Bookseller, like Japanese American community, perseveres through challenges


SAN MATEO, Calif. — Women, children, mothers, fathers, families. Some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were trapped behind barbed wire fences for having a cultural connection to Japan during World War II. In 1970 the Japanese American Curriculum Project, renamed the Asian American Curriculum Project in 1985, began its humble endeavor to educate the public about the Japanese American experience.

EDUCATIONAL MISSIONARY — Florence Hongo is on a mission to help educate the public, through the work of the Asian American Curriculum Project in San Mateo, Calif. photo by Terry Pon

The charter members of the JACP — Hisako Kawasaki, Sadao Kinoshita, Miyo Kirita, Astor Mizuhara, Kathy Reyes, Donald Y. Sekimura, Stella Takahashi, Shirley Tanaka (now Shimada), Rosie Taniguchi (now Shimonishi), Edison Uno, Shizue Yoshina and Florence Yoshiwara (now Hongo) — participated in a long fight to convince Congress that the United States made an unlawful and unconstitutional mistake of forcing Japanese Americans into camps that would impact the families in psychological, economic, and social means.

By providing educational materials to educators and organizations, the AACP was able to help tell the then little-known story of Executive Order 9066 and assist with the Japanese American Redress Movement.

Concentration Camp Experience
San Francisco State University graduate Florence Makita Hongo, 91, recalled her experience living in a concentration camp during World War II. “You’re living in a place that is surrounded by barbed wire fences, no private bathrooms,” said Hongo.

Hongo was 12 when her family, who was living in the Central California town of Cressey at the time, was placed in the south east corner of the Granada (Amache) concentration camp in Colorado.

“We couldn’t play football because that required too much equipment,” said Hongo, whose family of nine was placed in two rooms. “One room was mother and father with four girls and the other room was three boys. That’s all there was. Just a room.”

Hongo recalled family dinners during their time in the concentration camp. “It caused a lot of problems within the families that were so strong in the beginning,” said Hongo. “My father said, ‘You have to come with us to eat.’ Most (of) the time that didn’t happen.”

Hongo’s family would spend 3 1/2 years living in the Granada camp. She was 16 when her family was released.

A Role in Redress: Education
Hongo recalled how much thought went into what role she would play in the movement for redress. “My role was that I made these literature available for people to read the truth about what had happened and that is what I considered to be my mission in the redress campaign,” said Hongo.

“So a lot of people got their names in the newspapers and appeared on television, but I never did because my part of the mission was quite subtle.”

Hongo and the AACP provided the educational materials to teachers and professors and they would be sent to senators and other officials that needed the information.

Hongo recalled the role that the late Edison Uno played in the redress campaign. “Edison Uno was the one who started the redress drive … He was the first one who began to say ‘Hey this thing was illegal and we should go to court and prove that it was illegal,’” Hongo recalled.

Hongo says what started as a movement within the Japanese American community in the 1970s would not be fulfilled until the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and only a portion of the 120,000 incarcerated during the war were compensated. “They didn’t pay for people who had died before 1988.”

Hongo compared the rhetoric and treatment of Japanese Americans to the way that migrants are being treated and held today in the United States.

“The attitude and the way that non-white people are treated here in the United States, I hate to say it, but you know it’s so common. The language that they use is very common,” said Hongo. “To try and excuse what they do that is illegal and unconstitutional.”

Hongo recalled the initial interactions sharing concentration camp experiences with other people. “It was very hard in the beginning. People didn’t believe my stories about the camps,” said Hongo.

That is why Hongo and the AACP always considered education an important part of what they did.

Hongo pointed and tapped on a stack of books with “Poston Camp II, Block 211” by Jack Matsuoka on top. “This is a very important book because it talks about feelings about what it was like to be in the camps. That makes it a very important book because it not only talks about what happened, but it also talked about what it felt like and he did that through comics,” said Hongo.

photo by Terry Pon

Just below that was a bright red book with black and white letters on it. The side read “Years of Infamy” by Michi Weglyn. “She wrote the first one that blamed the United States government for what happened. It’s an old book, but it was one of the first revelations of the concentration camps,” said Hongo. “She did some research on her own to find government documents that defined what was happening.”

As a youth behind barbed wire, Hongo realized the injustice of incarceration.

“I was 12 when my family was put in concentration camps,” said Hongo. “Even at that age I knew it was wrong.”

Continuing the Mission
Hongo continues AACP’s mission today by bringing literature out to community events and by sharing her story. “It might have become better for us, the Japanese Americans after the war, but there are still other immigrants who are suffering over and over again,” said Hongo. “So I don’t know how much they (the United States government) have learned over the years about the people who are not white.”

AACP is still volunteer run to this day. Hongo is a volunteer. Hongo recalled how online ordering impacted the AACP. “Amazon almost killed us.” Hongo said. “We lost almost all of our business.”

Hongo credits the time that AACP spends going into the local communities and participating in public speaking and educational conferences.

And like the community that rebuilt itself after its devastating wartime incarceration, the small San Mateo bookseller continues to persevere.

Asian American Curriculum Project is located at 529 East Third Ave. in San Mateo, Calif. The store hours are Tuesday thru Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, contact (650) 375-8286 or visit

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