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 our traveling exhibit, 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 five topics, each of which tells a crucial part of Detroit’s history from a Japanese American perspective:

History Matters

explores why community stories are so important, and how easily they are lost. What can we do to ensure our past is remembered long into the future?

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.


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

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.

Creating/Challenging Community

turns to the role of the Japanese American community in local activism, and the ongoing fight for equal civil and human rights. Did you know that a big part of the pan-Asian solidarity movement in the latter half of the 20th century started right here in metro Detroit? How has the Japanese American community in Detroit continued to support equal rights for all? What does home and homeland mean to you? How can each of us nurture our local communities and the stories that come from them?

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 premiered at two locations in southeastern Michigan in 2019. In 2020, we’re headed to the Detroit Historical Museum, where you’ll be able to walk through our self-guided 14-panel exhibit at your own pace.

The displays are written in English, printed in large format, and are wheelchair accessible. For other accessibility concerns, please contact the venue directly.

We will also host special exhibit-related programming during each run of the exhibit! For more information about these programs, please visit our Talks & Workshops page!

Upcoming 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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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.