In 1910 a Japanese immigrant named Kuni Wada opened a bakery in the Crosstown neighborhood of Memphis.
When curious Memphians sampled his bread, pastries and biscuits they quickly made it the most popular bakery in the city. The story of Kuni Wada and his business tells us much about the immigrant experience in Memphis and the plight of Japanese nationals during World War II.
Over the years nearly everyone in Memphis visited 1310 Madison and partook of Kuni’s baked goods. It didn’t seem to matter that the shop was owned by an Asian immigrant. However, the whiff of racism sometimes mingled in the air with the smell of bread.
In 1919 for example, Memory McCord, a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, assured her readers that “Kuni’s little shop is one of the most original in Memphis. It is absolutely owned and managed by the little Jap.”
Despite being dismissed as a “little Jap,” Kuni Wada was embraced by many Memphians, especially when he converted to Christianity and joined Madison Heights Methodist Church.
Although he enjoyed living in Memphis, Kuni Wada sold his business to Hanchi Nakajima and T. S. Kuwai and moved back to Japan in the early 1930s.
On the afternoon of Dec, 7, 1941, Hanchi went to the movies. Returning home about 5:30, he switched on the radio and was shocked to learn that Imperial Japan had attacked American military bases in Hawaii.
“At first, I thought it must be a mistake,” but he quickly concluded that “some crazy heads in Japan started this war.” While at work the next day, Hanchi was asked by a Press-Scimitar newspaper reporter, “Do you want the United States to win?”
“Of course I do,” he replied. “This is my country …. I raised my family here.”
He may have considered America his country, but he was not a citizen. This made him an enemy alien, subject to arrest and confinement.
On Dec. 8, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered the Federal Reserve to seize the bank accounts of all foreign-owned businesses and arrest their owners. Guards were temporarily placed at the bakery, but neither Hanchi or T. S. Kawai were arrested.
In late January 1942, the Justice Department established enemy alien boards to examine all non-citizens from belligerent countries. Held in secret, the hearings decided who would stay free and who would go to an internment camp. It is not known if the Nakajima and Kuwai families were subject to a hearing. However, given that city directories and newspaper accounts clearly show that both families remained in Memphis throughout the war, there is little doubt that they were classified as loyal.
Because many Japanese Americans were discriminated against during World War II, it has long been assumed that the Nakajima and Kuwai families were arrested and interned. In 2007 the Memphis Urban-Art Commission erected a historical marker in Midtown that declares, “The two Japanese families, the Nakajimas and the Kawais who ran the bakery, were arrested and forced to leave Memphis.”
The story of the Kuni Wada Bakery helps us understand how Japanese immigrants were treated in Memphis and how World War II affected their lives. Perhaps more important, it reveals how complex and contradictory the study of history is, and how easily it can be distorted when assumption is mistaken for fact.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.