History

Sacramento observes 75th anniversary of Japanese American internment

“My Bachan & Grandpa were born in the internment camp,” wrote Mason Laurel, 6, in a guest book inside the exhibition Two Views: Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank on Thursday, Feb,19, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif., at the Crocker Art Museum. Bachan is slang for grandmother, derived from the Japanese word obaasan. Mason and his father Aaron Laurel, left, are from West Sacramento.
“My Bachan & Grandpa were born in the internment camp,” wrote Mason Laurel, 6, in a guest book inside the exhibition Two Views: Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank on Thursday, Feb,19, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif., at the Crocker Art Museum. Bachan is slang for grandmother, derived from the Japanese word obaasan. Mason and his father Aaron Laurel, left, are from West Sacramento. rbyer@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum became a temple of living history Sunday as dozens of Japanese Americans forced into World War II internment camps and their children and grandchildren attended “A Day of Remembrance.”

The exhibit opened exactly 75 years after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which sent more than 120,000 Japanese Americans – the majority of them U.S. citizens – to remote detention camps.

The day-long event attracted more than 4,000 people of all races. Highlights included Ansel Adams’ stark black-and-white photos of the Manzanar Relocation Center 10 miles north of Lone Pine in the Inyo County high desert and Canadian photojournalist Leonard Frank’s bleak images of several of the 10 incarceration camps in British Columbia, where 22,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly relocated.

The photos, which will be exhibited through May 19, uncorked raw emotions among many older Japanese Americans who spent years behind barbed wire in some of America’s most unforgiving landscapes.

Harry Noguchi, 81, unfurled a long photograph of more than 200 children lined up at Tule Lake, a mile and a quarter above sea level in northeastern Siskiyou County.

“That’s me,” said Noguchi, identifying a defiant eight-year-old. “I had whooping cough,” he remembered.

Noguchi said he was “about to forgive America for this,” but has recently had his anger rekindled by President Donald Trump, who during his campaign told Time he did not know whether he would have supported or opposed sending Japanese Americans to internment camps.

Noguchi said his father, trained as a doctor in Japan, wasn’t allowed to practice here and became a farmer in Washington state. After World War II, the camp experience split up his family because his father wanted to return to Washington and his older brother insisted on moving to Sacramento.

Several others recalled getting sick in the camps.

“I got pneumonia,” said Christine Umeda, 78. “I remember fighting not to go, and my older sisters said ‘We’re not going back to Japan!’”

Umeda said she is very active in the Florin Japanese American Citizens League, which after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reached out to American Muslims and organized trips to Manzanar. Sunday afternoon, the Florin JACL held its own memorial, “Never Again,” at the Buddhist Church off Florin Road with about 20 former internees including Umeda, along with Muslim Americans and representatives of various faiths.

Many internees said it wasn’t until 40 years later that those who were locked up could bring themselves to talk about it.

Sacamentan Tim Matsumoto, 60, brought his mother Amy Matsumoto, 91, and his aunt, Toshi Toyama, who were sent to Tule Lake as teenagers. “They never talked about it and I was never taught my name in Japanese,” he said. “They felt that would be un-American.”

Some at the Crocker said they noted a similarity between FDR’s 1942 executive order and President Trump’s January 2017 executive order –subsequently blocked in the courts – to temporarily prevent people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. regardless.

“We know it is much more than the 75th anniversary today – history doesn’t stand still, sometimes it repeats itself suddenly, and it’s plain for all to see,” said Sacramento Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who was born in the camp in Poston, Ariz.

Matsui noted that both FDR and Trump justified their executive orders in the interest of national security. She recalled her late husband, Congressman Bob Matsui, was six months old when he was ordered into camp. “Imagine someone six months old being a danger to national security ... fear-based rhetoric can spiral into real injustice.”

Amid the numerous stories of lost businesses, homes and belongings, some rays of humanity shined through.

“My parents met and married in Poston,” Matsui said, “And my father’s Central Valley farm was preserved by the Sorensen family for him.”

Jean Kawano, 85, of Sacramento recalled that when her father was forced to leave behind his Court Grocery on 7th Street between H and I streets near the courthouse, an Armenian family agreed to rent it.

“They put the rent in the bank so we when we returned, we could buy a house on Fourth,” Kawano said with a smile. “They didn’t steal a thing.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini

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