Tanforan Memorial looks to past and future


Tanforan Memorial Statue by Sandra Shaw. photo by WIlliam Lee

Tanforan Memorial Statue by Sandra Shaw. photo by WIlliam Lee

SAN BRUNO, Calif. — With a jet plane roaring over head, members of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee, along with survivors of the World War II detention camp, unveiled the centerpiece bronze statue by sculptor Sandra Shaw in the memorial Aug. 27.

The Tanforan Memorial, located between the San Bruno Bay Area Rapid Transit station and the Shops at Tanforan, commemorates the Tanforan Assembly Center where some 8,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated prior to being shipped off almost entirely to the War Relocation Authority concentration camp at Topaz (Central Utah) in 1942.

The memorial plaza features informational panels, the names of all those imprisoned at the horse race track, and a statue of the Mochida sisters, two girls Dorothea Lange photographed as they were uprooted from their homes to be sent to Tanforan. Japanese American volunteers spearheaded the 10-year-long project, which involved BART, the shopping center and many more entities. Originally a month-long art exhibit featuring Lange’s photographs juxtaposed with Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr.’s own photos of Lange’s subject decades later, the memorial committee worked to realize the site.

Steve Okamoto, vice president of the committee, told the Nichi Bei Weekly they were fortunate that their “incredible committee” had the cooperation of BART and the Shops at Tanforan as they worked on the Memorial.

“It made the job easier. Not easy, but easier,” he said.

According to Elaine Jackson-Retondo of the National Park Service, the federal government disbursed some $450,000 in Japanese American Confinement Sites grant money for the Tanforan Memorial projects. Doug Yamamoto, president of the memorial committee, also said the effort included eight years of pro bono work by RHAA Landscape Architects, which was founded by three Japanese Americans.

In a program emceed by Mike Inouye, weekday morning traffic anchor for NBC Bay Area, and launched to the beat of San Mateo Buddhist Temple Taiko, the memorial got a nod from a full spectrum of allies and community members, including the Ramaytush Ohlone tribe, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Acting Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hajime Kishimori and many more.

The two-hour program featured an entourage of community members and elected officials at the ribbon cutting.

“As a third-generation lifelong-resident of the city of San Bruno, as I grew, as I was educated by my parents, by the school system, I knew this was a race track. I was never educated, never taught, never told, that in 1942, from April to October, what occurred here on these grounds,” said San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina. “It is important that we acknowledge what happened, that we remind those, that can come and see, … it is not OK to try to push it under the carpet.”

Following the mayor, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier also gave an apology on behalf of the federal government to those incarcerated during the war. She spoke to the statue of the Mochida sisters.

“These were real children,” Speier said. “This statue did not spring from the mind of someone who does sculpture, the sadness, confusion on their faces was real, captured in a moment by the famous photographer Dorothea Lange with only the dimmest hope that the images would convey history. It did. Now we have it cast in bronze.”

Tanforan Incarceration 1942 exhibit photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

For many speaking at the ribbon-cutting, the memorial presented an opportunity for future dialogue and an opportunity to learn about the history. Dave Burruto, chief of staff for San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine, said he first learned about the wartime incarceration experience after moving to California from New England.

“(Former South San Francisco Mayor Karyl Matsumoto) was kind enough to take me to Manzanar last fall, and it really drove home a lot of things, but one thing in particular was how isolated and desolate these camps were. And that was for a reason, that was by design, but the legacy of that is that they are still isolated. They’re hard to get to. If anyone’s been to Lone Pine, it’s a long way to go.”

Burruto said the Tanforan Memorial, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, will serve as an asset to help educate the community, due to it being far more accessible than other former confinement sites.

While the detention center and racetrack no longer remains at the site, Jennifer Easton, BART’s art program director, told the Nichi Bei Weekly she feels the history remains significant.

“This exhibit could exist elsewhere. The memorial could exist elsewhere, but somehow, I think the land remembers in a way,” she said. “There might be a train station here, there might be a mall here, but the history is still here.”

In addition to the memorial plaza outside the station, the San Bruno BART station also installed a new exhibit, “Tanforan Incarceration 1942; Resilience Behind Barbed Wire” as a counterpart to the memorial outside. The exhibit, curated by San Francisco Bay Area artist Na Omi Judy Shintani, is an updated exhibit based on Kitagaki’s 2012 exhibit.

“We really want that place to be a place of reflection, and an emotional place where you can be,” Easton said. “But if you filled it up with this sort of information, … you change what’s happening in that place. So we wanted to have both.”

According to Kitagaki, the exhibit was meant to last only a month, but the station continued to keep it up for a decade. Shintani told the Nichi Bei Weekly via e-mail that she had expanded the exhibit’s content to cover the history of the site and legal challenges Japanese Americans faced in their pursuit for reparations in a more eye-catching informational display.

The memorial comes as Tanforan’s youngest surviving inmates are now 80 years old. Mary Ann Furuichi, a Tanforan survivor, recalled the smell of eucalyptus trees and seeing the Bayshore Freeway from the race track. She said the smell reminds her of her yearning for freedom.

“I was four and-a-half years old when I left Berkeley and arrived here at the race track,” she said. “As a child, crossing the Bay Bridge under the surveillance of guards, we adults and children alike sat stunned, quiet, looking through bus windows at the sparkling waters and buildings of San Francisco. … There was no laughter, but nobody cried, but dead silence.”

Okamoto said he was incarcerated at Tanforan when he was five weeks old. He said neither he, nor his late mother, remembered much about their time there.

“My mom, as I got older, said she didn’t remember much either, but the things you would never forget was the smell of the horse manure,” he said.

Although the hard-earned memorial is finally realized, Yamamoto lamented that many people did not see it to completion.

“People who should have been here to celebrate with us on this day are not here,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Kitagaki’s father, who was one of the children photographed by Lange in 1942, passed away last year in October, according to his son.

Yamamoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly that Hiroko Mochida, the younger sister of the sisters depicted in the statue, is still alive, but was unable to attend the ceremony due to health issues. He said he was glad she could at least see a video of the program later.

Yamamoto, in closing the program, said the memorial was “not an end in itself.” He asked attendees to reflect deeply on the history of wartime incarceration through the site.

“If this memorial has any meaning, it must extend beyond these grounds, reaching the most vulnerable among us whom we see and sometimes choose not to see every day,” he said. “The house-less and the hungry, the children separated from the parents at the border and locked up with other children in children’s cages. How are they different from the ones in the statute?”

The Tanforan Memorial is located between the San Bruno BART station, 1151 Huntington Ave., San Bruno, Calif. and the Shops at Tanforan. The Tanforan Incarceration 1942; Resilience Behind Barbed Wire permanent exhibition is located inside the San Bruno BART Station. The memorial is free and open to the public and is accessible at any time.

The exhibit is accessible to anyone arriving by BART.

If arriving to the station by another mode of transit, visitors may ask the station agent to allow admittance to see the exhibit without purchasing a ticket. If bringing a group larger than five people to see the exhibit and are not arriving by BART, please contact Jennifer Easton at jeaston@bart.gov, at least ten business days in advance, with the date and time of the visit and approximate number of visitors so arrangements can be made. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system is also celebrating its 50th anniversary during the month of September and all fares are half off through Sept. 30, 2022.


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