Thousand make 'Journey' back to TanforanBy Ben Hamamoto
The shopping center at Tanforan on the San Francisco Peninsula does not look much different from any number of suburban malls today. A massive concrete parking lot surrounds the building full of such staples as Old Navy, Barnes & Noble, Nine West, and JCPenney. Families walk back to their SUVs clutching bags bearing the names of those shops, and maybe even an Orange Julius or Starbucks cup.
At 10 o'clock on the cold, overcast morning on June 2, however, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered to remember a very different facility that once existed on the location.
Sixty-five years ago, the racetracks that once stood on the site were converted into a detention center for 8,000 persons of Japanese ancestry - most of whom were American citizens - who were forcibly removed from their homes by the United States government.
Bay Area Japanese American communities were ordered to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., one of 15 such centers created on the West Coast to temporarily house the detainees until more permanent facilities could be built.
The center, located 12 miles south of San Francisco, was occupied from April 28 to October 13, 1942.
The June 2 program, "Journey to Tanforan," was organized by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California to "commemorate, educate, remember and pay tribute to the lives that were impacted 65 years ago at the Tanforan Assembly Center."
"Although, this place looks very different than it did back then," said Paul Osaki, executive director of the JCCCNC, "the sky remains the same, the mountains still sit in the background and if we really listen, the wind still echoes with the voices of almost eight thousand men, women and children whose lives were forever changed."
The "Journey" began with a re-enactment of the internees' arrival at Tanforan Assembly Center. A shakuhachi flute prelude performed by Master Masayuki Koga and Tim Hamano opened the event and the Golden Gate Nisei Memorial VFW Post #9879 presented colors.
Members of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, a nonprofit theatre company devoted to Nikkei seniors, arrived on a bus dressed in period clothing holding only what they could carry - in some cases a single baby - recreating the arrival of the incarcerated Nikkei.
The living conditions were meant for horses and not human beings and the many families were forced to live in stalls that contained the remnants and lingering odor of the animals. The detention center was right on the busy El Camino Real so detainees saw reminders of lost freedom in the cars that zipped by.
Still, life went on even under such dire circumstances. A constitution was drafted and then ratified by the prisoners, and a newspaper and schools were started to create a sense of "normalcy."
Life began and ended at the site. Some 50 babies were born into incarceration at Tanforan, and there were 24 deaths at the assembly center as well.
Mistress of Ceremony Jan Yanehiro introduced guest speakers, which included California state Assemblymember Gene Mullin (D-San Mateo), San Bruno Mayor Larry Franzella and Nisei Charles Masaru Sumimoto, who was 15 when he was forced from his Oakland home.
Sumimoto gave a lighthearted account of his time in Tanforan. He told anecdotes about the friends he made, creative use of a basketball hoop to simulate fishing and his father's bouts of alcohol withdrawal.
Featured speaker Sansei Patrick Hayashi, former associate president of the University of California system, addressed the Issei and Nisei incarcerated at Tanforan, both those present at the event and not.
"When the evacuation order came, you were allowed to take only what you could carry," Hayashi said. "You had only a few days to decide and, in the end, understood that all you could really carry was us."
Hayashi praised the courage of his parents and grandparents, for enduring the hardships of camp life.
The professor's mother told him stories about her experiences. One in particular, took place at the Topaz concentration camp in Central Utah, where Hayashi was born.
A friend of his mother, an old, deaf man named James Hatsuki Wakasa, had adopted a stray dog who he would take for a long walk around the perimeter of the camp every afternoon. One day his dog got caught on the barbed wire fence and Wakasa went to untangle him. The MP in the guard tower, who presence ostensibly was to protect the prisoners, ordered him back from the fence. But, because Wakasa was deaf he continued to help his little dog.
The MP shot and killed him.
"I didn't like to hear these stories," Hayashi said. Because the stories were painful and confusing, he blocked them out for the most part, not giving camp much thought until years later when he was a teacher at UC Berkeley. He was introduced to the book "No-No Boy" by John Okada.
The title refers to those dubbed "no-no boys," Japanese Americans who when asked on the leave clearance application form administered to the incarcerated Japanese Americans, answered "no" to the questions, "are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?" and "will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America... and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor...?"
Many of those who answered the confusing questions in the negative or qualified their answers were segregated and faced ostracism from their own community.
Hayashi was touched by the story and gave a copy of the book to his father as a Christmas gift, only to find out that his father was, himself, a "no-no boy," having answered the questionnaire, "No I will not fight for the U.S. unless our civil rights are restored."
The camp experience would continue to force its way back into Hayashi's consciousness in the coming years.
At a San Jose exhibit of art related to the camps, Hayashi encountered a painting by Chiura Obata entitled, "Hatsuki Wakasa shot by MP - Topaz, April 11. 1943." He began to weep on the spot, as did several others viewing the piece that depicts exactly what is implied by the title.
Hayashi would go on to discover later that year, while making funeral arrangements shortly after the death of his father, that his uncle Walter was a "no-no boy" as well. The two brothers had not told each other, Henry having kept it a secret from Walter until his death.
While he initially thought of it as a testament to the lack of communication in his family, Hayashi later came to realize the secrets were kept from each other so as not to burden the other with worry.
"Their silence was not a sign of acquiescence and acceptance," Hayashi reflects. "Their silence came from a place of goodness, a place that was honorable, that was courageous.
"Today, as we reflect on what happened to ourselves as individuals and our families," Hayashi continued, "We start to understand what we have experienced together as the Japanese American community... then we begin to understand what we share with all other people."
Janice Mirikitani, former poet laureate of San Francisco, spoke at the event and recited a poem as well.
To close the event, former internees and their descendants lined up to toll a bell to remember the occasion and pay tribute to the incarcerated that have since passed away.
Commemorative Garden, Exhibit
A 16-by-36 foot plot of land near the front of the shopping center has been dedicated by Breevast U.S., owners of The Shops at Tanforan, as the location for a Japanese garden to remember and reflect upon the Tanforan incarceration experience.
This special garden will be designed by renowned landscape artists Isao Ogura and Shigeru Namba, creators of the San Francisco State University Garden of Remembrance, and funded by donations from the Japanese American community.
An exhibit on the Tanforan Assembly Center, produced by the National Japanese American Historical Society for the JCCCNC, is currently on display at the entrance of The Shops at Tanforan.
Copyright ©2007 Nichi Bei Times. Published 06/07/2007.