Former internees lay past to rest

Originally published Sept. 11, 1989

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - A solitary boom of the taiko drum shattered the cemetery's silence.

Then came another beat, and a third, as the two men -- each standing on opposite ends of the two-sided drum -- quickened the pace of their strokes.

With each beat, the drum's booming sound reverberated throughout the green grounds of the Linkville Cemetery in Klamath Falls and through the hearts and memories of the Japanese-Americans, many from Sacramento, assembled here Sunday.

"We all love the people here," said the Rev. George Uyemura, a retired Methodist minister who presided over the solemn ceremony with a Buddhist priest. "An event like this brings back so many memories of some 40 years ago."

As he spoke, many in the crowd wept. They had come to dedicate a new headstone for the common grave of 11 people -- an elderly man and 10 infants -- who died at the Tule Lake internment camp and whose bodies weren't claimed by relatives.

"This day is for my mother-in-law," said Violet K. de Cristoforo, one of those who cried at the ceremony that attracted about 80 people from Northern California and Oregon to the camp 20 miles south of Klamath Falls, just inside the California border.

"She died in Tule Lake, and her ashes were cremated and taken back to Japan, but her soul is in Tule Lake."

De Cristoforo was one of about 37 Japanese-Americans, most of them former Tule Lake internees from Sacramento, who set out for the Oregon cemetery early Saturday morning from the Japanese United Methodist Church on Franklin Boulevard.

Their two-day journey culminated in an emotional ceremony where participants honored the dead with more than 1,000 paper cranes -- Japanese symbols of peace, love and understanding -- and 11 miniature U.S. flags, emblems of their American citizenship.

Like the ceremony that triggered memories of the war camp, the bus trip they took was a tour of their past. There were stops at such places as the Modoc County Fair in the town of Tule Lake -- where a small museum contains an exhibit on the internment camp -- and to the site of the former camp as well.

"The saddest thing about internment, more than the degradation, more than discrimination, was uncertainty of the future," said de Cristoforo, 72, as she looked out the window of the bus.

For de Cristoforo -- a 25-year-old Japanese-American housewife when World War II came to America in 1942 -- being sent to a dusty internment camp near Tule Lake would dramatically alter her life.

The exile would cause the Salinas woman to lose a husband, her children and her right to remarry as an American citizen.

"What we had learned in school -- it was called civics back then -- we learned did not apply to us," she said.

In all, the U.S. government sent 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast to 10 separate internment camps, an act that only last year was officially recognized as a violation of these people's constitutional rights.

As they traveled to Tule Lake, the three-dozen passengers on the bus were in a jovial mood, chattering away in a hybrid of Japanese and English.

Much of the talk focused on the Tule Lake era, the four years between 1942 and 1946 when about 18,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were confined to the desolate camp to wait out the war.

"I'm here because we lost 300 acres in crop," said Tim Yoshimiya, 69, the retired owner of a moving company.

Yoshimiya recalled how he was 21 when his family was ordered to leave their home, just outside of Davis, to report to Tule Lake.

Yoshimiya's father left the family's crop and belongings in the hands of the landowner whose property he farmed.

"We shook hands, you know. 'I'll take care of it for you,' " Yoshimiya quoted the landowner as saying. "When we got back, he didn't know us."

It was the kind of story that made Sunday's ceremony poignant.

With its Buddhist and Methodist ministers and peace cranes and American flags, the ceremony reflected the mix of cultures that the U.S. government could not reconcile four decades ago.

One of the reasons for internment, officials said at the time, was to prevent Japanese descendants from trying to help Japan win the war.

Like Yoshimiya, de Cristoforo, the 72-year-old woman from Salinas, was also sent to Tule Lake.

But unlike others who quickly found their ways home after their release, she was ordered to Japan by government officials who thought her an "agitator" and unsympathetic to the American war effort.

When her former husband's mother was dying of cancer, she pushed to get the elderly woman adequate medical treatment; and when her brother was thrown in prison after becoming embroiled in the camp's infamous food riots, she rebelled against the war authority.

"I agitated all the time so they had me down as an agitator," de Cristoforo said.

Though de Cristoforo was sent to Japan with her husband and children after the war, she wanted to return to America because the Japanese economy was in a shambles and her children didn't "fit in" in the foreign land.

Her husband left her and married another woman. She eventually was able to send her children back to the United States to be live with relatives and friends, she said.

She has spent nearly a decade researching and writing on the internment period, trying to refute the impressions she believes were printed about her in the book, "The Spoilage," by Dorothy Swaine Thomas, which is the most widely read treatise on life at the internment camps.

De Cristoforo says she had many interviews with one of Thomas' researchers while at the camp. In the book, de Cristoforo said her name Violet was changed to Hyacinth, who is described as "a troublemaker" and "resegregationist leader."

She said these writings -- some of which are believed by scholars to have been gleaned by the FBI looking for malcontents -- and the "agitator" reputation she gained in the camp, had kept her from being permitted to return to the United States for six years. It was only after marrying a U.S. Army soldier as a Japanese citizen was she able to come back to her native country.

When the bus arrived at the museum at the Modoc County Fair six hours after leaving Sacramento, she was careful to scrutinize any documents that can further her research.

The others with de Cristoforo in the metal, barn-shaped museum milled about the Tule Lake display, the old photographs and artifacts reminding them of life in the camp's barracks.

Ellen Kubo of Sacramento excitedly pointed out an antiquated furnace like the one she and her family used to burn coals to ward off the cold during Tule Lake winters.

"Sometimes it would get so hot, it would get red on the outside," she said of the rounded metal device.

And standing near a wall where maps of the camp were displayed, Sacramento resident Frank Hiyama, 74, explained how he and others worked to winterize the camp's drafty barracks with Sheetrock.

"The WRA (War Relocation Authority) provided the Sheetrock. It was adequate at the time," said Hiyama, a retired state highway official.

From the museum, the bus riders were taken to the site of the former Tule Lake camp, where they discover there isn't much to look at besides tall fences topped with barbed wire and a memorial erected near the highway.

After posing for a picture in front of the memorial with her husband, Gladys Masaki, 75, surveyed the dry stretches of land beyond the gate.

"The time we were here it was terrible," she said. "This whole area was dusty. No trees. No medical facility. No school. We wanted our boys to go into medicine."

So Gladys and her husband, Percy, 79, who owned a supermarket on Del Paso Boulevard in Sacramento before the war, took their three children to Utah.

They settled for a while in Ogden, and their children attended Mormon schools. Now, one son is a urologist, the other a dentist. Their daughter, a physical therapist, is also in the medical field.

At the Klamath Falls graveside ceremony Sunday, Gladys and Percy Masaki dressed in their Sunday best like many of the others who came with them on the bus.

It was a show of respect for the dead and for the unclaimed 11 Tule Lake internees who never made it out of the camp.