City Beat

City Beat: Sacramento faces history of support for Japanese internment

Reiko Nagumo recites the details of her imprisonment as if she’s just woken up from a dream.

There’s the potbelly stove that kept her family’s two-room barrack warm. There’s the teacher, leading the kids in a chorus of “Sweet Kentucky Babe,” an old Southern lullaby. And there’s the barbed wire, set up to keep Nagumo from fleeing.

Seven decades later, she remembers it all.

Nagumo, 79, was one of 110,000 people of Japanese heritage living in this country who were shipped to internment camps during World War II. It was a fearful time, and she was the target of a country that had been attacked.

In Sacramento, a City Council apparently sharing that fear passed Resolution 1943-207, supporting the internment of Japanese people by the U.S. government. Then the war ended and the camps closed. And yet, Resolution 1943-207 remained on the books.

“Sometimes,” Nagumo said, “things that happen many years ago are never thought of again.”

Last week, two council members – Steve Hansen and Darrell Fong – led their colleagues in finally repealing the resolution. It was an important step for a city with a troubled past.

Downtown was once the site of a thriving neighborhood called Japantown, where family shops and produce markets lined the streets. Many of the neighborhood’s residents were sent to internment camps. In the 1950s, Japantown was all but leveled in the name of redevelopment. City leaders said at the time they were removing blight.

“We can’t deny these things happened,” Hansen said. “But we have a choice of whether we learn from them.”

Hansen’s call to repeal Resolution 1943-207 came after the law’s existence was revealed in a book printed last year. Kevin Wildie’s “Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood” is a cautionary tale for a city still trying to define its urban core.

Nagumo spends her days now not far from where Japantown once stood. She’s a docent at the California Museum, where she relives her life story for schoolchildren. She tells them that “when immigrants become Americans, sometimes that takes a lot.”

Standing in a reading room of the east Sacramento bungalow she’s called home since 1977, Nagumo points to a faded photograph. In it, she’s a little girl dressed in white, posing with her classmates at Los Feliz Elementary School in Hollywood.

It was 1942. By that fall, her family was living in that two-room barrack at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. When they returned home three years later, they found their house ransacked.

“I didn’t understand,” she said. “What did I have to do with the war?”

She lives with that history every day.

Her city is finally facing its own history, too.

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