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An ‘abuse of the US Constitution’ brought him to eastern Idaho. Why his son wants you to know about it

Fred Ochi moved to Idaho Falls in 1943 to escape hostility toward Japanese Americans. He passed away in 2007 at age 93, but his son, Jon, will be telling his story, during a community event on Saturday. | Courtesy Jon Ochi
IDAHO FALLS – Jon Ochi, a 75-year-old Idaho Falls man of Japanese descent, is standing in his old sign shop at 275 Chamberlain Avenue as he looks through old photos and newspaper clippings dating back more than 80 years ago.
The images contain a record of what Ochi describes as a hostile, and largely forgotten, civil rights debacle in American history. Ochi’s father, Fred, who passed away in 2007, lived through it. Jon will be telling people all about it during an event in downtown Idaho Falls this Saturday.
On Feb. 19, 1942, months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the U.S. military to gather up 120,000 people of Japanese descent, even those who were American citizens and place them in concentration camps scattered throughout the U.S.
More than 10,000 Japanese Americans were housed at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Jerome County between 1942 and 1945. It’s now recognized as a national historic site.
Fred, who was born in the U.S., was never incarcerated in a camp, but he experienced a lot of racial hostility that was common at the time.
“It’s a part of history that has not really been covered,” Jon tells about this time period. “I (attended school in Idaho Falls) and I used to really love history. There was never any mention of this event that was such an abuse of the U.S. Constitution.”
It’s important to remember what happened, Jon says, so that future generations never repeat it.

Jon Ochi looking through photos in his old shop at 275 Chamberlain Avenue in Idaho Falls. He’ll be sharing his father’s story at an event in downtown Idaho Falls on Saturday. | Rett Nelson,
Fred’s story
Fred Ochi was living in San Mateo, California. It was March 1942 and the 28-year-old had recently graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts. He’d gotten a job as a graphic artist for Fox West Coast Theaters, a movie theater chain, after working as an apprentice for three years.
Fred painted film posters and displays for upcoming movies.
“This was the heyday of Hollywood,” Jon explains. “And in those days before TV, you did a big advertisement right in front of the movie theater. You had to constantly change these displays (every time a new movie was released). Sometimes the star of the film would come for the opening.”
Jon’s photo collection in his now-defunct sign shop includes hundreds of his father’s old film posters, which he painted throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s. They include artwork for titles such as “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Clark Gable, or “A Night at the Opera” featuring the Marx Brothers. Watercolor images of the star’s faces can be seen alongside the film’s title.

A movie display and poster Fred Ochi designed as a graphic artist for Fox West Coast Theater during the 1930s. | Courtesy Jon Ochi
FDR’s order issued a month earlier had quickly trickled down to the state level. Anyone of Japanese ancestry was banned from living in California, Oregon and Washington and military personnel were actively relocating people from the West Coast to 10 different camps in remote areas of the country.
As president of the San Mateo Japanese American Citizens League, Fred sent a telegraph to the California Legislature expressing shock and disappointment over these actions.
“We are terribly shocked upon hearing that a memorial to Congress to place all Japanese nationals in concentration camps for the emergency has been introduced in your special session today. Such a vicious, un-American, unjustified and cruel movement will kill our very existence as well as the food supply for the nation,” Fred wrote.
Many Japanese Americans worked on farms at the time, and therefore had a significant impact on the food supply.
“Please do everything possible to help us,” he continued.
Fred and other JACL members took out full-page ads in the local newspaper proclaiming that Japanese Americans were loyal citizens and that “many of our sons are now serving in the armed forces of the United States.”

