The original Japanese social hall in Scottsbluff, NE. Built in 1928, it has remained mostly unchanged. Photo Courtesy of Legacy of the Plains
This social hall was an important gathering place for the Japanese community in Scottsbluff. Built in 1928, it has remained mostly unchanged. Photo courtesy of Legacy of the Plains

Vickie Sakurada Schaepler of Kearney wants to shed light on the little-known stories of the Japanese who settled in Western Nebraska.

During the mid-1900s, Western Nebraska was home to over 1,000 Japanese residents, business owners and farmers who had made their way from Japan to the United States. Their multifaceted stories, filled with both turmoil and triumph, also highlight the darker side of America’s history, which included alien land laws and internment camps.

Many of them stayed in the state. Although Japanese-Americans were more likely to settle in West Coast states, Nebraska found itself home to as many as 1,314 Japanese-Americans in 1970. 

Yet today, many of those families say they have remained invisible and their stories untold while they continue to face racial discrimination, Schaepler said. 

In 2012, Schaepler attended a celebration of life at a Japanese social hall in Scottsbluff used throughout the previous century. At the hall, she saw pictures on the walls of her grandfather, one of the Japanese residents in Scottsbluff responsible for building the gathering space in 1928.

Schaepler grew up in Scottsbluff, an area of Nebraska that was full of Japanese families. Her family moved to Kearney when she was in junior high. She described the move as a “culture shock.”

“We went from Scottsbluff, a place that was 25% minority, to Kearney where there were two Asian students in my graduating class,” Schaepler said. “They were my brother and I.”

This experience made it incredibly important for Schaepler to document the influence, presence and history of the Japanese community in Western Nebraska. For years since, she’s been working tirelessly to bring those stories to light through a new exhibit at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering. The centerpiece is a hall that was the very same social gathering space in Scottsbluff that inspired Schaepler to begin this project.

Across the country, the history of the Japanese is one that is often overlooked, especially further from the West Coat. During the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Japanese immigrants made their way from their island home to the United States. The Library of Congress estimates that up to 400,000 Japanese citizens found permanent residency in the United States between 1886 and 1911.

Those immigrants, known as issei, or “first generation,” came to work on the railroad after the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned Chinese Immigration into the United States. Many of those jobs were then filled by Japanese immigrants instead.

Before World War II, many of the Japanese families that had worked on the railroad planted roots in the Midwest, including Nebraska. 

Making sure these stories are told is incredibly important, said Schaepler and other Japanese-Americans. 

In the 1920s, it’s estimated that there were 804 Japanese residents in Nebraska and by the 1970s that number had climbed to more than 1,300.

To get those stories told, Schaepler was willing to go to great lengths, including having the original hall in Scottsbluff uprooted and transported to the museum in Gering in 2019, where work on the project could begin. The original summer 2023 grand opening has been delayed until early 2024 due to the original contractor going out of business, she said.

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The Japanese Hall is being loaded onto a truck and transported to Gering, where renovations can begin. Photo courtesy of Legacy of the Plains

Schaepler said that the museum is important because it can educate Nebraskans about an aspect of the state’s history, one that many people in Nebraska are completely unaware of. Sharon Ishii-Jordan, a retired professor of Education at Creighton University, and sansei, said that much of the history of Japanese families in Nebraska remains invisible.

Ishii-Jordan said that invisibility comes from two primary sources. The first is Nebraska’s education system, which doesn’t require that students learn about Japanese immigration, incarceration camps and Alien Land Laws that restricted Japanese immigrants from obtaining citizenship or from purchasing and owning land.

The second reason, Ishii-Jordan said, is that many from the previous generation have a desire to move past the discrimination and unfair treatment they faced.

“There was a sense that they just wanted to live their lives,” Ishii-Jordan said. “There’s an old Japanese story that says, ‘The peg that stands out is the one that gets hammered.’ So, it’s kind of just, ‘Keep my head down, do my work.’”

Ishii-Jordan said that the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, has played a large role in bringing the discrimination Japanese immigrants have faced at the hands of the American government back into the conversation. The act gave surviving Japanese-Americans reparations and a formal apology for their incarceration during World War II.

