Tanforan memorial proposed

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WARTIME DETENTION SITE MEMORIAL — Artist rendering of the proposed Tanforan Assembly Center Plaza, adjacent to the BART station in San Bruno, Calif. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno was converted into the Tanforan Assembly Center in April 1942. At the height of what the government ultimately concluded as “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” some 8,000 people, most of them American citizens, were held there before being sent to the more permanent concentration camps, which collectively incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II.

A newly proposed memorial aims to cement the site’s historic role right outside the gates of the San Bruno Bay Area Rapid Transit Station.

A reception by the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee held Oct. 31 at the BART station unveiled the proposed memorial design and kicked off fundraising for its construction. Emceed by Wendy Hanamura, director of partnerships at The Internet Archive, the program featured San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane, a keynote speech from Rep. Jackie Speier and a reading by poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi. Also present among the attendees were elected members of local government and former inmates, including 101-year-old Chiyoko Fukumoto of San Mateo, Calif.

The memorial first grew out of an exhibit currently installed at the station. Richard Oba and Doug Yamamoto approached the BART board of directors in April of 2012 to propose an exhibit of photographs featuring historic images captured by the late Dorothea Lange alongside present-day photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr.’s photos. Yamamoto said the exhibit, initially slated to be on view for a month, was well-received and remains on display to this day.

“First thing was the photo exhibit,” Yamamoto said. “It really started picking up steam when we got the National Park Services grant.” The grant, awarded to the Contra Costa chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League in 2013, funded the creation of a traveling exhibit based on Kitagaki and Lange’s photos. Since then, a memorial committee of about a dozen people was formed. Yamamoto is its chairman.

Thomas Blalock, BART board president, spoke about his board’s commitment to the memorial, as well as his own memories as a 10-year-old in Mountain View, Calif. “I … was in the fourth grade when people were relocated,” he said. “I didn’t know one day that my classmates were going to disappear the next.”

Hanamura put the incarceration experience into perspective, describing how her family and others were sent to Tanforan. “If they didn’t get one of the good barracks, they were then put in a horse stall to live for the next six months,” she said. “It was a time of war, prejudice and hysteria. Our government did some pretty crazy things, they went into the orphanages and took out any child who was as low as a quarter Japanese. They went into the insane asylums and pulled out the men and women who were mentally ill.”

Speier made it clear that the wartime incarceration of Nikkei was a grave injustice.

“This is what the U.S. government used to identify people they were going to intern. American citizens were tagged as if they were chattel, to be moved from one place to another,” she said while pointing to the nametags given out to attendees that were fashioned after the nametags used to identify Japanese Americans when they arrived in Tanforan.

“They weren’t just internment camps. They were prisons. People were incarcerated. People did not have the rights guaranteed to each and every one of us under the Constitution.”

Jerry Hill, California state senator for the 13th District, presented Yamamoto with a certificate of appreciation from the state, and spoke about the importance of educating future generations. “We all know what happened here 73 years ago, because if we didn’t know, we wouldn’t be here. That’s not what I find to be the problem. It’s those who don’t know.

That’s the problem,” he said. “Who or what will be the conscience for tomorrow? Now we know that this sculpture will be that reminder, that will be our conscience for the future.”

The memorial was designed by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey Landscape Architecture and Planning and features a statue of two children captured in one of Lange’s photos.

The memorial also features replicas of the horse stalls inmates lived in, according to the memorial committee.

Cordelia Hill, the memorial’s project manager along with Jimmy Chan, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that her fellow semi-retired principal emeritus Harold Kobayashi designed the memorial. “Our firm chose to do this work pro bono due to the significance of the memorial and to honor the heritage of our firm — three of the retired partners are of Japanese Americans and were interred (sic) during WW2 — Asa Hanamoto (deceased), Kazuo Abey and Harold Kobayashi,” Hill wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The intent of the design is to honor those who were interned while educating the general public on this horrific event.”

Of those in attendance, many were former wartime inmates themselves.

Steve Okamoto, memorial committee member and Foster City councilman, said he arrived at Tanforan along with his family when he was six weeks old. He said his mother could only say that her most vivid memory was the smell of manure in the horse stall, “a smell that she remembered for the rest of her life.” Okamoto asked for donations to the memorial saying, “this memorial not only represents the 8,000 individuals who were falsely imprisoned, but also to serve as a reminder to all of America that this cannot and shall not happen again.”

Grace Kanomata attended the event with her 101-year-old mother, Fukumoto. Kanomata said her mother was born in San Francisco’s Japantown and was incarcerated in Tanforan. Following that, she was sent to Topaz, Utah; Tule Lake, Calif., and Crystal City, Texas. Kanomata’s father chose to repatriate to Japan after the war and took Fukumoto with him, where Kanomata was born. “Papa thought the American government was lying about Japan and chose to go back,” she said. She added that they returned to the United States 10 years later.

“I was surprised people didn’t talk about it here,” Kanomata said, referring to many Japanese Americans keeping silent about their wartime experiences after the war. “Growing up mama and papa told me all about it, and in turn I told my daughter to go talk to them about it.”

Okamoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly the construction of the memorial itself will not take long, but the completion date is indeterminate until funding is secured. For now, the committee has requested donations with a goal of $1 million.

For more information, visit www.tanforanmemorial.org, or e-mail tanforan.memorial@gmail.com.

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