Arizona and Japanese American History: The World War II Colorado River Relocation Center

Article excerpt

While research on Asian Americans has typically been directed towards port cities like San Francisco and New York City, the Southwest too has long been important for Asian Americans. For instance, early Chinese American and Japanese American communities are known to have formed in Arizona, creating pioneer sites of community settlement and contributing to the history and diversity of the area. However, Arizona's significance for the growth of Asian America has not been only as a location for permanent settlement, but also as a place and space in the larger regional economy of the U.S. West. Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans who settled in Arizona in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were a segment of a larger pool of Asian American workers that circulated throughout the region in search of work, whether in agriculture, on the railroads, or in other industries that dominated the emerging regional economy. (1)

In this article, I will undertake an analysis of one Asian American community that sprang up in Arizona in the early 1940s as a result of World War II: the War Relocation Authority camp on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation, commonly known among the Japanese Americans who resided there as "Poston." During World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans from California, along with a smaller number of Japanese Americans from Arizona, were sent to the Colorado River Relocation Center. The site became the third largest "city" in Arizona during that time. (2)

Despite its brief history, the Colorado River Relocation Center provides us with an opportunity to assess how people's participation in the regional economy of the Southwest was shaped by federal intervention, as well as by race and ethnicity. In addition, these issues speak to central topics concerning Arizona's economic development during World War II, as well as offering us an additional avenue to consider the relationship of Arizona to its neighbor to the west, California. Reflecting on this history allows a more expansive view of how community formation was affected by, and had an effect upon, this part of the Southwest. Hence, although the Arizona residence of most Japanese Americans at the Colorado River Relocation Center was transitory, it demonstrates that the relationship of Asian Americans to a particular place is not determined solely by permanent stability. For the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at the Colorado River Relocation Center, this Arizona experience would have continued resonance, even several decades after their World War II experiences.


At the close of the nineteenth century, the population of Japanese workers in the United States consisted primarily of young, single males. In the 1900 census, 24,326 Japanese were listed, with 23,341 males and only 985 females. By 1910, the community's total numbers had almost tripled, to 72,157. The population further increased to 111,010 by the 1920 census, of whom 72,707 were men or boys and 38,303 were women or girls. Over the next two decades, gender breakdowns became relatively more equitable, with the 1930 total of 138,834 including 81,771 males and 57,063 females, decreasing slightly in the 1940 census to 126,947 for the whole group, of which 71,967 were males and 54,980 were females. While the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the West, mainly in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, Arizona emerged as another destination for migration, typically after an initial stop on the West Coast. The settled Arizona population was not a large one, however. In 1900, there were but 281 Japanese Americans in Arizona, and by 1940, these numbers had only gone up to 632 residents, of whom 220 were immigrants and 412 were U.S.-born, with a gender breakdown of 354 men or boys and 278 women or girls. (3)

In the different sites where they migrated or settled, Japanese Americans made significant contributions to the local economies in which they participated. …