A rendering of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial. A bronze statue honors the 8,000 Japanese Americans that were incarcerated there during World War II.


SAN BRUNO – A groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction of a memorial plaza that includes a bronze statue to honor the 8,000 Bay Area residents of Japanese ancestry that were unjustly imprisoned at Tanforan Assembly Center, just south of San Francisco, during World War II was held on Feb. 11.

Spearheading the creation of the memorial is the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee (TACMC). Their efforts to document and pay homage to those affected began ten years ago with the installation of a photography exhibit featuring the work of Dorothea Lange and Paul Kitagaki, Jr.

Located inside the San Bruno BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station, the historic site of the detention center, the exhibit showcases Lange’s historical photos of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans on the West Coast alongside Kitagaki’s contemporary images that include some of Lange’s original subjects from 1942.

The bronze statue brings to life one of Lange’s photographs of the young Mochida sisters — Hiroko, 3, and Miyuki, 6 — waiting for a bus to Tanforan with their family. Hiroko is still alive and plans to travel from the Pacific Northwest to attend the ribbon-cutting.

The statue has already been cast and is being stored in a warehouse at the Shops at Tanforan.

A maquette of the statue of the Mochida sisters that will be part of the memorial.

Blach Construction is preparing the site, installing the statue and constructing elements for the plaza, including benches, seat walls and a horse stall to represent the accommodations of those detained at Tanforan, which was a racetrack at the time.

Designed by Sandra Shaw, the statue and memorial plaza are estimated to be completed this spring. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for May 23.

Speakers at the groundbreaking included:

• Steve Okamoto, vice chairman, Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee

• Rep. Jackie Speier, 14th Congressional District

• Supervisor Dave Pine, San Mateo Board of County Supervisors, District 1

• Director Robert Raburn, BART Board, District 4

• San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina

“Today we celebrated the groundbreaking for the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial at the San Bruno BART station,” Speier said after the ceremony. “Once it is done, it will remind everyone that at a dark moment in history, bigotry prevailed, the constitution was scrapped, and America lost its way for several years thereafter.

“We should certainly say ‘never again’ but we should also admit that it could happen again. Again and again, unless memorials like this are built and people learn from these places of grief and reflection how it is possible to tame the flames of bigotry so that justice can prevail.”

Local dignitaries participated in the groundbreaking ceremony.

Officially designated as an “assembly center,” Tanforan opened on April 28, 1942, and until Oct. 13,1942 housed 8,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, most of them U.S. citizens, evicted from their Bay Area homes and imprisoned during World War II. Tanforan served as a temporary detention center until they were shipped to more permanent concentration camps, the majority being sent to Topaz in Utah. This was done without charges being filed and without the due process guaranteed under the Constitution.

Chaired by Doug Yamamoto, the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee is composed of former detainees from Tanforan, as well as Japanese American activists and others from the Bay Area. TACMC has been working together since 2012 to plan for the memorial by raising approximately $1.2 million for the creation of a historic and cultural icon for the City of San Bruno.

The memorial will educate the public as to what happened to the 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry and remind people that these atrocities can never happen again.

Former Detainee

Steve Okamoto’s family has first-hand knowledge of Tanforan. He was five weeks old when he arrived at the racetrack on April 30, 1942 with his parents, Takeo and Kay, and older sister, Barbara, and had to live in a horse stall.

About 97 percent of the detainees at Tanforan ended up at Topaz, but the Okamoto family relocated to Boulder, Colo., where Takeo got a job teaching Japanese to members of Naval Intelligence. Steve’s brother Allen was born there in 1943.

Allen later took over the family real estate business in San Francisco Japantown. Steve became a city councilmember in Foster City. Barbara Marumoto became a member of the Hawaii State House of Representatives.

Steve Okamoto has been involved in the Tanforan project since 2012. While the Lange-Kitagaki photographic display was an important step, he saw “the need to have something more descriptive of what happened at Tanforan.” BART provided a little piece of property outside its San Bruno station.

Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee members Steve Okamoto (left) and Doug Yamamoto (right) with Rep. Jackie Speier.

“Some photos will stay; others will not be coming over to the memorial because it’s outdoors,” Okamoto said.

In addition to former Tanforan detainees already associated with the project, outreach is being done to invite detainees in other parts of the country to help unveil the statue.

The Tanforan mall was recently sold to Alexandria Real Estate Equities and will be transformed into residential, office, commercial, and retail space. “The bulk of it will be life science buildings, biotech — that’s what Alexandria specializes in,” Okamoto said.

He added, “We’re fortunate that our memorial wll not be affected by the sale” because it is on BART property.

Okamoto is still in the midst of fundraising. If the goal of $1.5 million is not reached, he said, “we may have to eliminate a few of the things that we want.”

Donors who contribute $25,000 or more will receive a bronze miniature of the statue.

To learn more and to make a donation, visit https://www.tanforanmemorial.org.

About Blach Construction

For more than 50 years, Blach Construction has been enhancing communities, building structures of enduring quality and value throughout California. Its experience encompasses a broad cross-section of education, housing, institutional, mixed-use and workplace building types. Iconic projects range from transit-oriented developments to prominent education structures, as well as notable technology, healthcare/life sciences, professional services and civic/community facilities.

“As an innovative builder, we are dedicated to incorporating advanced construction techniques and leveraging our prefabrication, self-perform and virtual design and construction expertise to deliver greater efficiencies to projects and increased value to our clients,” the company said in a statement. “We consistently win awards across the construction industry and general business community for our projects, innovation, employee engagement and community service.

“Repeatedly recognized as a ‘Best Place to Work’ in the Bay Area (in the midsize category) by the Silicon Valley Business Journal/San Francisco Business Times, Blach has appeared on the list for 13 years running. Additionally, we often are ranked as a ‘Top Contractor in California’ by Engineering News-Record and continually receive Construction Safety Excellence Awards from the AGC of California for our commitment to worker wellness.”

For more information, go to: http://blach.com

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