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The Forgotten Story of Japanese American Zoot Suiters

By Guest Contributor Ellen D. Wu, cross-posted from Nikkei Chicago

Sus Kaminaka was a zoot suiter: one of the many young people in 1940s America who embraced a distinctive, working-class urban aesthetic characterized by flamboyant fashions and irreverent comportment. Kaminaka and other hipsters sported pompadours and ducktail haircuts, “drapes” consisting of broad-shouldered, long fingertip coats tapered at the ankles, pleated pegged pants, wide-brimmed hats, and watch fobs. They also loved to party. Jazz, jitterbugging, lindy hopping, drinking, casual sex, and “cool” were just as integral to the lives of zoot suiters as their characteristic dress.

Sus Kaminaka was also a Nisei: a second-generation American born to immigrant Japanese parents and raised in the farmlands of California’s Sacramento Delta region. Planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, Kaminaka enrolled at a local agricultural college to study truck crops.

But President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942 and authorizing the secretary of war to “prescribe military areas… from which any or all persons may be excluded” completely upended his ambitions. Ostensibly region- and race-neutral, the order targeted Pacific Coast Japanese Americans. Forced to leave school, home, and community, he soon found himself in the Stockton Assembly Center, one of the 16 temporary way stations for the 120,000 Nikkei (persons of Japanese ancestry) en route to longer-term concentration camps.

On incarceration, Kaminaka’s worldview changed entirely. Previously intent on earning his college degree, a goal he now considered hopeless, he dropped out of his center’s adult education program. Once “proud of living in the best country in the world,” Kaminaka abandoned the idea of registering for the franchise. “I don’t think I was too interested in voting anyway because I didn’t know what it was all about and my vote didn’t mean a thing,” he shrugged. Deciding that hard work was an exercise in futility, he instead “concentrated on having fun like [he] saw the other kids doing.” Before the war, he used to regard Nisei girls as “something sacred” and “never had any dirty thoughts [about] them.” But in Stockton, he shed his “nice boy” reputation. He signed up with an eight-member “gang,” and spent his days and nights chasing young women and going to camp dances. It was during this time that he also acquired his first zoot suit.

After transferring from Stockton to the Rohwer, Arkansas concentration camp, Kaminaka joined a posse known as the Esquires. For entertainment, they devoured stolen food, drank, played poker, and held nightly bull sessions. “All we talked about was girls and we got to do more and more of this…. We would find out who were the most popular girls in camp and then go after them.” Their modus operandi emerged as a source of contention among Rohwer’s social factions. Fisticuffs often broke out at Niseidances as young men battled to claim the young women of their choosing.

The Rohwer situation was not usual. Conflicts between “rowdies” and other prisoners interrupted the daily routines of several, if not all, the camps. At the Gila River camp in Arizona, for instance, the editors of the center’s newspaper complained that zoot suiters had swiped all the chains from the laundry sinks to use as watch chains. Fighting became frequent enough that at least one anthropologist who observed life at the Poston camp dubbed the escalating tensions “zoot suit warfare.”

In popular memory zoot suiters are often associated with African Americans and Chicanos during World War II. But many Nikkei also participated in this cultural movement. While it is not possible to determine the exact numbers of Japanese American zoot suiters, the available historical evidence suggests that they were a visible presence.

Some Nisei started “zooting” well before camp. In his hometown of Los Angeles, all of Lester Kimura’s friends happened to be Chicano, and they influenced his fashion sense: “I learned how to dress from the Mexican kids because they really knew how to be classy,” he explained. “They had ‘drapes’ way before the Nisei heard of such things.” The big-city Nisei who carried this look into the camps exposed young people hailing from rural areas—such as Kaminaka—to zoot suit style. Spotting a lucrative opportunity, Kimura ran a brisk business at the Santa Anita Assembly Center draping pants for the newly-initiated.

“Japanese Americans even invented their own slang for Nisei zoot suiters. One was “pachuke,” a Japanese version of the Spanish word “pachuco”/“pachuca.” The other was “yogore,” a derivation of the Japanese verb yogoreru (to get dirty).”

