Museum exhibit covers Japanese internment
By Lou Fancher
With its latest exhibit, a tiny museum here is telling a monumental story.
The artifacts and photographs of the striking exhibit "Art of Survial,'' tucked into the cozy Museum of the San Ramon Valley, display a dark period in U.S. history, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, signed Executive Order No. 9066.
The directive issued after the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack during World War II sent "all persons of Japanese ancestry" on the West Coast -- including families in the San Ramon Valley -- to internment camps.
After decades of working and contributing to society in the United States, Japanese-born foreign nationals and their children born in the U.S. (and therefore American citizens) were forced within just three months of the executive order to abandon their homes, employment and schooling.
Taking only what they could carry, valley families met at the Danville depot and were transported to temporary barracks -- horse stalls -- at Turlock Fairgrounds. Eventually, the Japanese Americans were sent to Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona, one of 10 "relocation" centers.
The exhibit features Hiroshi Watanabe's photographs of artifacts and other images from Tule Lake in Northern California's Modoc County. A partnership with the Japanese-American Museum of San Jose and the National Park Service and support from Kristi Yamaguchi's Always Dream Foundation and the Diablo Valley Japanese-American Citizens League in Concord brought the traveling exhibit to the museum.
"We wanted to tell the full story of the internment camps because while most Americans know about it as a page from their history classes long ago, very few people have ever examined it in any depth," says Jerry Warren, the Museum of the San Ramon Valley's board president. "We always enhance an exhibit by relating the local stories. In this case, we examined the experiences of local Japanese-American families we could identify because their tales were typical of what happened to the other 120,000 people incarcerated in the camps. You can change the names and places, and they will fit just as well in Berkeley, San Francisco or Los Angeles."
The oral and written histories included in the exhibit describe hard journeys, tense transitions, excessive turmoil and tense interrogations. But the overall impression is of honor, art and the resilience of the people. Having lost privacy, property and personal freedom, kids played baseball and held social dances; adults worked jobs operating the camps and pursued artistic expression through music, painting, dance and crafts.
Highlighted are stories of families like that of Tanejiro Hirano, a farmer who shipped his farm's fresh produce to Heinz Cannery for ketchup and baby food. After his release from the camp, the family settled in San Jose rather than Danville because "They were a little friendlier there," according Hirano's words in exhibit notes.
The Sakata, Fukuchi, Yonemoto, Hikido and Matsumoto families similarly worked in the valley's thriving agricultural and merchant industries while their children attended local schools.
Tamio Sakata served in the U.S. Army's 442nd Regiment and survived the war to return and operate a nursery in San Leandro.
Another military man, June Ajari, whose parents had settled and planted a pear orchard on land that is today crossed by Del Amigo Road, was touring Japan when the war broke out. Interned in Japan, his imprisonment in that country was an indication of the U.S. government's high-level mistrust of Japanese Americans.
"The traveling exhibit focused on the art and objects created in the camps by internees trying to bring a sense of beauty and normalcy into this wrenching experience for themselves and their families," says museum Executive Director Daniel Dunn, adding that the National World War II Museum also lent artifacts to the exhibit.
Most significant for Warren and Dunn are the objects and information being shared by local members of the Japanese-American community. A set of baseball figurines carved by a 15-year-old boy -- missing only the center fielder that was given by the boy to a friend in the camp -- came from a valley family and is Dunn's favorite. Warren cherishes Alice Hikido's contribution.
"(She) asked me if I had called the Yonemotos or the Fukuchis. 'Do you need a phone number?' She wrote them all out for me, and did that ever unlock doors," he says.
Warren also visited Sayeko Yonemoto Noguchi in Palo Alto, who he says, "whipped out a dusty photograph album with a 1929 picture of her mom and all the kids watering seedling tomatoes out at their Danville farm. No one around here had ever seen any picture of that once-prevalent dry land tomato farm practice."
Response from the community has been enormous, says Warren. A 40-person adult education class arrived from Stockton; entire families with multiple generations visit daily; and an ambitious series of off-site programs promises to attract continued attention with programs on reflections from baseball historians Marty Laurie and Kerry Yo Nakagawa (April 14); Shirley Muramoto-Wong's presentation on art and culture in the camps (April 21) and a conversation and celebration-of-life event led by Japanese-American army veterans (May 6).