The telegraph Fred Ochi sent to the California Legislature, left, and the ad in the local newspaper. | Courtesy Jon Ochi
Their efforts did little to persuade political leaders and Fred and his brother, who also lived in California, ultimately “pulled up stakes and left everything behind” to avoid being taken to one of these camps, Jon says. They stayed with a family member in Ogden, Utah for a time.
“My dad’s (sister-in-law) had an uncle in Ogden,” Jon says.
Relocating was a risky move because there was no guarantee that the negative attitude towards Japanese Americans would be any better in other states.
“They had a reference (because of the family connection in Ogden). You could not leave without a reference,” says Jon.
Fred quickly found work at a Fox West location in Ogden, and eventually landed a job at the Paramount Theater in Idaho Falls. There wasn’t enough work to pay the bills, so the manager sent him to a theater in Nampa.
“There was a group of businessmen over there who claimed there was an ‘invasion’ of Japanese workers who were taking jobs from Idahoans,” Jon says. “They literally ran him out of town.”
Around this same time in May 1942, then Idaho Governor Chase Clark, who was from Idaho Falls, made a disparaging remark about the Japanese while speaking at a Lion’s Club meeting in Grangeville.
“Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats. We don’t want them permanently located in our state,” Clark is reported to have said.
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Clark went on to say “the Jap problem” could best be solved by returning all people of Japanese descent to Japan and “then sink the island.”
Jon was born in 1947 and he went to school with Clark’s grandson, whose name was also John. He remembers the Clarks being nice people and says Governor Clark apologized for his statement many years later.
Fred moved back to Idaho Falls after being kicked out of Nampa. He opened a sign shop about 1943 — which Jon later inherited and closed in 2015 after decades in business — and an art gallery at 327 Park Avenue directly across from where Villa Coffeehouse now sits.
Despite widespread hostility toward people of Japanese ancestry throughout the state, Jon says it wasn’t as strong in Idaho Falls. His father found a home where he could raise his family and he became a well-respected member of the community.
He was actively involved in the Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club and helped form what is now the Eagle Rock Art Guild.

A picture of Fred Ochi next to one of his paintings | Courtesy Eagle Rock Art Guild
But life in Idaho Falls still had its challenges.
Japanese Americans had curfews and other travel restrictions imposed on them, which almost prevented one of Fred’s most famous encounters.
Fred painted portraits of numerous politicians over the years, including one of President Harry Truman, who visited Idaho Falls in 1948.
“Fred … attempted to show it to the president,” an exhibit at the Museum of Idaho says. “Security and regular citizens tried to keep Ochi from the president’s car. However, Truman, possibly recognizing an important opportunity to show inclusion after wartime aggression against Japanese Americans, invited Ochi onto his railroad car (and signed it).”
The autographed portrait is now displayed at the Museum of Idaho.

Left: An autographed portrait of President Harry Truman at the Museum of Idaho. Right: President Truman autographs a portrait of himself painted by Fred Ochi, left, on the rear platform of a train in 1948. Prominent Pocatello Democrat F.M. Bistline is featured on the right. | Courtesy Museum of Idaho
Though the Japanese incarceration camps were closed at the end of the war, FDR’s executive order was not officially rescinded until 1976. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, calling the order a “grave injustice” to Japanese Americans. Around $1.6 billion in reparations were given to “formerly interned Japanese Americans or their heirs,” one article reports.
“We must recognize that the internment of Japanese Americans was … a mistake,” President Ronald Reagan said in a 1988 speech. “Throughout the war, Japanese Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States.”
Amid all his endeavors, Fred remained a lifelong member of the Japanese American Citizens League. As a member of the Idaho Falls chapter, he worked to remove some of the discriminatory laws that were on the books many years later.
“If you were Japanese in 1960, you could not marry someone who was Caucasian,” Jon says. “My dad and my mother worked to change those laws and my dad also worked (to get the Minidoka camp recognized as) a historic site.”
Fred was 93 when he passed away in 2007.

Fred Ochi at work on a door sign in 1938. | Courtesy Jon Ochi
Day of Remembrance
Every year on Feb. 19, the date of FDR’s executive order, a Day of Remembrance is observed to “educate others on the fragility of civil liberties in times of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all,” the JACL’s website says.
Though Fred was not among the thousands who were incarcerated, Jon says the hostility toward Japanese Americans had a long-lasting impact and is not something to be proud of.
He is now the secretary for the Idaho Falls Japanese American Citizens League. He’s honored to share parts of his father’s story at Saturday’s Day of Remembrance event, which will be held inside the Artitorium theater at 271 West Broadway. The event will kick off at 10 a.m. with an exhibit showcasing photos, news articles and written literature about the Minidoka camp and the impact of FDR’s executive order.
There will be a film presentation at 11 a.m., and the National Park Service will host a panel discussion at noon. Jon is one of several people who will be part of the panel.
The event is free to the public and he’s encouraging people to attend.
“It’s important that we remember that these things happen and they could happen again if we don’t recognize them. The ideal of America is that it gets better and better. But if we don’t look at our own history, we don’t know how to improve our future,” he says.

A flier for the Day of Remembrance Event on Saturday. | Courtesy Lora King
The post An ‘abuse of the US Constitution’ brought him to eastern Idaho. Why his son wants you to know about it appeared first on East Idaho News.

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