So the internment experience itself was an incubator for Nikkei zoot suit culture. Japanese Americans even invented their own slang for Nisei zoot suiters. One was “pachuke,” a Japanese version of the Spanish word “pachuco”/“pachuca.” The other was “yogore,” a derivation of the Japanese verb yogoreru (to get dirty). Sociologist Shotero Frank Miyamoto, a contemporary observer of Japanese America, explained that “yogore” referred to individuals who were “shiftless, transient, constantly drinking and gambling, hanging around pool halls, always picking fights, visiting prostitutes or attempting to engage in illicit sex relations.”

Young Japanese Hold Dance — Mess hall movies, little theatre activities and jitter-bugging to evacuee bands are popular forms of entertainment at the Tule Lake, California, Japanese relocation center. Image via University of Southern California, Regional History Collection.

Yogore posed a serious problem to the War Relocation Authority (WRA), the federal body charged with administrating internment. From the WRA’s point of view, zoot suiters endangered the very future of the entire Japanese American population. The federal government planned to scatter (or “resettle”) Japanese Americans around the country so that they might “assimilate” into the white middle class instead of returning to their West Coast farms and Little Tokyos. Pachuke troubled this vision for solving the “Japanese Problem” because they spurned polite standards of decorum. Their brashness loudly advertised their differences from the white middle-class. It also suggested an explicit kinship with working-class black and brown folk—the very opposite of the message that the WRA wanted to send to mainstream America.

Even worse, the zoot suit itself signaled an open defiance of the nation’s war effort. The War Production Board had banned the sale of zoot suits as a means to ration fabric. So wearing a zoot suit could be read as an unpatriotic act. The eruption of Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots in June 1943—when thousands of white soldiers and civilians violently attacked Mexican Americans and other zoot suiters of color—drove home this point. Thus pachuke let loose from the camps might place Nikkei under further suspicion of disloyalty. No wonder, then, that the Manzanar camp’s Free Press newspaper editors beseeched its readers: “Leave your zoot suits behind. And above all, be an ambassador of goodwill for the sake of the Japanese in America.”

The WRA worked hard to weed out yogore among potential resettlers. Prisoners who wanted to leave the camps had to promise federal officials that they would only speak English in public, avoid associating with large groups of Japanese, and generally conform to mainline standards of behavior and clothing.

Chicago’s resettlers tested this rigid vision of ethnic dispersal right away. Some complied strictly with the WRA’s guidelines. But others took a more realistic approach in this new, strange city. Lonely Nisei sought each other out for companionship. Many hesitated to interact with whites because they simply did not know where they stood in Chicago’s racial order. Racial discrimination also intensified their uneasiness and remained a barrier to securing desirable housing, employment, and access to public spaces such as dance halls, hospitals, and even cemeteries.

Living an indeterminate present and looking toward an unknown future, countless resettlers readily dismissed the WRA’s instructions to act as respectable “ambassadors” to mainstream America. Many quit their jobs unannounced, seeking better work and higher pay, to the chagrin of federal authorities who feared that such habits “reflected unfavorably” on all Japanese Americans. Some zoot suiters openly flaunted the government’s assimilationist directives. Tadashi “Blackie” Nakajima not only continued to wear his drapes around Chicago, but also spewed English vulgarities and Japanese slang expressions in public, consorted with the North Clark Street yogore gang, gambled, and frequented brothels—clearly not the type of integration that the WRA had in mind for former internees.

Sus Kaminaka’s wartime testimony captured this pervasive feeling of restlessness and anxiety. After going through a series of jobs in Chicago, he concluded that he would “play around” until being drafted, filling his days and nights with Nisei dances, drinking, and sexual exploits. Kaminaka expressed a profound ambivalence toward this existence: “I am getting absolutely no place now… It isn’t doing me much good. It bothers me a lot and I think [about] a lot of things I should be doing but I never get ambitious enough to get around to it.” Yet he also admitted to feeling hopeful, confessing a yearning to be recognized as a bona fide American. “I am willing to fight for the US as I plan to live here always and it is my country in spite of what some Caucasians say. At least I can say that I have a more definite part in the war effort if I were drafted. That’s about all the future I can look forward to now.” In the meantime, however, Kaminaka and scores of other resettlers—yogore and “non-yogore” alike—continued to drift, finding solace in the very types of activities discouraged by the state.

