Educating to remember, 40 years after the first California Day of Remembrance

Lewis Kawahara and Carole Hayashino hold photos of the late Min Yasui speaking at the first Bay Area Day of Remembrance, the second such commemoration in the country, held on Feb. 19, 1979. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Carole Hayashino recalled pulling into the Fort Mason parking lot in San Francisco on the morning of Feb. 19, 1979. She was surprised to be greeted by hundreds of people ready to form a caravan headed due south to the former site of the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, Calif. for the state’s first ever Day of Remembrance.

“We did not know what to expect, to be honest,” Hayashino told the Nichi Bei Weekly. During a time before smartphones and social media networks, the program organizers said they were hoping for 50 attendees, but more than 700 people showed up.

Hayashino, who was at the time teaching Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, said she began organizing the program with Lewis Kawahara, a San Mateo student, at the behest of Asian American playwright Frank Chin — who helped organize the first ever Day of Remembrance Nov. 25, 1978 at the former site of the Puyallup Assembly Center in Washington state.

Kawahara and Hayashino said they called themselves the Tanforan Committee and worked with the Japanese American Citizens League.

Kawahara said the planning meetings started with less than 20 people gathering at the JACL National Headquarters in San Francisco’s Japantown. “Then we got to the point we were meeting at (Hayashino’s) apartment on Fillmore with a handful of people,” he said.

Despite the small group of organizers, the first California DOR faced little resistance and had solid programming. Hayashino and Kawahara said the Tanforan Shopping Center, built on the former site of the racetracks, welcomed them, as did John Tateishi, the chair of the JACL National Redress Committee. They added that public officials, such as the mayor of San Bruno, Calif. and the police and sheriff departments they secured permits from for their car caravan from San Francisco, were also open to their program.

Nisei Ernie Iiyama spoke on his experience as a former inmate of an American concentration camp, one of 120,000 people incarcerated by the U.S. government during the war, along with San Francisco poet Janice Mirikitani. Min Yasui, one of four Japanese Americans who challenged the U.S. government during the war through Supreme Court cases, gave the keynote speech to make a case for reparations from the federal government.

Hayashino said the program helped ignite discussion about redress among Japanese Americans. Moreover, Kawahara said the inaugural gathering at Tanforan brought different generations of the Japanese American community together, including the Issei.

Steve Nakajo, former executive director and co-founder of Kimochi Inc., recalled that his senior service organization transported Issei to the pilgrimage using their van.

Nakajo said it was “exciting and important” to have a program involving the Issei generation. “That first Day of Remembrance was important because it was the beginning and we Sansei activists had something to prove to ourselves and to our community,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It was important to do it at Tanforan because many of our San Francisco Issei were housed there.”

Meanwhile, Hayashino said the Day of Remembrance played an important role to educate not only the Japanese Americans, but the broader community to develop allies.

“That was important because finally people like the Tanforan Shopping Center acknowledging this history of ours,” Hayashino said.
“It became our history, not just Japanese American history.”

While the original organizers said they had only been involved in the first few programs in Northern California, the tradition has continued and the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium continues to hold annual programs today. Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the National Japanese American Historical Society, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that education has remained a central focus for the program. She added that it now supports organizations and activists that advocate for the rights of laborers, immigrants, LGBTQ people and others.

“I think the common thread is education, … over the years, there’s a difference between pre-redress and post-redress, but that common thread is still education, because we still need to educate everyone,” Tonai said. She elaborated that the program aims to educate attendees about the latest developments and discoveries of new information being uncovered about the Japanese American incarceration.

Kawahara also stressed the importance of remembering what had happened during World War II today. “It should be remembered, especially today, especially now, with our government rulings about Muslim Americans, Arab, Arab Americans about putting them in camp,” he said. “(Japanese Americans) understand that it was illegal then, and it’s definitely illegal, immoral now.”

“After the passage of redress, I don’t think we could ever imagine the kind of incarceration, the mass incarceration, something similar to what happened to Japanese Americans in World War II would happen again,” Hayashino said. “And I think all of us, from … the first Day of Remembrance to redress, I think that everything we did was not solely about remembering the past, but it was about remembering the past to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I think the Day of Remembrance today is probably more relevant, more important, more urgent in this time.”

The 40th anniversary of the Bay Area Day of Remembrance will be held Feb. 17 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki 8, 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.

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