'Never Again' Is Now: The US Revives the Specter of Ethnic Concentration Camps
August 7, 2018
Nancy Ukai / San Francisco Chronicle
Paul Tomita, 79, was only 4 years old when he departed the Minidoka prison camp for American Japanese in southern Idaho, one of 10 concentration camps in remote places in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. It was 1943 and his parents had passed a lengthy clearance process to re-enter society. Not charged with a crime, they were nonetheless banned from returning to their Seattle home on the West Coast, which had been designated a military zone.
'Never Again' Is Now
At Tule Lake and Heart Mountain,
Japanese Americans meet to "never forget"
Nancy Ukai / San Francisco Chronicle
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, led to the forced removal of American citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent from the West Coast to remote detention facilities for up to four years.
121,000 incarcerated, most of whom were American citizens.
10 concentration camps, operated by the War Relocation Authority.
16 short-term detention camps, typically at fairgrounds or racetracks
2 citizen isolation centers to house dissenters.
18 internment camps, operated by the Department of Justice or other federal agencies, housed 7,000 Japanese (as well as several thousand German and Italian) nationals.
Sources: National Park Service; encyclopedia.densho.org; Wikimedia Commons.
(August 5, 2018) -- Paul Tomita, 79, was only 4 years old when he departed the Minidoka prison camp for American Japanese in southern Idaho. It was 1943 and his parents had passed a lengthy clearance process to re-enter society.
Not charged with a crime but banned from returning to their Seattle home on the West Coast, which had been designated a military zone, the family was headed East with the promise of work.
The only thing left was to receive exit cards. Tomita had his mugshot snapped and his fingerprint taken. A forlorn-looking boy was ready to leave.
Tomita now takes a replica of the wallet-size card whenever he goes to Japanese American pilgrimages that are held at the original sites of confinement.
This year he has been to two: one at the Tule Lake confinement site in northeast California, where 400 pilgrims recently gathered to remember the human rights violations suffered by 18,000.
Two days later, he proceeded to the Minidoka pilgrimage in Idaho, where the National Park Service will officially open a new interpretive center next year.
At Minidoka, Tomita recalled living in Block 12-5-E, where his mother stuffed wet newspaper balls into knotholes to block the dust at night. Paul was asthmatic and medication was lacking.
"It was futile," he said. "When the paper dries, it falls out. But that's all mom could do."
At four pilgrimages this year, to Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas; Tule Lake; Minidoka and Heart Mountain in Wyoming, more than 1,000 people traveled from 20 states to hear the stories of survivors and stand on hallowed ground.
A pilgrim to Arkansas, who was born at the Jerome camp, scooped up earth into a plastic bag to take home. Jerry Ishii, 75, a grape farmer from Fresno, said he didn't know what he would do with it.
"Maybe put it in my grave," he said.
The pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds increasingly flock to some of the reddest parts of the nation, which is where 10 long-term concentration camps were thrown up by the government in 1942, in remote places in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
Guarded by armed sentries and surrounded by barbed wire, more than 120,000 innocent civilians were incarcerated without due process under Roosevelt's presidential order for up to four years, between 1942 and 1946. Two-thirds were citizens, 40,000 were children.
Bay Area families were sent to the Tanforan racetrack, a preliminary detention site in San Bruno, and after several months there, the 8,000 inmates were put on trains to the Topaz facility in Utah.
It's not clear how assignments were determined by military authorities, but San Jose residents were shipped to Wyoming and Sacramento families were sent to Tule Lake. Marriages were hurried and students returned home so family members would not be separated to different camps.
Sam Mihara, a San Francisco native, was among those who were assigned to Heart Mountain instead of Utah. He was 9 years old when the Miharas were forced from their home on Sutter Street in Japantown.
At the camp's pilgrimage last week, he stood on the hospital grounds where he told pilgrims about his father who became blind from glaucoma and his grandfather who died of cancer there.
Shig Yabu, also a San Francisco native who ended up in Wyoming, sat in a preserved barrack and related childhood memories of poking scorpions, being sprayed with DDT and having a horned toad and a magpie for pets.
The barracks housed multiple families, but there were no walls, only sheets hung up for a pretense of privacy, he said. A gallon can was used as a chamber pot at night for children who couldn't walk to the block latrine used by 200 people.
The pilgrimages usually run for two to three days and offer workshops, small discussion groups, open-mike sessions and opportunities to plan resistance strategies.
Boosted by social media, a new organization that shares pilgrimage information and the opening of museums and interpretive centers on the original sites, pilgrimages are gaining in popularity, especially with young descendants who bring art, activism and fresh energy to community history.
The time-honored pledge to "never again" allow the incarceration history to be repeated is being updated to "Never again is now."
Presidential rhetoric that labels immigrants as animals and rapists and the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld an immigration ban that discriminates in the name of national security, has activated many pilgrims to discuss the historic parallels.
Dissent is in the DNA of pilgrims to Tule Lake. It became a maximum-security segregation center to punish those who protested the injustice of their incarceration in their answers on a loyalty questionnaire.
Tule Lake pilgrims this year launched the Japanese American Action Network and, after the traditional memorial service, hundreds of attendees, including many 80- and 90-year-olds, gathered in front of the former jail and roared mightily in protest against the administration's family separation policy.
The tragedy and trauma of the border crisis and the separation of families has been especially poignant for elderly survivors who were children in the early 1940s, and who sometimes say they either don't have memories or don't wish to talk about them.
An 87-year-old woman from Santa Barbara who was 11 when she was confined in Wyoming said that she hadn't told her children about this part of her life. "It's like you don't tell them you were held at Alcatraz, you know."
Kurt Yokoyama Ikeda, 27, of Long Beach, attended three pilgrimages this year. His great-grandfather was picked up by the FBI soon after Pearl Harbor and wasn't seen for years after, something that his grandfather didn't talk about until right before he died.
"If you are here with family," he said, "share the story with them. Time is running out."
Nancy Ukai, a Berkeley native, is the director of a digital history project, www.50objects.org, funded in part by the National Park Service. Twelve of her relatives were incarcerated at Tanforan and Topaz. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.
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