Japanese-Americans make pilgrimage to Utah internment camp site
By TOM LOCHNER | East Bay Times | Published: May 2, 2017
BERKELEY, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — A group of Japanese-American seniors returned to First Congregational Church this past week after a sometimes painful pilgrimage into the past.
They traveled to the high, windswept central Utah desert, where they had spent part of their childhood years, uprooted, along with their families, from their East Bay homes and businesses.
The group stepped off a tour bus about midday April 26 on Dana Street alongside the First Congregational Church — the exact same spot where several of them had been forced aboard another bus 75 years ago, almost to the day, on April 28, 1942.
Four months earlier, on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States headlong into World War II, and exposing the approximately 120,000 mostly American-born residents of Japanese descent on the West Coast to increasing hostility and discrimination.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which was followed by exclusion orders from the military that banished all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The Japanese Americans were ordered to report to “civil control stations,” and from there to be taken to “assembly centers” at fairgrounds and racetracks, said Milton Fujii, a member of the church’s Diversity Ministry Team, which aims to promote racial justice and diversity in the community and congregation.
The assembly center for the Bay Area was the former Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, today the site of The Shops at Tanforan, a regional shopping mall. The “civil control,” or booking, station for Berkeley was at the church, which had volunteered its space as a humane alternative to the Army’s chosen site, a vacant used car lot on Shattuck Avenue, Fujii said.
From the assembly centers, the Japanese Americans were moved to 10 federal incarceration centers in remote areas mostly in the Western United States, including Manzanar and Tule Lake in California. There they lived in barracks behind barbed wire in often cramped conditions, watched over by guards on towers similar to those in high-security prisons.
The group that got off the bus April 26 was returning from the Central Utah (later renamed Topaz) Relocation Center, where 15 of them had been imprisoned, including four who had boarded the bus 75 years ago at the First Congregational Church. They were accompanied by younger family members and a photographer.
The Topaz camp closed Oct. 31, 1945.
Several former internees interviewed as they left the bus expressed no bitterness over the injustice they suffered 75 years ago.
Asked about his memories of the recent trip, Richard Furuzawa said he was struck by the warmth of the people of Delta, the nearest town of significant size. Born Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Furuzawa said he was too young when he lived at Topaz to remember much about it, and that later on, “My parents, all they ever talked about were the happy, funny things.”
“Bitterness, why?” Furuzawa said. ”It’s the past. But you have to remember that you can’t let this happen to anyone else ever again. We’re the last ones.”
He added a more contemporary, cautionary note.
“They have these detention centers they’re starting to build for illegal immigrants,” Furuzawa said. “That could be the start of an internment camp.”
“I’m watering it down a bit, by using the term ‘internment,’” he continued. “But if you look at the definition, it’s really a concentration camp.”
Kazuko Iwahashi, 87, now of El Cerrito, was 12 when she and her family were uprooted from Berkeley, but she said the recent trip to Topaz “brought back no painful memories.”
“Our parents did a very good job of protecting us,” she continued. “I don’t think they made any big deal about it.”
But Ruth Ichinaga, now of El Cerrito, who was 8 when she was transported from Berkeley to Tanforan, where she and her family spent four months before they were moved to Topaz, said that during the recent trip, “Some of the tears were coming up.
“It was a healing process that I didn’t know I had to go through,” said Ichinaga, who visited Topaz once before, five years ago.
Also on the bus was Nancy Ukai, whose late mother, Fumiko Takayanagi Ukai, told a tale of fear, humiliation and anger, of loss of livelihood and personal possessions, of allergic reactions to horse manure in the Tanforan stables before her evacuation to Topaz, in testimony submitted to a community forum in San Francisco in 1981.
Ukai said Iwahashi’s comment that parents did a good job protecting their kids was apt.
“As is the case with WWII survivor groups, those who are still with us now were young at the time and their memories of the imprisonment represent those of a younger, more sheltered group — a different demographic than those who have passed on and who were in their 20s or 30s and definitely different from that of the immigrant generation,” Ukai said. “Sadly, the immigrant generation’s losses are less known or understood even within our own community because of the language barrier. Diaries were lost and discarded or not translated. They may not have spoken about it. They suffered the most — prevented by racially discriminatory laws from naturalizing and despite having lived here for 40 years, lost everything and then were too old after the war to start over.
“This is not to say that there are not legacy trauma effects,” Ukai added, “but I think that the direct memories may be less specific than those of older survivors.”
Said Fujii, “The people of my parents’ generation were taught to ‘suck it up,’ as we say in English, and not look for pity or even sympathy.”
Ukai brought along from Utah a basket of white paper flowers, part of a batch that was made by women on the trip and placed at the site in Topaz where on April 11, 1943, James Wakasa, 63, was killed by the military, allegedly for trying to escape the camp.
“He was walking his dog – probably a stray – near the fence, when he was shot to death from 200 yards away,” Ukai said. “One bullet to the chest killed him.”
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which included a formal apology from the U.S. government and $20,000 compensation to the surviving people of Japanese descent who had been imprisoned in camps during World War II.
“The apology was the most important thing,” Fujii said. “That freed up a lot of people psychologically, to have the government say, ‘You did nothing wrong.’ Many had this lingering feeling of shame.
“The whole redress-and-reparations movement was more about the government acknowledging the injustice than about the money.”
As the travelers stepped off the bus on April 26, they were greeted by the ministers of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and Sycamore Congregational Church in El Cerrito, along with First Congregational Church’s senior minister, Molly Baskette, and members of her congregation, all holding up “Welcome Home” signs.
Said Fujii. “It’s like they came home from a 75-year round trip.”