“Given our community’s experience, we have a special obligation to stand up when others are persecuted. Given the current wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear-mongering and immigrant scapegoating, we must not remain silent. It is our duty as Americans who endured one of America’s ugliest missteps to ensure the civil, human, and Constitutional rights of all people be protected during times of crisis. This is the real lesson we, and all Americans, must learn.”
—from “Remembrance and Redress” by Bruce Embrey, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee
The current exhibit at the Muzeo in Anaheim, “I am an American: Japanese Incarceration in a Time of Fear” features an in-depth exploration of the Japanese Internment experience from the perspective of local residents living in Anaheim before, during, and after President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1941, which caused thousands of Japanese-Americans to be forced into concentration camps during World War II.
The Japanese-American Community in Anaheim
Japanese pioneers of Anaheim began to immigrate to the city in the late 1890s, with numbers steadily increasing as the years went by. By 1940, there were 567 Japanese people living in the city.
Before and after WWII, Anaheim was a center for local Japanese American business, religion, and social life in Orange County. There was the Orange County Buddhist Church (on Dale St.), a center of social and cultural life.
Yoshimasa Shigekawa was instrumental in the establishment of the Japanese Free Methodist Church in Anaheim in 1921, serving as a minister from 1924-1936. His family’s life was interrupted in May 1942 when the couple and four of their children were sent to the Poston Incarceration Camp.
Even prior to WWII, Japanese Americans experienced waves of anti-immigrant laws. In 1894, a U.S. district court ruled hat the Naturalization Act of 1790, allowing white immigrants to become US citizens, did not apply to Japanese immigrants.
By 1940, 127,947 Japanese Americans lived in the mainland US, with the majority on the West Coast, plus 157,905 lived in the Territory of Hawaii.
Fear Leads to Mass Incarceration
On Dec 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The following day, the US declared war on Japan and entered WWII. After the attack, fears ran high among the American people. That month, the FBI and police began raiding Japanese American homes and businesses, arresting and detaining community leaders and people deemed a threat to national security.
On Feb 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the creation of “military exclusion zones” from which anyone could be excluded for protection against espionage and sabotage. It was primarily used against people of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and legal residents.
The Poston Experience
After president Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and detained in a system of “relocation” centers.
Most Japanese-American residents of Anaheim were sent to the Poston Relocation Center in Arizona, which was actually located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The peak population at Poston was 17,814, making it the third largest city in Arizona in 1942.
While living at the camp, Japanese American laborers participated in construction of the irrigation system that provided water for landscaping of living areas, established agricultural programs, and created recreational and educational facilities.
The harsh climate featured hot and humid summers and cold winter nights. Dust was a constant problem.
Ruth Akiko (Ikeda) Matsuda attended Anaheim High School and was in her sophomore year when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and she and her family were sent to Poston.
She later recounted to her son, Michael Matsuda, how scary the long train ride was to the Poston Incarceration Camp: “She recalled that when they arrived, the camp was desolate, cold, and windy. The barracks were poorly constructed, allowing the wind and dust to penetrate. The early food was horrible, including canned items like Spam. And she particularly disliked the communal bathrooms, which offered no privacy.”
And yet, in the midst of these harsh conditions, the people living at Poston did their best to create community life. Activities of teenagers like Ruth included school, dances, sports, and movies. She met her future husband, Jack Takeo Matsuda, while incarcerated at Poston.
John Hiroshi Iwashita was just finishing fourth grade when his family was forced to evacuate in May 1942 to Poston. He recalls that prior to incarceration the family had to sell their belongings including a car and a trailer, for whatever they could get for them.
Upon arriving in the camp, Iwashita recalled having to fill bags with hay to serve as mattresses. His father worked as a fireman in the camp. In Poston he attended fifth through seventh grades, and participated in sports, including basketball and baseball.
Miwako “Miko” Yoshimine attended Horace Mann Elementary School in Anaheim. When she was 13, she was evacuated to Poston with her parents and three siblings.
Miko remembers working in the fields, picking cotton. On a positive note, she said that she had fun playing soccer and participating in musical programs, such as “Singspiration.”
Carl Yoshimine had started attending college when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In May 1942, after turning in the family’s car to the Dodge dealership and selling off their personal goods, the Yoshimine family was evacuated to Poston.
Carl remembers that he was very angry that his family was relocated “because we were American citizens.” In an attempt to deal with his anger, Carl attended church and became interested in the ministry. He eventually went to divinity school and became pastor of the Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church.
“My mother was five months pregnant when our family arrived in the desolate desert of Poston where temperatures reached 120 degrees,” remembers Marlene Shigekawa. “The drinking water was full of mud due the newly installed pipes. Mattresses had to be filled with straw. The quickly-made barracks were full of walls with knot holes, allowing fierce desert dust storms to invade the barrack with dust.”
In additional to numerous personal stories, memorabilia, and photographs documenting life at Poston, the exhibit features a full-sized replica of a room in the barracks of the internment camp.
