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A New Jersey Town Celebrates Its Japanese Roots

Michele Kriegman
1994, 'A New Jersey Town Celebrates Its Japanese Roots', Yesterday Today in New Jersey, 9: 8-9.

Relocated from World War II detention camps Japanese Americans mark 50 years of life in Upper Deerfield Township

Does the following plot line seem familiar?
“…Industrialist saves thousands from internment camps during the Second World War by having them work in his factory.”

Although it may sound like the basis of the movie “Schindler’s List,” it also describes an event that took place a half century ago at Seabrook Farms Frozen Foods in New Jersey.

The story begins eleven weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Anti-Japanese sentiment gripped the West Coast, home to most Japanese Americans. Tensions came to a head on February 19, 1942 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing US citizens of Japanese descent, over one hundred thousand people in all, to abandon their homes and businesses and move to detention camps at ten locations throughout the South and Midwest.

Only after Japanese Americans had spent two years in these camps did the US government tacitly admit its mistake by allowing them to leave, but only to locations away from the West Coast. Charles Franklin Seabrook, owner of Seabrook Farms Frozen Foods, near Vineland in Upper Deerfield Township, agreed to guarantee the safety of displaced Japanese Americans. His company offered employment, housing and education. In return, Seabrook gained financial assistance from the US Government and access to a highly skilled and educated work force.

Ellen Nakamura was one of three Japanese Americans (Mrs. Nakamura cautioned that Americans of Japanese descent who resided at Seabrook preferred to be described as “Japanese Americans”, spelled without the hyphen) that formed the Relocation Planning Commission from Jerome Internment Camp in Arkansas, a committee formed to encourage Japanese Americans to accept employment at Seabrook. She paid her first visit to Seabrook in April 1944, at the age of 24. “People had been idling their time in the camps, but in New Jersey I could foresee them picking up the pieces of their broken lives,” she said.

Most residents did just that, reclaiming the enthusiasm they had felt as new immigrants in more innocent days before their detention in the government camps. The eyes of one former resident of  Seabrook still twinkle when she remembers her first impression of New Jersey. “You can see fields for miles and miles and I think, ‘This is America.’ All eight of my children got a public education there,” she said.

Another former Seabrook resident described the contrasts. “Thousands upon thousands of workers came through here on the minimum six-month contract, just trying to save enough money to go back to wherever they came from,” she said. “For those of us who stayed, it was a close-knit community. I remember my husband always planted more vegetables than we needed in our garden so he’d have enough to give our friends and neighbors.” One present-day Seabrook resident recalled that anti-Japanese incidents were rare.

At its peak in 1947, there were almost 3,000 Japanese Americans living in the Seabrook Village section of Upper Deerfield Township. Today several hundred remain, scattered about this part of New Jersey, including Bridgeton and Vineland.

Japanese Americans, although by far the largest ethnic group, were not the only people to find a safe haven there. Japanese Peruvians were relocated to Seabrook, along with North American ethnic Japanese. Refugees from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fleeing from the advancing armies of Stalin soon followed. Destitute migrant workers from Appalachia, the Deep South, Jamaica and Barbados were drawn by the promise of jobs at Seabrook. The public school and local Scout troops, while trying to assimilate the children of these diverse cultures, started a tradition in the 1940’s of multi-cultural fairs long before they began to be popularized in other American towns.

Today the mixing of East and West is still visible to the casual day tripper. You will discover that some tombstones in the Deerfield Presbyterian Church cemetery on Route 77 and at Overlook Cemetery in nearby Bridgeton are engraved with traditional Japanese family crests. On Northville Road there is what appears to be an old fashioned white clapboard church that on closer inspection turns out to be Seabrook Buddhist Temple, said to be the only Buddhist temple in the State. On the grounds there is a Japanese garden and a small gong to replace the ringing of a steeple bell.

Because of the war, Seabrook also came to represent a tragic meeting of East and West for some families. In more than one instance some sons volunteered for the much-decorated Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion in the European theater, while other kin fought on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army.

At the war’s end, many of Seabrook’s Japanese returned home to the West Coast to try to salvage their lives and livelihoods. In the years that followed, the company town of Seabrook had a taste of economic hard times. By the 1960’s the Seabrook family had sold the plant and it operations. The site passed through a number of corporate hands. In the late 1970’s, James M. Sebrook, grandson of the founder, reopened the business as Seabrook Brothers and Sons.

In 1989 early Seabrook resident Ellen Nakamura, in her capacity as President of the Seabrook chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, contacted John M. Seabrook with a proposal for a cultural and educational center to document and preserve the proud history of this southern New Jersey town. John Seabrook called on John Fuyuume, one of Mr. Seabrook’s top executives, to direct the effort.

A steering committee was formed and work to make the center a reality began in earnest, assisted by a combination of corporate, public and private funding. The committee has collected and catalogued over 2,000 vintage photographs of life at Seabrook, and has recorded oral histories of some of the people who lived there. With help from a grant from the New Jersey Committee for the Humanities, a video is being produced that tells the story of Seabrook.

Construction of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center began this July. The Center is housed in the Upper Deerfield Municipal Hall. Dedication of the center is scheduled for October, amidst celebrations marking the fiftieth year since the first Japanese Americans arrived from the detention camps. Over 200 former residents are expected from as far away as California and Peru. A “People’s Inaugural Panel” discussion of the history of the town is slated for Saturday, October 8th. A full schedule of events includes performances by the nationally acclaimed Minyo Dancers and Hoh Daiko Drummers at a banquet on Sunday, October 9. The 50th Anniversary Celebration at Seabrook and the Opening of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center is sure to provide many people with an opportunity to share personal memories of their days at Seabrook. For others, it may well afford a first look at a little-known part of our State’s history.

Michele Kriegman-Chin lives in Morristown.

Picture caption:

Fuji Sasaki, Ellen Nakamura and Harold Ouchida formed the Jerome Relocation Commission in Arkansas to encourage Japanese Americans in detention camps to accept employment at Seabrook 50 years ago. Photos courtesy of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center.

Seabrook 50th Anniversary Celebration:

Saturday and Sunday, October 8th and 9th (registration on the evening of October 7th)

Presented by the Seabrook Chapter of the Japanese American Cultural League and the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center. Scheduled events include the dedication of the museum, tours of the Seabrook complex, videos of the history of Seabrook, guest speakers (including John M. Seabrook), traditonal Japanese entertainment and a gala banquet.

A general registration fee of $50 includes a receptoin at the Ramada Inn in Vineland, the Peoples Inaugural and the Celebration Banquet, a souvenir booklet and transportation to/from the Ramada Inn. Several other options (including a golf tournament) and single events are available for those who may wish to attend the entire weekend.

For further information, contact Mr. Ray Ono, SECC, P.O.Box 5041, Seabrook, NJ 08302.

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