Predictably, the Nisei’s unseemly conduct unsettled resettlement coordinators. Fearing that the situation would only worsen, a group of Nikkei and their allies established the Chicago Resettlers Committee (CRC) in September 1945 “to attend to the unfinished problems of evacuation and resettlement.” CRC co-founder Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi detailed resettlers’ anomalous predicament: bereft of the “stabilizing factors of family and community ties,” Nisei harbored a “sense of futility about their future, a feeling of not belonging, of being outcast.” To underscore the direness of the situation, Nishi pointed to the yogore: “the Nisei with ‘Zoot Suit’ and pachuco duck-tail hair cut is not an uncommon sight,” she warned.

The CRC argued that the formal organization of the Japanese American community was increasingly urgent as Nikkei continued to stream into the city. Resettlers needed assistance to restart their lives and constructive recreational activities to redirect Niseifrom the “unwholesome influences” that were already tempting them.

While CRC leaders agreed with the WRA that the “ultimate goal” of resettlement was assimilation, they proposed a radically different approach. By creating a stable, nurturing social environment, activities that specifically targeted Japanese Americans could still be used to achieve integration. Furthermore, they stressed that mainstream institutions—rather than Nikkei themselves—bore the burden of responsibility for this task.

The CRC’s arguments sufficiently persuaded the WRA to reevaluate its original vision for resettlement. Chicago’s Council of Social Agencies, the umbrella organization of municipal social services, officially recognized the CRC in September 1946 and agreed to provide half of its operating budget for 1947. Soon Chicago would boast of a vibrant, postwar Japanese American community anchored by the CRC and more than 100 other ethnic associations.

“Zoot suiters, then, played an important role in the formation of Chicago’s Nikkei community in Chicago. As individuals, they forced the WRA and its partners to reconsider their strict assimilationist blueprint for resettlement. And as symbolic figures, they provided a powerful rhetorical specter that Japanese American spokespersons skillfully invoked to legitimate the establishment of ethnic organizations.”

Zoot suiters, then, played an important role in the formation of Chicago’s Nikkeicommunity in Chicago. As individuals, they forced the WRA and its partners to reconsider their strict assimilationist blueprint for resettlement. And as symbolic figures, they provided a powerful rhetorical specter that Japanese American spokespersons skillfully invoked to legitimate the establishment of ethnic organizations.

Yet Nisei zoot suiters have remained forgotten in Japanese American history and American history more generally. How do we explain this curious absence? For one, Japanese American spokespersons ensured that the public face of the ethnic community during and after the war was “GI Joe Nisei.” The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) worked especially hard to publicize Nisei battlefront contributions. It spotlighted the phenomenal record of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team and other Nisei in uniform as way to emphasize Japanese Americans’ undivided loyalty to the nation. Such a project, of course, was critical to the possibility of a collective future for Japanese Americans in the United States. But as narratives of Nikkei martial heroism gained widespread traction, they crowded out other images of Japanese Americans—including yogore—obscuring these stories for decades.

In the end, however, the actions and thoughts of those who were identified as yogore orpachuke were arguably not so different than other Nisei. It is important to remember that many (if not most) of Chicago’s resettlers ignored or flouted the federal government’s insistence that they stay away from their fellow Japanese Americans, steer clear of anything “Japanesey,” and fade into the white middle-class. Ultimately, affirming this diversity of experiences allows for a fuller understanding of Japanese American history and the range of the very human consequences of racial profiling and wartime incarceration.

Note on Sources

The best primary sources on Japanese American zoot suiters are the life history interviews of Nisei resettlers in Chicago recorded by Charles Kikuchi during World War II. Kikuchi was part of the University of California’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), a team of white and Nisei social science investigators who conducted extensive fieldwork on the wartime incarceration experience as it unfolded. The verbatim transcripts of Kikuchi’s interviews, along with his field notes and diary entries, are available at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library Special Collections and the University of California, Los Angeles’s Young Research Library Special Collections. Fifteen of the 64 interviews were published in abridged form in Dorothy Thomas, The Salvage (University of California Press, 1952), including that of Sus Kaminaka. (Note that “Sus Kaminaka” was the pseudonym that Kikuchi assigned to subject “CH-45, agricultural student.”)

Other sources consulted for this essay include various concentration camp newspapers (available on densho.org), the Japanese Relocation Collection at the Church of the Brethren Archives (Elgin, IL), the Chicago Resettlers Collection at the Chicago History Museum Research Collection, and the Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center Archives (Chicago). For full citations see Chapter 1 in Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, 2014).