Sue Uyehara Lofton began studying t’ai chi 15 years ago, before she retired from her job as an administrator at Roosevelt University. The petite Lofton now teaches the martial art to other seniors at the White Crane Wellness Center in Lakeview. Like many Japanese Americans of her generation, the 80-year-old Lofton was raised with a perspective compatible with the philosophy of t’ai chi. “You don’t dwell on unpleasant things, but go on with what needs to be done now,” she says. “You make the best of it.”
Lofton’s life is a textbook case of the nisei–second-generation Japanese Americans–born between 1910 and 1940. She grew up in Montana, where her father worked on the railroad. After graduating from high school, Lofton became a domestic for a wealthy family in Pasadena, California. When her father died in 1935, the family moved to Los Angeles, and Lofton cared for her mother and siblings until she married her first husband Lindy Uyehara, another nisei.
In 1942, just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the U.S. Army to detain people of Japanese ancestry living in the western states. By then there were more than 120,000 Japanese residents and aliens living in the region. When the army posted the “civilian exclusion orders” in Los Angeles during that spring, Lofton’s family was given two weeks to sell their possessions. They were allowed to take only the luggage that they could carry to their new home–Manzanar, a relocation camp in eastern California. Lofton and her family lived behind barbed wire in one of the 504 barracks set uniformly on once-fertile land that had become desert. At its peak, 10,200 people lived in Manzanar. “I was pretty square then and don’t recall ever thinking this was against the law, or that my First Amendment rights were being violated,” says Lofton. “I thought, ‘It couldn’t be happening.’ You know the way you do, helplessly.”
After four months at Manzanar, Lindy Uyehara got fed up and had his family assigned to a work team harvesting sugar beets in Idaho Falls. The team was comprised of two other married couples and five single men. The work order referred to fully furnished accommodations. But “we walked in, and it was a mess,” says Lofton. One of the men, a guy from Hawaii, cried while the three women cleaned the place up. “It revealed to me that women are much, much the stronger,” Lofton says. “Way stronger.”
The work assignment ended in December, and the Uyeharas were interned at another camp in Idaho called Minodoka. That was the first time Lofton met her in-laws, who had been relocated there from Seattle. Hard up for soldiers, army recruiters visited Minodoka to encourage male detainees to enlist. A year earlier, Japanese soldiers in the U.S. armed forces had been discharged because, Lofton says, they supposedly couldn’t be trusted. “The really tragic thing of giving discharges to these men is that they had nowhere to go except to camp. They had to go home to a camp, and now the U.S. came in to recruit those men back.” Lindy Uyehara enlisted and was sent to Japan.
The Minodoka War Relocation Office issued Lofton and her daughter Linda identity cards and shipped them off to Chicago, where Lofton was given a job at the Sherman Hotel. Her daughter’s ID card can be seen in an exhibit on the history of Japanese American women currently at the Field Museum, along with three letters that Lofton had written to a friend in Montana during her first month in Chicago.
“Since coming here almost exactly a month ago, it’s been one ghastly thing after another,” Lofton wrote to her friend Isabel Hunt in May 1943. The Sherman Hotel had given Lofton a room overlooking an air shaft. Unhappy, she looked elsewhere for an apartment. But many landlords refused to rent to her; Lofton thought they were reacting to her being Japanese and a single mom. While canvassing the neighborhood around Dearborn and Division for apartments, Lofton was approached by a Japanese woman in a fur coat. “I had never seen a Japanese that was rich enough to have a fur coat,” Lofton recalls. “The woman said, ‘I could tell right away you were from camp, because you’re tanned.'” The woman helped Lofton find an apartment and a new job at A.C. McClurg’s warehouse packing books for clients like Kroch’s & Brentano’s. Other nisei women here were working as seamstresses, training as nurses, stringing pearls, or were employed on the assembly line at the Curtis Candy Company.
“McClurg’s was one of the companies that hired Japanese, because they found them to be good workers,” says Lofton. “I remember Knute, who was head of our department. One day he came upstairs and said, ‘Do you know that I saw a Negro downstairs applying for a job. I hope they don’t begin to hire them.’ And I said, ‘Knute, what did you say when the first Japanese showed up here?'”
The exhibit Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women 1885-1990 will be at the Field Museum through March 19. The museum is located at Roosevelt Road and Lake Shore Drive. It’s open daily from 9 to 5; admission is $5, $3 for students and seniors ($16 maximum per family). For more information, call 922-9410.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.