By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
ARCADIA — Santa Anita Park, where Japanese Americans were held against their will 70 years ago, was the setting for a community celebration last Saturday.
For seven months in 1942, the famed racetrack was turned into an “assembly center” that housed nearly 20,000 local Nikkei before they sent to larger “relocation centers” further inland, in many cases Manzanar.
The Camp Stories Award Show, presented by the Cherry Blossom Festival of Southern California and held in the racetrack’s Chandelier Room, honored individuals and groups for their contributions to the Japanese American community and the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The event included a breakfast reception in the Turf Club; a silent auction; a segment from Raechel Donahue’s documentary “Heart Mountain: An All-American Town”; and “The Wedding Dress,” a photo exhibit by Toyo Miyatake Studio.
The dress was first worn on March 26, 1944 by Chiyomi Ogawa when she married her husband, Kaz, at Manzanar. Donna Ogawa, their daughter, noted that it was a love story that almost didn’t happen. “My mom was on the last boat from Japan, before the war started. My dad’s girlfriend was on the boat that had to turn back to Japan. And so, my mom and dad met at Terminal Island, where both their families lived. Then they were all sent to Manzanar. My brother (Robert) was also born in Manzanar.”
Over the years, the gown — made by Chiyomi’s Auntie Nui in camp — was worn by five other women for their weddings: Chickie Hino and Haru Fujihara, Kaz’s sisters; Hasie Ogawa, Kaz’s brother’s wife; Kay Fujikawa, a close family friend; and Nattie Koyama, Kaz’s cousin. Of the six, Chiyomi is the only survivor. Kaz passed away in 1980.
At the event, the gown was modeled by Chiyomi’s 14-year-old great-granddaughter, Lani. “We had Lani wear the wedding gown as it fit her much better than my daughters and I,” said Donna, Lani’s grandmother. “My mom’s waist was only 21 3/4 inches back then … They were all so thin back then.”
Chiyomi posed for photos with Lani, twin granddaughters Michelle Nomura (Lani’s mother) and Carrie Furukawa, and daughter Donna.
The awards program included four songs — “Do the Dream” and “I Am an American,” written and performed by recording artist and TV host Kathy Bee; the 1940s hit “Skylark” and “Jupiter: The Voice,” which has provided inspiration for tsunami victims, performed by singer Keiko Kawashima and keyboard player Scott Nagatani of the Grateful Crane Ensemble.
The emcee, actor Rodney Kageyama, said, “We’re making history by returning here, having persevered, having recovered with dignity … We would like to acknowledge those in the audience who were incarcerated here at Santa Anita Racetrack. Thank you to all of you who paved the way.”
Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, who represents Little Tokyo, said she was there to honor “people I have grown to love.” While growing up in the Midwest, she learned about the 442nd RCT from her uncle, who was in the 92nd Infantry in Italy. At USC, she had a good friend whose mother had been interned in Poston, Ariz. And visiting Manzanar has been “a haunting experience to this day,” she said.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte) recounted the ceremony held in Washington, D.C. last year “to give the Congressional Gold Medal to all the brave Japanese American soldiers that fought during World War II … As I watched these men, now frail and elderly, many in wheelchairs and walkers, and heard about the incredible sacrifices they made, I thought about their incredible spirit. So I am so honored to be here … and I’m so proud to represent so many of you in Congress.”
The Lost Years
Pete Siberell, director of special projects at Santa Anita, gave a brief history of the racetrack, which opened in 1934 and was the home of Seabiscuit, the horse that won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. More recently, I’ll Have Another won the Santa Anita Derby in April and was trying to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 34 years.
“Santa Anita served the federal government during the war years,” Siberell said, “as an assembly and processing center for 20,000 Japanese Americans for seven months in 1942 and as an Army base called Camp Santa Anita … from 1942 to 1944.”
Carolyn Conley coordinator of brand management for HRTV, Santa Anita’s sports channel, produced and narrated a 30-minute documentary, “The Lost Years,” which covers that part of the racetrack’s history. It can be seen online at hrtv.com.
“I have a deep passion for Santa Anita. I came here when I was 20 years old … to exercise racehorses for some of the greats here like Charlie Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, and Richard Mandella. It was that passion that led me to this story,” said Conley. “Following World War II, decades went by where no one here would speak of what took place during the war years. As times have changed, it became more apparent that this story needed to be told, especially in the years following 9/11 when racial profiling was beginning to show its face once again.”
She thanked the interviewees, who included former internees George “Horse” Yoshinaga, Rose Ochi and Kay Komai, and Chris Komai of the Japanese American National Museum.
