By SHARON YAMATO
We are now nearly six months into our travels throughout the state to find those once awful places the government wrongly termed “assembly centers” (instead of the more accurately named “detention camps”) hurriedly built to immediately house 92,000 Americans of Japanese descent only a few months after exclusion from the West Coast was ordered.
Photographer Stan Honda and I are continuing to put together a comprehensive website on the 16 often-forgotten sites for a project being funded by the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program and the California Civil Liberties Public Education Project.
With a nod to Frank and Joanne Iritani’s 1994 book “Ten Visits,” which gave valuable information about where the then-often-unknown ten concentration camp sites were located, we plan to show people how to find these even lesser-known temporary sites, offer some history of them, as well as acknowledge those who had a part in memorializing them. Eventually, we hope to include a compiled a list of every person who was held at each site.
So far, our journey has taken us through extreme climate changes — from mountaintop snow at Manzanar to pouring rain in Fresno and now into blazing and humid heat in Sacramento. While incarcerees were subjected to stifling summer temperatures in shoddy barracks and horse stalls, we get to take our late June and July journeys in temperature-controlled cars and stay in air-conditioned Hampton Inns.
Incidentally, most of these sites only operated in the summer months from May to October so we will now get a taste of the weather conditions that many complained about — especially those used to the cooler temperatures along the coast.
Just two months ago last May, we hit Pinedale, Salinas, Stockton, Turlock, and Merced in one long and productive car trip. It was fascinating traveling through this farm area known for its migrant workers but also filled with rich Japanese American history explained to us by those local leaders who know it best.
In Stockton, it was enlightening to learn from the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum’s executive director, Phillip Merlo, that Japanese American farmers were the ones who built a state-of-the-art building in 1941 to house the Future Farmers of America. Ironically, that same building was soon to become part of the assembly center that imprisoned them by becoming a medical facility that saw the birth of 300 babies.
Still standing today and being used as a storage building at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, the once makeshift hospital has been the subject of discussions between Merlo, Stockton JACL President Steve Sue, and the State of California to turn the large building into an exhibition space and community center to memorialize the assembly center on which it stands. It’s a huge undertaking but one that Merlo, a Stockton native who returned to his hometown after graduating from UC Berkeley, believes is that important.
Thanks to such dedicated individuals and organizations (of which there are many) that insisted these sites be memorialized, we’ve been fortunate to be guided on our journey back by community leaders, JACL members, and volunteers who continue to understand their value. Many would agree that lots of residents in their respective communities did not even know these places existed in their own backyards until committed individuals began the work to commemorate them.
Some of the sites — like Merced, Fresno, and most recently Tanforan — are lucky enough to have community supporters who spent years and years putting together elaborate and costly memorials that include sculptures, fountains, photographs, and above all the names of every person held in these temporary sites. To name a few of those dedicated individuals who managed to pull the local JA community together to help erect huge memorials, we were fortunate to get the help of Dale Ikeda in Fresno, Bob Taniguchi and Patti Kishi in Merced, and Doug Yamamoto, Steve Okamoto, and Robbin Kawabata in Tanforan, who have spent countless hours raising money, working with designers, securing locations, and getting the help of local officials to make sure the assembly centers are properly marked with huge displays.
In Puyallup, we are looking forward to what is being called the “Remembrance Gallery,” a huge undertaking partially funded by the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program to build an exhibit inside the Washington State Fairgrounds museum located underneath the grandstand that was part of the original site. With a projected completion date of May 2024, it looks to be one of the largest projects yet.
Sadly, there are still assembly center sites like Tulare, Sacramento and Salinas marked with only a small plaque or nothing at all. As I mentioned in my last column, a high school teacher in Tulare, MichaelPaul Mendoza, and his industrious students decided to change all that by raising money to erect a monument. Not only is it a tribute to those who were incarcerated there, but also to the young Latinx students who recognize that it’s a part of their own history, not to mention what it says about their possible future if left unmentioned.
By far the best part of our journey has been the connections we have forged with the incredibly hard-working people like Mendoza, Kishi, Taniguchi, and Yamamoto. Not only have they raised awareness, but they have done it while not receiving a single dime for themselves.
We’d also like to offer a special tribute to Bob Moriguchi, who sadly passed away this week. Last May, stricken with cancer, he agreed to be driven by his son and daughter all the way from Los Angeles to Merced to help commemorate the assembly center where he spent three months of his young life. A former JANM volunteer, Moriguchi made the 300-mile trip because he realized the importance of speaking out about what happened there.
It was most likely the final journey of a man whose life has been devoted to speaking out about his wartime experiences to make sure the indignity and injustice of it all is never forgotten.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.