Following World War II, a portion of the Japanese American population of Seabrook Farms relocated to a variety of urban areas in the U.S., but many chose to remain in Cumberland County to continue working for the frozen-food giant of Upper Deerfield Township.
In her review of the 1995 audio documentary Seabrook at War for The Journal for Multimedia History, Meg Jacobs reports that the number of Japanese Americans in Seabrook after the war rose to nearly 3,000. They would soon be joined by workers displaced from Estonia, Poland and other European countries.
The relationship between Seabrook Farms and its Japanese American employees created a dynamic not that different from the film Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s examination of the one-sided truth of a single perspective. Jacobs discusses how Jack Seabrook, son of the business’s founder Charles F., “serves as a powerful voice” in the audio documentary, recalling “the constant internal family struggles and the negotiations between the Seabrooks and the Japanese Americans.”
Jacobs observes that “his reflections suggest the existence of a benevolent paternalism whereby the Seabrooks safeguarded their workers from any local harassment as ‘enemy aliens.’ ” The company did, in fact, place “favorable articles about Japanese Americans in local papers to calm the fears of residents about the arrival of a formerly incarcerated population,” according to the Densho Encyclopedia website.
Like Rashomon, however, different perspectives reveal other narratives. Jacobs reports that in the audio documentary, “the agricultural workers tell a different story. They recount a work routine of long hours, poor pay, and pitiful living conditions. And above all, they describe the complete disruption of their lives…In the many interviews, the parents who moved to Seabrook and did most of the labor convey their stories without bitterness; in contrast, their children express strong feelings of resentment. It is they who most sharply tell a tale of injustice and the denial of civil liberties.”
Yet, as Tom Deignan notes in a 2015 opinion piece for nj.com, “Indeed, despite the harsh memories of the camps and the demanding agricultural labor, many Seabrook employees liked the area enough to stay there and raise families in the postwar years.”
It is estimated that in the latter half of the 1940s, this area of Cumberland County had the largest concentration of Japanese Americans in the country. And their decision to stay was not only to raise families or remain employees of Seabrook Farms; they contributed to the development of the region as well. Deignan notes that “Men such as Vernon Ichisaka became leaders of citizen’s groups such as the Japanese American Citizen’s League. Off of Route 77 in Cumberland County, alongside streets with iconic historical names such as Hoover and MacArthur, there is also an Ichisaka Way.”
In her evaluation of Seabrook at War, Jacobs identifies three themes unfolding within Seabrook’s history: “The relocation experiences of Japanese Americans reflect only partially the tremendous growth of governmental authority during World War II. In addition, the internment and treatment of Issei and Nisei citizens also raise complex questions about race and racialized stereotyping. Finally, the experience at Seabrook provides a window into the history of agricultural labor relations and commercial, scientific farming.”
But perhaps it’s Jack Seabrook’s comments to the New York Times in 1994, one year prior to the audio documentary’s release, that are analogous to what might come closest to an objective account in Rashomon. “I suppose it’s not popular now to say, but at the time, Seabrook Farms was almost a feudal, patriarchal community run by our family,” he said. “We thought we were more benevolent than the company towns run by the coal and iron interests, but we had complete control just the same.”
Next Week: A Cultural Legacy