Due to “very limited time and resources,” Conley acknowledged, “I feel like the documentary doesn’t capture much of the anger and emotion … But it does at least enlighten our race-goers to what took place here … and I felt that that was a good starting point … I felt like I had a huge responsibility … and I’m sincerely hopeful that we can create an extended version here at HRTV and perhaps bring forth a little bit more of the emotion.”
Honorees of All Ages
Event organizer Wendy Anderson said the awards were meant to “celebrate the accomplishments of four generations of Americans, from 7 years old to 89 years young.”
• Poet, playwright and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, who was interned at Tule Lake, came from San Francisco to accept his award. He was introduced by Don Hata, professor emeritus of history at CSU Dominguez Hills. Noting that Kashiwagi was invited last year to an evening of American poetry at the White House, Hata said, “He has come a long way from the wartime incarceration, when he was labeled for refusing to answer what he rightfully considered to be a flawed loyalty questionnaire that violated his basic civil rights as a U.S. citizen …
“He openly rejected the patronizing, emasculating, obsequious stereotype of Nisei as meek and docile ‘quiet Americans.’ He boldly denounced the injustice of the mass incarceration … We honor his courageous, lifelong commitment to exposing the truth, refuting the long-held lies and mythology about the no-no boys, who were scurrilously slandered as ‘disloyals’ and ‘troublemakers,’ by straightforwardly speaking truth to power.”
Before reading one of his poems, “The Train,” Kashiwagi, 89, said, “I know I’m not deserving of that (introduction), but still I’m delighted to hear it … To live is a gift, and I have been extremely blessed and I’m thankful for every moment.”
• In September 1944, 19-year-old Esther Takei Nishio left her family in camp to attend Pasadena Junior College as a test case to see how the locals would react. Former Pasadena City College President Lisa Sugimoto, who called her “one of my heroes,” explained, “On Esther’s shoulders was the burden and opportunity to open the door for other Japanese Americans to return to California. The plan was devised by two sympathetic Pasadena local Quakers (Hugh Anderson and William Carr) … But when word got out of her return and it made front-page news, she endured hatred, fear and intolerance.”
One man formed a “Ban the Japs” committee and an elderly woman at a bus stop called Nishio a “Jap” and spat at her. “Esther knew she was representing those she’d left behind in camp and she didn’t want to jeopardize the potential of their return home,” Sugimoto said. “She endured indignity and hatred … with the support of Quakers, other students and college administrators. When Esther’s story went worldwide, encouraging letters from military personnel who heard of her plight poured into Pasadena.”
Nishio, who was joined by her husband Shig, recalled, “My father was picked up by the FBI sometime during the spring of ’42. So my mother and I set foot in Santa Anita together on April 30, 1942. Our new home was a barrack in the parking lot in front of the grandstand. My father joined us in August … and we were shipped off to Granada Relocation Center in Colorado.”
Although she was happy to go back to California, the test case got off to a rough start when “the school board was bombarded by irate Pasadenans … widows and wives of servicemen fighting in the South Pacific.” But when the West Coast exclusion order was lifted in January 1945, Nishio was “glad that something good came out of that. “
• The late Toyo Miyatake was introduced by Rose Ochi, a key leader in establishing the Manzanar National Historic Site. Even though photography was initially prohibited, Miyatake smuggled in a lens into Manzanar and built a camera. Ochi praised him for “capturing everyday life in the Manzanar concentration camp” and providing “a lasting visual history, photos of marriages, births, deaths and personal hardships and struggles, such as a young man leaving his parents behind barbed wire to join the U.S. Army.”
She added that Miyatake’s son Archie and grandson Alan, who accepted the award, “have been carrying Toyo’s legacy of recording the community’s history and have been very generous with their time.”
“It’s really an honor to be mentioned with the rest of the honorees. I know my family really appreciates it,” Alan Miyatake said.
“I want to thank everybody for coming here to honor my father,” said Archie Miyatake.
• The producers of “The Manzanar Fishing Club,” Cory Shiozaki and Richard Imamura, were introduced by Mas Okui, their history teacher at Gardena High School. The documentary is about “internees who, under the noses of the Army guards, crept under barbed wire, sneaked out of Manzanar concentration camp to fish for trout in the Sierra Nevada, which at that time was not an easy task,” Okui explained. “Climbing over passes 10,000 feet high, virtually no trails, braving extremely cold nights, not having much to eat, they nonetheless persevered.”
“We wanted to just acknowledge what went before and create an inspiring story of a different side of the internment,” said Imamura. “… To be connected personally with the camp, you have to be Japanese American. To be a fisherman, well, anyone could do it. So through this vehicle we thought we could reach people who are not Japanese, even reach the younger generations who haven’t much understanding of the camps …
“We are inspired by one of the comments that Archie (Miyatake) gave us during his interview. He told us that ‘the air just tasted better’ outside of the wire.”
