MERCED, Calif. The city of Merced has never really been a destination point of any sort. Located off of Highway 99 in California’s Central Valley, it’s a gateway to one of California’s most popular destinations, Yosemite National Park. Last year, it was put on the map by one famous visitor, First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke at the commencement of the first class of the burgeoning University of California, Merced.
On Feb. 20, a group of local Japanese Americans helped to create somewhat of a destination point, at least for other Japanese Americans a place where the U.S. government forced them to relocate to during World War II because their face looked like the enemy.
Under cloudy skies that eventually would weep as if honoring the solemn remembrance, a large memorial was installed at the Merced County Fairgrounds to both honor the 4,669 persons of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly uprooted from their homes and herded into the temporary Merced Assembly Center, as well as to provide a lesson so that such infringement of civil liberties would never happen again.
The inmates at the camp, which included 1,000 school-aged children, “had their lives turned upside down,” said Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey at the dedication ceremony.
The movement to build a lasting memorial occurred with relative speed, a process that took only two years. It was initiated by a call from Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), who befriended Japanese Americans as a youth in the nearby city of Atwater.
“One day, Cardoza’s office called and said ‘You know, you should really do a memorial for the Merced Assembly Center,” said Bob Taniguchi, co-chair of the Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee. “He planted the seed, and we ran with it.”
In the 1990s, both Cardoza and Congressman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) were freshmen in the California state Assembly. When he found out that Cardoza represented Merced, Honda took the opportunity to inform him about the Merced Assembly Center, where he was incarcerated as a youth along with his parents.
“I didn’t know about the fairgrounds,” Cardoza disclosed to the gathering. “I didn’t know what happened here.”
Honda told him about a plaque signifying the former assembly center, but the then-assemblyman couldn’t find it.
“That was not right,” said Cardoza, who noted it was important “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
According to community leader Sherman Kishi, that small plaque was placed at the far end of the parking lot amid controversy. It was subsequently moved closer to the entrance, but still rather difficult to find.
Movement to Remember
In Congress, Honda and fellow Congressman Bill Thomas would author a bill, HR 1492, “to provide for the preservation of the historic confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.”
That bill, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2006, would establish a granting mechanism for such confinement sites.
The Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee would apply for a $25,000 National Park Service Confinement Site Grant, which put the wheels in motion.
The project started in earnest in March of 2008. And, as the money grew, so did the scope of the project.
The Merced County Fairgrounds board gave the memorial 600 square feet in a prominent location, not far from the main entrance, and the budget grew to $250,000. A wall of names was added, forever memorializing in bronze all the former inmates the committee could find.
Perhaps the most prominent resident of the former assembly center, Honda was just about a year old when he, his father Giichi and mother Fusako were uprooted from their home in Walnut Grove, Calif., to the Merced County Fairgrounds.
“You see all those folks that are old [now] … You realize all the interrupted dreams,” Honda told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Some people had something to come back to, others had nothing.”
The Merced Assembly Center consisted of some 250 buildings that took 11 days to complete. It was the temporary home to a portion of some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent forcibly removed from the West Coast, from May through September of 1942.
The inmates came from areas such as Merced County, as well as the counties of Stanislaus, Humboldt, Sacramento, Napa and Yolo.
Those incarcerated at the Merced Assembly Center, including Honda, were shipped to the Granada concentration camp in Colorado, which is also referred to as Amache.
“A lot of things happened in camp,” Honda said. “People were not allowed to volunteer from camp, and then they were drafted. There were those who resisted. They were all right.”
Etched in Bronze
Creating the sculpture was an educational process in itself.
Canada native Dale Smith, a Berkeley, Calif.-based sculptor, was summoned last year to create the artistic element of the memorial, under the theme of “only what you can carry.”
The longtime former resident of Alberta, Canada, however, didn’t really know anything about the incarceration experience in either the United States or Canada, where thousands of Japanese Canadians were similarly uprooted from their homes in the British Columbia province.
“It was a real education for me,” said Smith, who started the process about a year ago. “I found a book and read it.”