Before the war, Gene Isao Sogioka worked for Walt Disney Studios as an animator for such films as Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
In 1942, he and his family were sent to the Poston camp. During the two years he spent in detention, he produced more than 150 watercolors, depicting daily life in the concentration camp.
In the late 1980s, Sogioka’s camp paintings were discovered in the archives of the Cornell University Library. As a result, Sogioka and several other artists who produced work in the camps were interviewed and their work published in a book entitled Beyond Words: Images from America’s Concentration Camps in 1987.
Some of Sogioka’s paintings were exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution exhibition, “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the US Constitution” and were on display in Washington DC from 1987-2004. He died in 1988.
Mendez v. Westminster, the Mendez Family, and the Munemitsu Family
Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark California civil rights case that desegregated California schools, took place during WWII, and has a unique local connection to the Japanese Internment Experience.
Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, who were the plaintiffs in the Orange County lawsuit that would ultimately lead to desegregation of schools, would never have been in Westminster, nor would they have been able to afford the lawsuit, if they had not been leasing the farm from the Munemitsu family, who as Japanese Americans were being incarcerated during WWII in Poston, Arizona.
Because the Mendez family lived in the white district in Westminster, they came face-to-face with the segregated policies of the Westminster school district, which turned their children away. Because they were entrusted by the Munemitsus to care for and lease their farm, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez were not struggling laborers but fairly affluent farmers who had the finances to support a costly and lengthy lawsuit.
Without the Munemitsu family and the lease agreement, there would have been no Mendez v. Westminster. The vast majority of Japanese Americans lost their property as a result of the mass incarceration, but the Munemitsu family’s case is one of the rare instances in which leases were signed and honored.
In the gift shop of the Muzeo, there’s a children’s book available called Sylvia and Aki, which is about the relationship between Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu—both of whom experienced different types of institutional racism in Orange County—segregation (Sylvia), and internment (Aki).
The Famous 442nd: Japanese Americans Fought Fiercely for America
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up nearly entirely of Japanese Americans, was the United States Army’s most decorated infantry regiment ever. One was Daniel Inouye, who would later go on to serve four decades in the US Senate. In the end, more than 14,000 served in the 442nd. Between them, they were awarded 18,143 awards.
Many members of the 442nd were recruited from various internment camps, including Poston. The exhibit includes photographs and memorabilia commemorating these highly-decorated soldiers, who (despite their internment) chose to fight for the ideals of America, and against the forces of fascism in Europe.
Rebuilding Their Lives in Anaheim
Following the closure of the incarceration camps at the end of World War II, those who returned had to build lives that had been dramatically altered by their experiences in the camps. In Anaheim, non-Japanese businesses and residents had moved into sections of the town previously occupied by Japanese Americans.
1945-1950 was a period of intensive efforts to re-establish Japanese-American communities across California. In Anaheim, the Japanese Free Methodist Church, which had stored items for returning families, re-instituted its usual activities and services.
The 1950s and 1960s in Anaheim saw an increase in the Japanese American population as the city transitioned form an agricultural based economy to one that was industrial-based, including a booming aerospace industry.
Attracted by the economic opportunities offered by the City of Anaheim, a new Japanese American community was established in a square mile block around the Ball Rd, Dale St, and Beach Blvd sector west of Anaheim’s downtown, including the East West Shopping Center on Ball Rd, which opened in 1966. The center included the Asahi Beauty Salon, Nippon Foods grocery store, Miki’s Tea House Restaurant, Masumi Confectionary and the East West Furniture Store.
Nancy (Sakayeda) Eagan opened Asahi Beauty Salon, one of the East West Center’s first tenants in 1968. After 51 years in business, Nancy still owns and operates the Asahi Beauty Salon at its original location. She credits some of her success to her bilingual skills, since older Japanese American customers were more comfortable conversing with her in Japanese.
In 1977 the Pear Tree Center officially opened at on Ball Rd. with Tomoko Shiseido Cosmetics, Kunimatsuya Toys, Tsutsumi Do Books and Cards, Mikawaya Confectionary and Asahi II Beauty Salon. Across the street was the Tabiji Restaurant and Toyo Fish Market.
This area also featured several Japanese American nurseries, such as the FS Nursery, the Natanaka Nursery, Sugano’s Egg Ranch, and the Fujishige Farm.
From the late 1960s through the 1980s this area of Anaheim was the center of the Japanese American community in Orange County.
The exhibit features numerous stories of individuals and families who successfully re-built their lives, even as they continued to experience discrimination.
For example, after their release from Poston, Ruth and Jack Matsuda moved to Chicago, Illinois and then retuned to Orange County in 1949, where local prejudice against Japanese Americans made it very difficult to rent an apartment, due to racially restrictive housing covenants that were widespread until they became illegal in the 1960s.
Ruth and Jack’s son, Michael Matsuda, went on to receive a Masters degree and eventually served as Superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in 2014.
In the late 1990s, Michael Matsuda persuaded the AUHSD to present diplomas to former Japanese American students, like his mother, who were sent to incarceration camps during WWII. At the age of 71, Ruth Ikeda Matsuda received her diploma 52 years later, marching alongside hundreds of seniors form the Anaheim High School class of 1997.
