Join us as we explore Japanese American life in Detroit, from the founding of the Ford Motor Company to tomorrow.

JAPANESE AMERICANS have been a part of Detroit’s vibrant history for over one hundred years, but the first major migration of Japanese Americans to the Midwest came during World War II. You may be familiar with this chapter of United States history, where Japanese Americans were forced from the Pacific states and incarcerated in camps scattered across the interior West.

Shortly after arriving in the camps, however, the United States government set into motion its plans for resettling Japanese Americans elsewhere: Even before the end of the war, Japanese Americans were hired out of the camps to labor in the sugar beet fields of Idaho and Montana; to work industrial and secretarial jobs in Chicago and Detroit; to obtain university degrees from Michigan State.

If Japanese Americans were such a threat to national security, why were they welcome in the Midwest? Officially, the Midwest existed outside of the sensitive “exclusion zone” on the Pacific Front. But no one of Japanese descent was ever convicted of collusion with the Japanese imperial government or army, and in the years since World War II, it’s become increasingly clear few ever regarded the Japanese American community as a genuine enemy threat. Instead, it was the Japanese American community under fire.

Executive Order 9066 and the incarceration of Japanese Americans disrupted family life, destroyed community infrastructures, and subjected Japanese Americans to what would ultimately become an intergenerational psychological trauma. Starting life anew in the Midwest may have been a reprieve from life in the camps, but this seeming gift of freedom was also, in many ways, an extension of incarceration’s effects: By scattering Japanese Americans across the Midwest, the U.S. government hoped to break up the ethnic enclaves, or Japantowns, that had formed on the West Coast. It hoped to eliminate Japanese American community life by division and assimilation.

Exiled to Motown is the story of the persistence of Japanese American community in the Midwest, and specifically Detroit. It’s the story of how Japanese American life continues to change and flourish as we eye the third decade of the 21st century, and how our community knits into the broader multiethnic histories of metro Detroit. It’s the story of how you fit into this story.

What will you learn with us today?

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The Exhibit

“We don’t have any Japanese American community here.”

When Mary Ishino, a Japanese American woman who had been living in East Lansing, said this, she gave voice to the sentiments of many. While undoubtedly there are those in Michigan who aren’t aware there are any Japanese Americans living in the state, period, Mary Ishino meant something a little different. Something more complex. You see, see read Los Angeles-based Japanese American newspapers like The Pacific Citizen, and felt part of a Japanese American community. But that community was located in a Pacific elsewhere. Not here, in the Midwest.

So what makes a community? What makes a place feel like home–or more specifically, like a particular kind of home? This is a potent question to ask of Japanese Americans in metro Detroit, whose largest migration into the Midwest came as a direct result of World War II.

Join us for Exiled to Motown, which is a story of a Japanese American community that has made indelible marks on the society and industry of Detroit, but is rarely discussed and sometimes, not quite felt. As you walk through our self-guided exhibit of exclusive oral histories, paired with vibrant archival photos, documents, and other glimpses into the past, you’ll have a chance to see the vibrant and storied history of Detroit from a whole new angle.

Exiled to Motown is organized around three primary topics, each of which tells a crucial part of Detroit’s history from a Japanese American perspective:

Coming to Detroit

documents the waves of Japanese American migration into the metro Detroit Area, from seeking work at the Ford Motor Company to seeking refuge during and after World War II, to new generations splitting time between Japan and the United States. It explores the many reasons for coming to Detroit–and perhaps even more numerous, the paths one might have taken to get here.

Photo Credit: Gary North (Detroit Historical Museum)

Working in Detroit

covers the last century of Japanese Americans working in Detroit in a wide range of industries: Farming, dry goods, secretarial work, the automotive industry–and as translators, artists, and architects. Learn about the big personalities that always kept life interesting, work or play!


Making Detroit Home

is organized as a long timeline that puts the history of the Japanese American community in Detroit in conversation with the broader histories of Detroit, as well as that of Japanese Americans across the United States. It also highlights the cultural life of Japanese Americans in Michigan from 1946 to the present. From sock hops to social action, local faires to national gatherings, Making Detroit Home gives insight into the many ways Japanese Americans have celebrated their culture–deeply Japanese, and deeply American. (Have you ever wondered at what point did the JACL start serving Japanese food at their events, instead of aggressively Western dishes like roast pheasant and Jell-O cups?!) It also examines the lived realities that are not always so celebratory–the effects of racial segregation and racial prejudice that affect everyone living in a community, past and present.

Photo Credit: Gary North (Detroit Historical Museum)

The exhibit also includes over fifty objects that were lent by Japanese American community members to help bring our stories to life.

Photo Credit: Gary North (Detroit Historical Museum)

Thank you in advance for coming to experience our stories. Please share yours with us, too!

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Plan Your Visit

Exiled to Motown is currently in hibernation!

Future Exhibitions

Are you interested in proposing an additional venue for the Exiled to Motown exhibit? Feel free to contact us! We’re happy to work with you to put together a temporary exhibit at your local library, cultural center, etc. We are also interested in putting on pop-up showings for classrooms and festivals. Let’s talk!

Past Exhibitions

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Press & Media

PODCAST (30min)

Season 4 – Episode 6: No-No Boy and the Japanese-American Migration to Detroit

The Detroit History Podcast || Tim Kiska || November 2021

Produced by Dr. Tim Kiska, Frank Abe offers an in-depth history of No-No Boy and writer John Okada’s ties to Detroit, with additional contextualization from Celeste Shimoura Goedert and Mika Kennedy.

VIDEO (30min)

Many Voices, One Story | Exiled to Motown

MotorCities National Heritage Area || Brian Yopp || October 2021

Brian Yopp interviews Celeste Shimoura Goedert and Mika Kennedy about Japanese Americans and racialized experiences of Detroit and its automotive industry.

VIDEO (8min)

VIDEO (50min)

Exiled to Motown: Japanse American Resettlement in Detroit, MI

Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages || Tadaima 2021 || September 2021

Celeste Shimoura Goedert and Mika Kennedy in conversation about Exiled to Motown, Japanese Americans in Detroit, and telling the story through objects and archives.

LECTURE (90min)

2021 Bauder Lecture Series | Week Two: The Cranbrook Japanese Garden and the Japanese Experience in Detroit

Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research || July 2021

Lecture and Q&A with Dr. Bonnie Clark (University of Denver) and Dr. Mika Kennedy (Kalamazoo College) about the Japanese gardens of the Amache camp and Japanese American resettlement during and after World War II.

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Who is JACL Detroit?

The JACL Detroit Chapter is a cultural hub for the Japanese American community based in metro Detroit. We organize and support programming related to Japanese and Japanese American culture in Michigan, in order to connect with each other, to connect with our history, and to connect with other Asian and ethnic American communities. We’ve been committed to aiding and celebrating Japanese American community in Michigan since our founding in 1946. We are proud to present the Exiled to Motown exhibit!

To learn more about what we do, please visit our Chapter website or follow us on Facebook.

Where is Detroit?

Detroit is Native land. As Japanese Americans, we are guests of the many indigenous nations that have called, and continue to call, southeast Michigan home. We give thanks to them as our homes and histories play out on their lands.

For more information about southeast Michigan’s native peoples, please visit: Detroitography, A cultural history of Metro Detroit, and Detroit Urbanism.

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Header image © NARA. All other images © JACL Detroit.