Using a girl whose grandmother was a former inmate at the Merced Assembly Center herself as the model, he set out to capture what he defined as a “solemn experience.”
The bronze statue features a small, forlorn-looking Japanese American girl sitting on a pile of suitcases, with family identification tags hanging from the handles of the suitcases, as well as from the little girl.
“The whole idea was that everything was labeled, even the people,” said Smith. “They were reduced to a number.”
Wall of Names
While the sculpture is the artistic centerpiece, the most popular feature of the memorial for former inmates and their families is the wall of names.
Upon the unveiling of the memorial, families gravitated toward the wall to take photos and make rubbings of their loved ones’ names using pencils and paper.
“I enjoyed being able to share this moment with my family, especially with my ojiichan (grandfather),” said 21-year-old Cheryl Taguma of Mountain View (the author’s niece), who attended the memorial dedication with 10 other family members throughout the state, spanning three generations. “I went to various ceremonies held for my ojiichan because of his internment camp experiences while I was younger, but this was the first one I have been to where I am mature enough to comprehensively understand its meaning.”
Like peeling off layers of history, the Santa Clara University senior and her three cousins Maki Kam, 10, of Union City and Mayumi and Kota Irie of Torrance, Southern California, 11 and 10, respectively took turns transferring their relatives’ names onto paper.
“As we rubbed the names of our relatives onto origami paper, I realized the scope of how the Japanese American incarceration affected so many of my family nine people total,” she recalled. “But we were not the only family with many names on the wall. There were hundreds more.”
Most of the 4,669 names of the Merced Assembly Center detainees are forever etched into several large bronze plaques, each weighing about 500 pounds.
“It was tough getting those names,” said Taniguchi. “We had to do a little bit of digging.”
If found, other names will be put on the Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee Website.
Telling the Story
A part of the project yet to be completed is a series of five story boards, which will give overviews of the Japanese American experience by focusing on the Issei pioneers, life in camp, Nisei soldiers, resettlement and the lessons to be learned with parallels to 9/11.
Those story boards are slated to be installed in about a month, Taniguchi said.
Later, the names of the 10 permanent concentration camps will be emblazoned on the five benches surrounding the memorial.
Also unfinished is a documentary on the memorial, featuring interviews by former Merced Assembly Center inmates, with a targeted completion in June.
“We are so intent about hearing the stories that our parents didn’t tell us,” said Thais Kishi, 70, who emceed the Day of Remembrance banquet following the memorial dedication. “We need to record this portion of our history.”
“Time allows us to look at things that hurt … in a better view,” Honda told the 900 in attendance at the banquet. “It’s important for us to tell these stories, to our relatives, to our colleagues.”
Sansei John Tateishi was only three years old when he and his family were incarcerated in the Manzanar concentration camp.
“When we left Manzanar, what my father said to us was ‘remember what this was,” said Tateishi, who would go on to lead the Japanese American Citizens League’s redress efforts in the 1980s.
However, there was a lingering shame over the camp experience for many.
“When some of our white friends asked us ‘where did you go’ we always turned away,” added Tateishi, the keynote speaker at the banquet. “The Nisei generation lived with the guilt and shame of the internment,” and parents felt the guilt of not being able to protect their children.
“Time has a way of healing all those wounds, but those memories never really go away,” said Tateishi.
According to Taniguchi, many in the local area have not even heard of the Merced Assembly Center. And being raised in the small coal-mining town of Price, Utah, he didn’t know much about that Japanese American experience himself until he relocated to Merced 20 years ago.
The lack of knowledge by the general public makes the project even more important, he indicated.
“It’s a lesson out to future generations that we’ve got to be vigilant about upholding our constitutional rights,” said Taniguchi, a 65-year-old Sansei who was never put into a concentration camp because of his family’s voluntary relocation to Utah.
“I want visitors to think a little bit about it to make people aware that this happened,” said Taniguchi, a math professor at Merced College.
Taniguchi hopes the memorial will serve a dual purpose, of honoring the past while educating the future.
“The 4,669 names etched in history will speak volumes to future generations,” said Jeannette Ishii, a Merced Assembly Center Commemorative Committee member who emceed the dedication.