Going back to ‘Ground Zero’ called Topaz

BUS LEADER — Toru Saito, who led a Bay Area bus to the Topaz Pilgrimage, addresses the reunion. photo by Ayako Mie/Nichi Bei Weekly

This past August, Ken Yoshida went back to Topaz, Utah, where, in 1944, an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent picked him up.

“The FBI agent came inside our barrack because it was windy and dusty outside. But it was windy and dusty inside, too,” recalled Yoshida, who was, at that time, going to be taken to a Salt Lake City jail for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.

“The agent said ‘I don’t blame you for not going,’” said the 87-year-old Yoshida, who served six months in county lockup before being shipped down to Tucson, Ariz. for an 18-month stint in federal prison. “I think he understood what we had to go through.”

Yoshida remembers the FBI agent removed his handcuffs once they drove out of the camp.

On Sept. 18, more than 15 former prisoners of the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp gathered at the Berkeley Methodist United Church for a reunion. Twenty-six people in August took a five-day trip to Topaz, where most of the participants were locked up during the war just because of their Japanese ethnicity. Their memories and their lives that took shape after camp are different, but people go back to Topaz for the same reason: To remember what happened there.

The concentration camp in Topaz opened Sept. 11, 1942. Many barracks as well as the schools were not completed when it opened. Nikkei from the San Francisco area were first forcibly relocated to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a former race track, and later taken to Delta, Utah by train. Once there, some had to finish building their own barracks and other structures at the site.

The camp housed about 8,000 individuals of Japanese descent.

Christine Umeda remembered her fourth birthday at Tanforan. She said she was happy when her family and friends gave her birthday wishes, until she fell ill with pneumonia. She was transferred to a hospital nearby, and none of her family members were allowed to accompany her.

“All I remember is the complete darkness when the door of the truck was closed. The truck had no windows and I started screaming,” said the 72-year-old Sacramento resident, who participated in the tour with her husband Stan Umeda.

At the same time, Umeda remembered the camp as a place where people took great care of her and where she had fun. “I’ve been very hesitant to tell my personal experiences because I didn’t want to give people a wrong impression about the camp,” she said.

For May Saito Takashima, her life after the camp as a middle school student in Berkeley was filled with blatant discrimination.

“In the cooking class, the teacher kept telling me to pick up the lid. I didn’t know what ‘lid’ meant. Hakujin [Caucasian] girls never helped me,” said the 78-year-old Takashima. She said she never learned the word because in camp, they all ate in the mess hall, and didn’t ever see any pots and pans. “I go back to Topaz because I feel very complete. I’ve always felt that part of my life was left behind there.”

This is the fifth time that Toru Saito, Takashima’s younger brother, organized the Topaz pilgrimage since 2000. Saito was four years old when he was put in camp.

“You go back to ‘ground zero,’ where you were injured. It’s like a life-long therapy,” said the 72-year-old Saito, who was born in San Francisco’s Japantown.

As with Umeda, the camp was a great place for an adventurous child like Saito. He remembered that he climbed up the guard tower and had snowball fights.

“I have lots of good memories about the camp. The nightmare started when I got out of the camp,” recalled Saito, who has been living in Berkeley since his family came back from the camp. Saito remembers once being called “Jap” by hakujin students, and so he sought help from his teacher, who was Caucasian. “I was expecting the teacher would admonish the hakujin kids, but instead she said, ‘But, aren’t you Jap?’”

Although Saito, a retired mental health care worker, has a long history of being discriminated against, he welcomes all participants regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Anna Chepourkova saw an ad about the tour at the Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley and called Saito.

“I was just moved. I wanted to spend time with people who survived such challenges,” said Chepourkova, whose parents were immigrants from Ukraine. Chepourkova accidentally experienced the heat the Nikkei inmates endured. The air conditioning of the bus they were on was broken when the temperature outside exceeded 100 degrees, a similar condition those living in the barracks decades ago once suffered.

“I was very surprised that everybody laughed so much. They always found something to laugh at,” said the 63-year-old artist, who said she would create some artwork based on the experience she had from the tour.

For Akiko Takashima, May Takashima’s granddaughter, this was the first time visiting an incarceration camp.

“I read a lot of things written about my uncle [Toru Saito] and saw documentaries about the camp. Visiting the camp is different from reading about it,” said the 29-year-old Takashima. “When I found where my family’s front porch was, it made me misty. I was imagining how my 103-year-old great-grandma could raise their children there,” said the fourth-generation Japanese American.

Takashima, the daughter of a French mother and a Japanese American father, grew up in non-Asian communities. She said it took a while to take pride in her ethnicity. “I was always embarrassed whenever people mispronounced my name,” said Takashima, who currently lives with her grandmother, May Takashima, in Oakland.

Takashima said taking a trip made her realize who she is and helped her feel stronger about her identity.

“My great-grandma is very tightlipped about what happened. Whenever people ask her about the experience, she would say to me, ‘Why are they asking me all these personal questions?’ — because it is something that [former inmates] want to forget about,” said Takashima. “I think it’s our duty to help preserve the history,” she said.

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