Jiro Onuma (center)
Block 3 Mess Hall workers, Topaz concentration camp, Utah, 1943
Jiro Onuma (right) and Ronald, 1940s
Three men by guard tower, Tule Lake concentration camp, 1940s
Jiro Onuma: A LGBT Account on Japanese Internment Camp
Jiro Onuma (1904-90) was a gay Japanese American born on February 2, 1904, in Kanegasaki, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Onuma was 19 years old when he and his father boarded the Shinyo Maru steamship in Yokohama headed for San Francisco in 1923. His father, Kogoro Onuma, was already working for a laundry in Coalinga, California, and he returned to Japan to accompany his son’s journey. Within six months of Jiro Onuma’s arrival, the possibility that the rest of his family might move to California was denied by the passage of US federal law prohibiting Japanese immigration.
By 1932, Onuma was working in the present-day Tenderloin district of San Francisco as a laundry machine presser for Mercury Laundry and Cleaners, where he and a dozen other Nikkei laundrymen also rented rooms. During the prewar era, Onuma took numerous photographs with his Japanese American male friends and lovers dressed up for professional portraits at the Moriyama Studio in Japantown or posed casually together in and around San Francisco.
Onuma was an avid collector of homoerotic male physical culture ephemera and magazines. He owned a postcard displaying a matador with a bronze erect penis that could be detached and used as a necktie clip.
In 1942, Onuma spent five months confined in San Bruno, California, at the Tanforan Assembly Center, where U.S. authorities imprisoned nearly 8,000 Japanese Americans inside a racetrack complex hastily converted to house inmates in whitewashed horse stables, converted grandstands, and quickly constructed barracks in the infield area. According to Onuma’s WRA case file, Tanforan authorities did not even issue Onuma a cot and straw tick mattress to sleep on until twenty-five days after his arrival.
On September 11, 1942, the federal government transported Onuma to Topaz concentration camp in central Utah. As a 38-year old single bachelor, Onuma could have been housed in the bachelor’s quarters. However, he was placed in Block 3, Barrack 5, Unit B, with Topaz baseball star Masao Akagaki and his mother Fuku Nishi.
Onuma’s collection contains three photographs taken while he was imprisoned at Topaz. The first is a group portrait showing Onuma and his workmates from the Block #3 Mess Hall. The second photograph shows Onuma and his boyfriend Ronald (last name unknown). It is quite possible that his portrait was taken at the cooperatively run Topaz Photo Studio in the summer of 1943, shortly before Ronald and their Kibei friend Sakae Sasaki were sent to Tule Lake, the high security concentration camp redesignated as a “segregation center” for “disloyal” inmates.
In spring 1943, pro-administration forces used fear tactics and shame to urge inmates to change negative responses to questions 27 and 28 of the “loyalty questionnaire.“ Onuma initially answered “no” to both questions, but four weeks later he filed to change his answer to question 28, thereby enabling him to remain at Topaz until his release on May 19, 1944. Although Onuma did not go to Tule Lake with his friends and lover, he did receive a photograph of Ronald, Sasaki, and another man at Tule Lake showing barbed wire and a guard tower in the distance. Onuma’s wartime pictures might be the only known photographs of adult gay Japanese in the American concentration camps.
On June 27, 1990, at age 86, Onuma died alone in his spare studio apartment in a building known as the Lone Star Hotel. Edward Mycue found his body many days after his death. Within hours of this discovery, Onuma’s apartment was robbed and stripped of its valuables while his body was still in the room. In his last will and testament, Onuma left half of his modest estate to Peter Mycue and half to Kimochi, a nonprofit caregiving organization primarily serving Japanese American seniors. In 2000, Edward Mycue and his partner Richard Steger gifted Onuma’s materials to the GLBT Historical Society. Although Jiro Onuma was not a prominent figure in LGBT or Japanese American communities during his lifetime, the dual legacies that he honors in his last will and testament appear remarkable today amidst the scarcity of queer Japanese American wartime images, stories, and memories.
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