expatriated women: gender, citizenship, and the internment

In a recent post about Japanese American internment as a precedent for Muslim registries, I mentioned expatriated women, women who lost their citizenship through marriage. It’s a subject that not many people know about and one that I’ve been researching the last several years as part of a book on race, denaturalization, and expatriation. Here’s one woman’s story, one of many that still need to be told.

While many people now learn about and are aware of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, too often that history is seen narrowly as a wartime racial injustice. Japanese Americans, however, were subject to racial discriminatory exclusions and policies for decades before the war. Those exclusions, moreover, also expressed patriarchal assumptions about women, marriage, and family and their implications for national allegiance and citizenship.

Yoshiko Tao was born January 1, 1913 in Watsonville, a farming community near the coast of California south of San Francisco, between Santa Cruz and Monterey. She was the daughter and eldest child of Sentaro Tao and Kazu Hamada, both Japanese immigrants. In 1924, she and her younger brothers, Katsumi (b. 1914), Shigeo (b. 1915), and Minoru (b. 1921) received U.S. passports, which allowed them to travel to Japan to visit their grandparents in Hiroshima and stay to attend school; they were, in the term used Japanese Americans who received education in Japan, kibei. In 1930, Yoshiko and Katsumi – who later also went by Jim – returned to the United States while their younger brothers remained, Shigeo returning later in 1934 and Minoru in 1938.

In 1931, Yoshiko married (George) Takeso Hirahara, a 26 year-old immigrant farm worker, who also lived in Watsonville. Although she was a native-born American, because of her marriage, Yoshiko lost her citizenship. The 1907 Expatriation Act had made it federal law that women who married non-citizens lost their U.S. citizenship – assuming that they would seek citizenship of their husbands’ home country. While the 1922 Cable Act (also known as the “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act”) reversed that policy, it retained one exception: women who married aliens ineligible for citizenship, which, in the same year, the Supreme Court declared Japanese were – and to which the Court added the following year all natives of what came to be called the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” Nevertheless, over the next decade, the Hirahara household grew. The couple had four children, three sons and a daughter. Yoshiko’s youngest brothers also lived with them after their return from Japan. In May 1940, however, George died, at the age of 35, leaving 28-year-old Yoshiko widowed with four young children.

Two years later, Yoshiko, her children, and her brothers and their families – Jim Katsumi and Shigeo had married – were forced to relocate as part of the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two. They were sent first to the Salinas Assembly Center, then to the Poston WRA camp in Arizona, where they remained until 1945. The government’s final accountability roster of evacuees at relocation centers listed the Hirahara and Tao families as family #12315, arriving June 29, 1942 and departing September 1945, returning to Watsonville, the Hiraharas on the 8th, Katsumi Tao’s family on the 15th and Shigeo and his wife on the 22nd – Minoru, who had left earlier in June for Utah, also later returned to Watsonville. While her brothers, their wives, and the children were listed as citizens, Yoshiko was listed as a widow and an alien with no indication that she was a native-born American.

After the war, Yoshiko married again, to Sam Muramoto in 1949, and was widowed again when he died in 1963. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act, for the first time in American history, removed all racial and marriage restrictions to naturalized citizenship. More than a decade later, in 1965, Yoshiko, using her first married name and listing her occupation as domestic work, filed a repatriation form with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to take an oath of allegiance to regain the American citizenship she had been born with and lost for thirty-four years.

Over the next decade into the mid- and late 1970s, Santa Cruz city directories listed her as Yoshiko Hirahara, working as a maid and as Takeso’s widow.

Yoshiko lived into her 89th year, passing away in October 2001. She, her brothers, and their families lived long enough to witness the United States apologize for the internment and receive reparations for their wartime experience. She and they lived long enough, into the turn of a new century and a new millenium, to hear calls for another internment, of Muslims, following 9/11. Yoshiko was married to George Hirahara for nine years, but outlived him by more than sixty. For almost half the span of her life after their marriage, she lived without the American citizenship that was supposed to be her birthright. But neither she nor other native-born women like her who lost their citizenship through marriage have, to my knowledge, ever received apologies or recompense for the years – and for her, decades – of their lost status.