Shiozaki said he was inspired by Toyo Miyatake’s photo of “the man known as ‘Ishikawa Fisherman.’ For 65 years, no one even remembered his first name. Just five years ago we discovered his first name was Heihachi … He lived in the same block as the Miyatake family and he brought home a string of golden trout that no one had ever seen before, and Toyo grabbed his camera and recorded this remarkable event … That’s what really spawned the interest in wanting to pursue this documentary.”
• The American Friends Service Committee was recognized for helping Nikkei before, during and after their incarceration. In addition to protesting the internment, “Southern California Quakers … brought messages, mail, gifts and supplies to the internees,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara. “They undertook extraordinary efforts to help relocate Japanese Americans from out of the camps to places away from the West Coast after the government approved such relocations. They reached out to colleges and universities in the Midwest and in the East which were willing to receive evacuees … Approximately 4,500 students were supported in this way. The Quakers also established hostels in cities where those released from camps could live while working and looking for jobs.”
Eisha Mason, Pacific Southwest regional director of AFSC, said, “I’m honored because I get to meet people who have really demonstrated qualities that we value so much — a fierce kind of courage, dignity in the face of incredible obstacles, perseverance … and an enduring moral conscience. In being with you today, I am reminded and I am re-inspired to be true to these values.”
Phil Way noted that his father, John Way, worked for AFSC during the war and visited Santa Anita in 1942. “I was 3 years old … but I remember distinctly, as one of my most vivid memories of my early life, sitting in my father’s car in the parking lot right here while he’s talking to people in the barracks and the horse stalls.”
“This whole era and the issue have remained part of my life perspective for all of my life,” said Day. “… In 2001, after the horrible events of that year and the fear of Muslims that swept the country, I was highly motivated to join others, including members of the Japanese American community here in L.A., to say, ‘Let’s not do this again.’”
Also representing AFSC was Program Director Anthony Marsh.
• The U.S.-Japan Council, a network of Japanese American leaders dedicated to strengthening U.S.-Japan relations, was introduced by Vince Caballero, Union Bank senior vice president and regional manager. After the tsunami, USJC established the Tomodachi Initiative in partnership with the two governments and Japanese corporations. Its goal is “placing students touched by this tragedy, offering opportunities for Japanese and American students to participate in cultural and educational exchange programs, particularly students from the devastated Tohoku region,” said Caballero.
Bryan Takeda, USJC’s Los Angeles area manager, observed, “Listening to the program this morning, it occurred to me that Japanese are a very resilient and very courageous people. To live through the experience of the concentration camps and most recently to live through this triple disaster in Japan should really make us proud to be Japanese and Japanese Americans.”
He stressed that the relief work will go on for years. “Tens of thousands of families are still without their homes … So our efforts will continue and we hope that you will continue your support for Japan to bring back some sense of normalcy to their lives. But rest assured, the people of Tohoku will come back …. They just need our help to get there.”
• Patty Kinaga and her daughter, Emily Kinaga Wong, were introduced by a family friend, State Controller John Chiang. Last year’s Thousand Hearts Concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, a benefit for the tsunami victims, was the result of a conversation while watching the disaster unfold on TV. “Emily … still at a very tender age, she’s now 7, posed a very powerful question for a child of her youth and asked her mom what could they do,” said Chiang. “I think that shows heroic and deep understanding for Emily … to exercise the empathy and compassion and to start to formulate values that reflect both her mom and dad.”
Kinaga, an attorney and videographer, has documented the stories of her mother, who was detained at Santa Anita, and her father, who served in the 442nd. “When we present this award, we have grandmother to daughter to child, and that’s a pure joy and hope for America and the world’s future,” Chiang said.
Students at Emily’s current and former schools helped her to make 1,000 paper hearts containing messages of encouragement to the children of Japan. Emily said, “I want to thank my mom and my dad for supporting me when I wanted to make connecting hearts for the children I saw on TV. I want to thank my two schools … for their support in making the hearts.”
Kinaga, who had participated in the Japanese American Leadership Delegation to Japan, credited her daughter’s “connecting hearts” idea with inspiring the concert and thanked everyone who helped make it a reality.
Choking up a little, she continued, “I would like to dedicate today’s award to my mother, who wanted to be present here. She was not able to attend because last night she called and said she was too ill to come … And to my dad, who did pass on, who was at Tanforan (Assembly Center). But they met at Heart Mountain. It was romance behind the barbed wires. I want to dedicate this to Mom. She taught us to face challenges and adversity with strength, a little humor and grace, and she taught us to dream and love.”
The event was followed by a tram tour of Santa Anita, during which Shig Nishio pointed out the stable where he and his family lived. Attendees also viewed the plaque near the main entrance providing the history of the assembly center.