washington on June 15, 1900. In the Pierce County register his father’s name was left blank with only his profession, cook, filled in. He was the eldest of 12 children of Matsujuro Nagaishi and wife Taku Yamaguchi. Shigeo’s place of birth is often mistakenly listed as Seattle.

The family did move to Seattle by 1906 where Matsujuro was eventually joined by his sons at his Oriental Fish Market. Shigeo’s internment records  list him as a retail manager / fish / meat cutting, reflecting his work with his father as well as the store he ran, Nisei Market, after his father died in 1936.

The records also show that he only had an elementary school education from his time living in Japan, where he was sent to live with relatives.

Chiseko, the mother

Chiseko was better educated and a bit younger. Her internment records show that she was born in Auburn on July 22, 1912. She completed high school there, growing up on a White River Valley farm with her parents Moritsuchi and Yoshi Murakami along with five brothers and four sisters.

Seattle’s Japantown merchants and South King County’s White River farmers were the two archetypes of Japanese American life before World War 2. The Nagaishi family had both covered. If this were a novel, you’d dismiss the author for lack of originality. As a true story it’s pretty awesome.

The girls

I don’t believe Haruko ever married. Kikue and Amy did, though, and Shigeo had six grandchildren when he died in 1982.

I am providing a GEDCOM genealogy file for the family’s basic details, attached: Nagaishi-Family-Tree. However, I suspect that the family is very private and I have not attempted to develop the tree below the three daughters. I don’t see any interviews with them in Densho. No family memories are in the Nikkei Heritage Association’s Omoide series. Simple web searches don’t bring up anything.

I am very glad that they shared their plight with us in 1945 and that should be enough. I have to admit, though, that I’m curious to hear more.

The home

The photo with Haruko and Kikue and their parents in 1945 never has their names listed. So it’s no surprise that the location is not mentioned either.

The family had only been at 1610 South Walker for a couple of years before internment. Before that they lived close to their store on 7th and Main Street.

Staring at the graffiti, Shigeo and Chiseko told reporters that they would have to find a new home, unwelcome back in their neighborhood. I really want to know what happened next, after the photographers and journalists left.

Because the family did not leave. They spent more than six decades in that house. When Chiseko passed away in 2007 her three daughters sold their childhood home, ending a chapter of history.

Institutionalized Racism, 1945 and 2014
Institutionalized Racism, 1945 and 2014 by author. View full sized on Flickr.

Further reading:

Executive Order 9066, which led to the creation of prison camps for regular people like the Nagaishis.

Minidoka Irrigator, including an article about the Nagaishis.

Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp by Teresa Tamura for general context on the camp they lived in.

Here’s the Wing Luke Museum tweet and discussion that led to me writing this page [The opening sentence of my article was not intended as a criticism of Wing Luke. Individually I appreciate every time that the photos of the Nagaishi home are shared. As an aggregate, though, it’s disappointing that no text book author or social media publisher got curious enough to dig this story up before. We have amazing information at our fingertips now that previous historians did not. Be inspired!]:

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