Another post-WWII success story is that of Frank C. Hirahara, who was incarcerated at Heart Mountian, Wyoming. He was only 16 years old when he went into camp and he and his father are now renowned for their over 2,000 black and white photograph collection that they took and processed in a secret underground darkroom in Heart Mountain from 1943-1945. This is the largest private photo collection taken there during the war.
After the war, Frank earned a degree in electrical engineering and eventually moved to Anaheim in 1955 with his wife Mary and daughter Patti to pursue a career in the aerospace industry.
He went to work for North American Aviation in Downey, where he worked on missile programs, then the Apollo Space program as supervisor of the systems integration unit. He worked on the Space Shuttle and other NASA programs, and received numerous awards.
Frank’s daughter Patti has spent 20 years working with the City of Anaheim to ensure the legacy of the Japanese pioneers in Anaheim will be preserved, not only through this exhibit, but at her alma mater of Anaheim High School. The Hirahara Family is the only four generational family in the City of Anaheim’s Heritage Collection and their family story can be found on the Anaheim Public Library’s web page http://anaheim.net/2626/Hirahara-Family-Photo-Collection.
On August 24th, she helped coordinate “The Poston Experience – Paving the Way for the Next Generations” educational program presented by the Anaheim Union High School District and Anaheim High School. This two-hour event helped introduce the history of the Japanese American incarceration through video interpretations of current local students from both the Anaheim Union High School District and the Anaheim Elementary School District at Anaheim High School’s historic Cook Auditorium. 800 people attended, including students who found the subject fascinating and are now asking their teachers for more information about what happened to Japanese Americans and their descendants from 1942 – 1945 and their forced incarceration. Patti was the event’s MC and panel moderator.
Redress and Reparations
The exhibit also documents the multi-decade process though which the US government, at the urging of dedicated activists and politicians, came to reckon with and try to make amends for the bitter mistake that was Japanese mass incarceration during World War II.
In 1976 President Gerald R. Ford issued a proclamation entitled “An American Promise,” formally ending the relocation program that began 34 years earlier with Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The executive order had remained on the books years after its directives had been abandoned.
There’s a profound essay on the wall entitled “Remembrance and Redress” by Bruce Embrey, Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee.
“The decision to evacuate and then imprison 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry during World War II capped a century of exclusionary race-based policy that either barred Asian immigrants or denied those already settled in the United Staes such basic rights as owning property or enjoying opportunities to participate in American society,” Embrey writes. “Only after these exclusionary policies were peeled away one by one did the nation come to terms with the legacies of discrimination and face the historic injustice of internment.”
In 1969, the first community-wide Manzanar Pilgrimage was organized, led by Victor Shibata, Warren Furutani, and Jim Matsuoka.
“Those returning for the first time since the war all recognized the profound import of remembering what happened on those grounds,” Embrey explains.
Beginning in 1970, various Japanese American civic groups began to call for a formal recognition of the illegal nature of Executive Order 9066 and for reparations for the damage inflicted on the community.
Beginning in 1971, the Manzanar Committee advocated for the state of California to establish Manzanar (former internment camp) as a state historic landmark.
In 1980, leaders like Senator Daniel Inouye helped to form the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians—to explore the issue through community hearings.
“A coming together of our community and the painstaking development of a nationwide grassroots movement was only possible because of the willingness of those who were incarcerated to tell their stories, first at Pilgrimages and community meetings, and then before an entire nation during the hearings of the Commission on Wartime Internment and Relocation of Civilians in 1980-81,” Embrey explains.
A 1982 Congressional commission later noted in their report “Personal Justice Denied” that “the broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”
The passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a victory of the Japanese American community and for all democratic minded people everywhere.
Embrey writes, “Executive Order 9066 and the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 are more than a Japanese American story. They serve as a profound lesson of what can happen when a group is profiled and scapegoated in the name of national security. It is an American story, capturing both the strengths and weaknesses of our nation’s democracy, its fragility and its resilience.
Redress will be a hollow victory for our community if we stand idly by while others are threatened. Given our community’s experience, we have a special obligation to stand up when others are persecuted. Given the current wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fear-mongering and immigrant scapegoating, we must not remain silent. It is our duty as Americans who endure one of America’s ugliest missteps to ensure the civil, human, and Constitutional rights of all people be protected during times of crisis. This is the real lesson we, and all Americans, must learn.”
On the Poston monument there is a statement that reads: “May it serve as a constant reminder of our past so that Americans in the future will never again be denied their constitutional rights and may the remembrance of that experience serve to advance the evolution of the human spirit.”
Local author Marlene Shigekawa has written two children’s books about the Poston experience: Blue Jay in the Desert and Welcome Home Swallows.
Shigekawa states: “We still have friends from those days and attend many of the high school reunions. Anaheim is our home regardless of where we now live. It lives in our hearts due to the strong community connections we experienced then and also now. Beyond serving as a reminder to avoid repeating the past, our Poston history and the entire Japanese American incarceration experience has given us the opportunity to reclaim our history, our identity, and who we are as a community.”
Categories: Local News