Education

Students hear stark tales about Japanese internment camps at California Museum

Fifth-grader Cy Pennell views a display that shows interned Japanese American children playing marbles during a tour at the California Museum on Wednesday in Sacramento. Elk Grove fifth-graders travel to the museum annually to learn what it was like to be in an internment camp in World War II.
Fifth-grader Cy Pennell views a display that shows interned Japanese American children playing marbles during a tour at the California Museum on Wednesday in Sacramento. Elk Grove fifth-graders travel to the museum annually to learn what it was like to be in an internment camp in World War II. rpench@sacbee.com

Junko Kojima tells schoolchildren a stark story of discrimination when she was an 8-year-old in Sacramento.

Kojima, now June Coats, said she and her 5-year-old brother were on an errand to buy ice cream in 1946. She said they were chased out of a store that had a sign in the window that included a racial slur. The storekeeper repeated the slur as he shoved them out the door.

Coats tells that story and that of her family’s incarceration at Tule Lake Internment Camp to students visiting the “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII” exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento.

The Kojima family, who lived on Second Street in Sacramento, was among 120,000 people of Japanese descent sent to relocation camps by Executive Order 9066. It was signed in the name of national defense in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt – two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

They Japanese families left behind homes, jobs, farms and pets. They took only what they could carry. They traveled to far away camps encircled in barbed wire, where food was scarce and comforts sparse.

Each year, between the last week of January and the third week of March, dozens of yellow buses carrying about 5,000 students pull up to the front of the museum at 1020 O St. to learn about this part of American history.

Students taking part in the “Time of Remembrance Field Trip Program” have come from as far away as Los Angeles, although most are from Northern California.

“This year, the field trips are more popular than ever before,” said Brenna Hamilton, communications and marketing director at the California Museum. She attributes the program’s growing popularity to increased awareness and teaching about the internment.

The two-hour field trip includes a docent-led tour of the “Uprooted!” exhibit, as well as a classroom lesson and visits to other exhibits, including “Gambatte! Legacy of an Enduring Spirit.” The traveling exhibit by Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. documents the stories of Japanese American citizens who were relocated to internment camps.

Students are usually surprised to hear that their tour guides were among the people who had been rounded up and forced to live in the camps.

“I think the message this program gives students is so valuable,” Coats said. “This could happen again. We were really close to it after 9/11 with Middle Eastern people. That was the same thing that happened to Japanese people.”

On Wednesday, Coats, 77, and other docents gave 50 fifth-graders from Elk Grove’s Elitha Donner Elementary School a tour of a replica of an internment camp barracks. The retired State Board of Equalization worker described what families saw when they arrived: cots with Army blankets, a single light bulb and a stove. Any furniture was built by the internees, she said.

“It was not fair,” said fifth-grader Jayriese Caguiat. “I think they deserved better than that, at least give them a good meal.”

Fifth-grader Orit Rosado seemed to get the message the docents were trying to pass on. “People need to stand up for what they believe in and not just listen to what other people say about them,” she said.

Teacher Kevin Broxton has taken his class on the field trip for 10 years. “They talk about history, but they don’t often talk to people who were a part of history,” he said of his students. “Hopefully, they will learn a lesson about treating people equally.”

The Time of Remembrance Program came to the California Museum in 2000. It was first started in 1983 by Elk Grove Unified teacher Mary Tsukamoto, who was interned at Jerome, Ark., in 1942. The Elk Grove Unified School District named a school in south Sacramento after her.

“She thought somebody should tell the story about a whole group of people, an ethnic group, that was singled out and lost our rights during WWII,” said her daughter Marielle Tsukamoto. “She worried that might happen to another group.”

Marielle Tsukamoto, 77, also worries about that. She was 5 when her family was forced to leave their Florin home and move to a 16-by-20-foot barrack in Jerome. She continues her mother’s legacy teaching a class that is part of “Time of Remembrance.”

“I don’t want you to hear my sad story,” Tsukamoto told the students Wednesday. “I want you to learn from history. I’m talking to you because I’m afraid it could happen to you or someone you know in the future.”

She encouraged the children to stand up for themselves if they find themselves faced with prejudice and injustice. “We learned we were supposed to say something,” Tsukamoto said. “Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement taught us not to keep quiet.”

The “Uprooted!” exhibit, which is open to the public all year, will undergo an update in the next year or so, Hamiliton said. The museum expects a $150,000 grant from the National Parks Service to help pay for interactive exhibits as well as six kiosks that will feature oral histories recorded by internees.

Hamilton said the oral histories are to ensure that the story of internment lives on after the last internee has died.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

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