It’s estimated that as many as 120,000 Japanese immigrants, primarily in West Coast states like California, Washington and Oregon, were placed in Incarceration camps after 1942. Many were second-generation Japanese, referred to as the nisei, and were citizens born in the United States. Among them were Ishii-Jordan’s mother and her family, who were sent to Tule Lake, an incarceration camp in their home state of California.

After a year at Tule Lake, the family was relocated to a camp in Topaz, Utah, for another year. After the camps began to release the Japanese-American prisoners, the War Relocation Act  relocated the family to Omaha, where the Ishii’s had familial connections.

Ishii-Jordan’s family first arrived in the U.S.  through the southern border. Her grandfather, James-Ihachi Ishii, was born in Hiroshima in 1889 and left Japan in 1907. Ihachi Ishii’s older brother had come to the U.S. years earlier, and Ishii had hoped to find him at the request of their father. 

Ishii worked in the silver mines in Mexico for several months before he arrived in El Paso, Texas, and found a job working for the Pacific-Missouri Railroad, which eventually led him to Colorado. Ishii settled in South Omaha, where he worked for the Cudahy Packing Plant.

Ishii-Jordan said the Japanese Hall is incredibly important, especially for Japanese families in Scottsbluff because she said that Scottsbluff residents had a community that was connected in ways that Japanese families in Omaha weren’t.

“They had a much larger group,” Ishii-Jordan said. “They had a greater connection among the families, especially in the very early year, the 1910s, 1920s.”

Ishii-Jordan said it wasn’t uncommon for Japanese-Americans in Western Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming to meet for youth conferences to discuss issues facing their communities. Ishii-Jordan said that level of community in eastern Nebraska wasn’t as present as it was in the west.

Unfortunately, the number of Japanese families in Western Nebraska had dwindled significantly, Schaepler said.

One family that has remained in Nebraska is the Miyoshi family.

John Miyoshi, a retired conservation manager and member of the Nebraska Community Foundation Board of Directors, is the project manager for the Japanese Hall. His family arrived in Washington by way of a steamboat in 1909. His grandfather, Takehiko Miyoshi found work on the railroad, which ended in North Platte.

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From left, John Miyoshi, Vickie Sakurada Schaepler and Russ Riesig on the day of the social hall’s move. Photo courtesy of Legacy of the Plains

Miyoshi said there were 28 men, including his grandfather, who decided to stay in Nebraska. Most began farming west of North Platte in Hershey.

Miyoshi’s father, Richard, attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in agriculture. After graduating, he never returned to North Platte. Instead, Richard Miyoshi worked in the horticulture department at UNL, where he worked with a team that researched potato farming in Nebraska. Miyoshi helped to establish potato farms in Scottsbluff, Alliance and Hershey. The potato industry remains incredibly prominent in those areas to this day, Miyoshi said.

He began work as the owner of an apple orchard in Nebraska City in 1959, which his family ran for 12 years.

Today, Miyoshi lives in Wahoo and is helping Schaepler with opening the Japanese Hall. He echoed the words of other sansei when he said the Japanese Hall is incredibly important.

“It’s really awakened me to a lot of Japanese traditions,” Miyoshi said. “I’ve met so many people that are excited about the hall and are bringing and donating items from their parents or grandparents.”

Miyoshi said much of Nebraska’s Japanese history remains hidden because the goal of many Japanese immigrants who came to America in the 20th century was to “blend in.”

“They tended to be low key,” Miyoshi said. “They wanted to mix in with the country, not create waves and just go along and get along.” 

Nebraska’s Japanese history is one part of a much larger story, Ishii-Jordan said. The racism that Japanese-Americans faced, both during World War II and after, hasn’t gone away entirely.

“It’s important for people to know that there are Japanese-Americans living in their communities,” Ishii-Jordan said. “Unfortunately, those who choose to degenerate Asian Americans look for any vehicles to do that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic helped to embolden those who were looking to discriminate against Asian Americans, Ishii-Jordan said. Stopping discrimination begins with education.

“The more that you know about a group, the less likely you are to indulge in that discrimination,” she said. 

“There was a large population of Asians – Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Southeast Asians – not just now, but back in our history. They worked the railroads, they farmed the sugar beats in Western Nebraska, making businesses and restaurants in Eastern Nebraska. I think it’s important to understand that.”