Learning Lessons From Japanese Immigrants A Century Ago

Japanese railroad workers in the North Platte Valley pose for a photograph. (Photo courtesy Sakarada family)
Gwendolyn Meister, Vickie Sakurada Schaepler, and Sandra Reddish at the Nebraska Historical Society. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)
Original citizenship document for Harry Sato. (Photo courtesy Sato family)
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March 28, 2018 - 6:45am

Over a century ago, western Nebraska was home to more than 1,000 Japanese who worked on the railroads and in the sugar beet fields. Today, Nebraska continues to enjoy the reputation of being a warm and welcoming place for immigrants from around the world.


Nebraska has a small, but growing, immigrant population. The American Immigration Council reports about seven percent of the state’s population was born outside of the United States.

Lacey Studnicka, of Lutheran Family Services, has helped resettle immigrants across Nebraska for 16 years.

She’s seen waves of immigrants –including many refugee families– come through the doors of her agency.

The Sakurada family poses for a formal portrait. (Photo courtesy Sakurada family)

Two years ago, Nebraska relocated more refugees per capita than any other state in the nation. Studnicka’s proud of the hospitable reputation Nebraska has nationwide.

“Nebraska is a welcoming place,” Studnicka said. “And, that’s sort of our legacy, especially all across the state, but the places where refugees are being welcomed, the community is really there for them.”

Historian Sandra Reddish says making deep connections and becoming well-integrated in the community worked well for the Japanese who settled in the North Platte Valley over a hundred years ago.

Identification cards like this one were mandatory for Japanese immigrants. (Photo courtesy Sandra Reddish) 

Reddish was surprised to learn no other historians or ethnographers had studied the sizeable immigrant population in the state. When she came across headstones tucked in a corner of Scottsbluff’s main cemetery engraved in Japanese, she knew her research could shed light on this unknown group she calls the “Invisible People.”

“I’m telling ya, they’re not in the history books,” Reddish said. “I already did a search. Nothing. There was no information on Japanese in Nebraska.”

Lacey Studnicka of Lutheran Family Services has been helping resettle immigrants across Nebraska for 16 years. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

Over the years, Reddish talked with dozens and dozens of second and third generation descendants of the early Japanese settlers who had been enticed to move to western Nebraska to work on the railroads, and later the sugar beet fields.

Reddish recorded their stories, scanned old newspaper articles, and ate a lot of meals with family members. On the table was a smorgasbord of fried chicken, potato salad, and lasagna, along with sushi rolls, rice balls, and tempura.

 “That was my introduction into this group of people that have been Nebraskans for over a hundred years that no one knew about,” Reddish said.

Japanese Hall in Scottsbluff was the center of social life for Japanese Nebraskans for nearly 90 years. (Photo courtesy Sandra Reddish)

Reddish presented her research recently in a history lecture at the Nebraska State Historical Society. Vickie Sakurado Schaepler drove to Lincoln from Kearney to attend the talk. Schaepler is trying to preserve Japanese history for the future. Specifically, she’s trying to save one of two former Japanese community centers in western Nebraska from demolition. 

“My grandfather helped to build that hall so there are stories about them using horses and wagons and digging it out by hand,” Schaepler said. “That hall was very active.”

When Japanese Hall in Scottsbluff was built in 1928, it was the center of social life to the 1,000 Japanese who lived in that part of the state.

University of Nebraska-Omaha students volunteering at Lutheran Family Services. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)

Reddish says the Japanese worked hard, learned English quickly, and adopted American-style clothing and foods. Some joined the Episcopal Church.

“The Japanese definitely assimilated very much faster and really adopted western styles much faster than the Chinese,” Reddish said.

Schaepler believes the Japanese were generally treated well because they were part of the community.

The Sakarada family in 1944 proudly displaying the American flag. (Photo courtesy Sakarada family)

Tensions, though, did rise after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor leading to U.S. involvement in World War II. Laws were enacted to seize Japanese firearms, confiscate heirlooms and restrict travel.

“There are stories of things that happened that probably aren’t the best. There was a cross burning at the Japanese Hall in Mitchell, Nebraska during the war; there was a soldier who broke through the windows at a restaurant that was Japanese-owned,” Schaepler said.

After the end of World War II, all of the anti-immigration laws targeting Asians were lifted. Soon, new laws allowed Japanese immigrants to own land and become naturalized citizens.

Lacey Studnicka of Lutheran Family Services believes today’s immigrants mainly land in Nebraska to be reunited with family and friends. Often, they have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disasters. She hopes more Nebraskans get a chance to meet these families and hear their stories.

“So if you’ve never met a refugee, or you’ve never heard their story, now is the time to learn about our newest neighbors,” Studnicka said.

And like the Japanese a century ago, Studnicka hopes the state’s newest residents will also have the chance to quickly integrate into the fabric of the community.

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