By KOJI LAU-OZAWA
After about a 3-and-a-half-hour drive, on Thursday, June 23, I pulled into the Tulare County Fairgrounds on a cloudless afternoon. I had traveled from San Francisco to learn more about the creation of a memorial inside of the fairgrounds commemorating its usage as a temporary detention facility for Japanese Americans during WWII.
It was about 100°F in the sun, and a small crowd was congregated inside of the fairground’s offices. The Tulare Fair CEO, Dena Rizzardo, addressing former incarcerees, descendants, and local residents and students, expressed her support for the creation of a memorial, and her admiration for the need to preserve an important history. After this meeting, the group walked to the main entrance to see where the proposed memorial would be and discuss its possibilities.
In the months after Executive Order 9066 was signed, creating an exclusion zone along the West Coast of the United States, 15 temporary detention camps, euphemistically known as “assembly centers,” were erected in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington. In California, most of these camps were hastily transformed fairgrounds or racetracks. Consequently, existing buildings such as stables were converted into apartments and additional barracks were quickly built to supplement.
Most incarcerees who were sent to these camps were forced to stay for several months while the ten larger incarceration camps were being constructed.
The fairgrounds we visited, which in 1942 served both Tulare and Kings counties, was used as one such temporary detention camp. Situated in the town of Tulare, about 45 miles south of Fresno and 70 miles north of Bakersfield along present-day Highway 99, the camp was one of 12 in California along with Marysville, Sacramento, Tanforan, Salinas, Stockton, Turlock, Merced, Fresno, Pinedale, Pomona, and Santa Anita.
The fourth-largest temporary detention camp in California, Tulare had a peak population of 4,978 people, though a total of 5,061 Japanese Americans were forcibly detained there during its operation from April to September of 1942. Most came from areas along the California coast, including Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties as well as Torrance, Gardena, Los Angeles, and Pasadena in LA. County. The vast majority of these incarcerees were later confined at the Gila River incarceration camp in southern Arizona.
My own family was sent to Tulare, including my grandparents and aunts who lived in Pasadena before the war. When speaking with one of my aunties about it recently, she remembered the food was horrible at Tulare and being served oatmeal with bugs in it.
My grandmother, Shigeko Elizabeth Ozawa, sketched scenes of the camp, many of which were featured in “The Evacuation Diary Hatsuye Egami,” published in 1995. Few if any photographs of Tulare’s operation as a detention camp exist, apart from an aerial shot taken from a considerable distance. As such these sketches remain some of these few representations of the camp’s operation in wide circulation. When I walked through the fairgrounds this June, I tried to imagine this version of the world through my grandmother’s eyes.
As of today, Tulare is the only detention camp in California that has no memorial or plaque indicating its use as a detention facility during the war. It was this lack of commemoration that spurred Michaelpaul Mendoza a teacher at Mission Oak High School in Tulare. Mendoza taught a cultural history class in 2016, and the students in his class were so moved by learning that there was a detention camp in their own town that they advocated for building a memorial. While those initial plans stalled, they laid the foundation for a growing movement.
Mendoza’s cultural history class was offered again this past academic year and the students enthusiastically picked up the plans to build a memorial. In March of 2022, the students met with Tulare County Fair CEO Rizzardo and won her full support of a plan to place a memorial at the fairgrounds. In April, they received unanimous approval from the Tulare Fair Board.
On the evening of the 23rd, I participated in a panel discussion with four other Japanese Americans, hosted by the Tulare Historical Museum. Over 100 people were packed into the museum’s Heritage Art Gallery Hall, and though extra seats were brought in, many attendees had to stand.
The four other panelists were former incarcerees: Nancy Hanada Bellin (confined at Tulare and Poston), Alice Nanamura (confined at Fresno and Jerome), George Nobori (confined at Fresno and Jerome), and Madeline Tom (confined at Tanforan and Topaz). I participated as a descendant of Tulare and Gila River incarcerees and a researcher of Japanese American archaeology and history.
After a short presentation by the students, the two-hour event centered around a Q&A with the panel. Panelists recalled their time going in camp, the prejudices they faced before and after the war, and the legacies of incarceration. Though the hardships of camp were discussed, many of the panelists remained optimistic about the future, expressing their joy in seeing such an open and curious crowd and their admiration of the students who were driving the project forward without personal connections to the history of Japanese American incarceration.
At the event’s end, many audience members and panelists lingered in the museum, chatting with one another and discussing the evening’s event. Though most people in attendance seemed to be from Tulare and surrounding towns, some Japanese Americans came from further afield, including Fresno and L.A.
The memorial project is still in its early stages of design and planning. Currently, the class is in discussions with a local artist and sculptor, Sam Peña, whose work includes “The Extra Mile — Points of Light Volunteer Pathway” in Washington, D.C., consisting of 70 bronze medallions highlighting the lives of historical figures such as Cesar Chavez, Hellen Keller, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The initial design concept consists of a small square positioned next to the fairgrounds main entrance featuring a sculpture or relief of Japanese Americans surrounded by a designed landscape of ornamental rocks and trees and bordered by informational plaques detailing the history of the incarceration. However, Mendoza stressed that these plans are still in their early stages and was eager to solicit feedback from community members.
The placement of a memorial at Tulare Fairgrounds is long overdue. While traveling through the Central Valley, several people I spoke to had little to no knowledge of Japanese American incarceration or of the structures of removal and confinement that remained near to them. The invisibility of such moments of history, hidden in plain sight, silences the failures of our nation’s past while celebrating only its triumphs.
At a time when schools across the country steer away from teaching the marginalization and exclusion of people of color and when anti-Asian violence is on the rise, the work of Mendoza and the Mission Oak High School students to call attention to Japanese American incarceration is even more impressive and needed. Perhaps in doing so, they can help to not only disseminate knowledge of this history, but move people towards empathy and an understanding that exclusion and confinement are never the answer to the geopolitics of the world.
For those interested in learning more about this project, Mendoza can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org; the project can also be followed on social media @CulturalHistoryProject.
Koji Lau-Ozawa is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University researching the archaeology and history of Japanese diaspora. Most recently he has focused on the Gila River incarceration camp. Questions or comments can be sent to email@example.com.