Rafu Staff Report
With about 100 people in attendance, a Shinto purification ceremony was held Monday at an oak grove that marks the site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Center.
On Dec. 16, 1941, the Immigration and Naturalization Service took over the former Civilian Conservation Corps camp and used it to hold Japanese, German and Italian immigrants who had been arrested after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japanese Peruvians who had been rounded up and brought to the U.S. were also interned at Tuna Canyon, which remained in operation until October 1943. The prisoners were sent to other Justice Department camps or the War Relocation Authority camps.
The camp buildings were razed more than 50 years ago to make way for the Verdugo Hills Golf Course. The Los Angeles City Council has designated the area around the grove as a historic-cultural monument, as the trees date back to World War II. The property owner, Snowball West Investments, says it wants to preserve the site’s history but is opposed to landmark designation because it would impose restrictions on development.
“When you walk into this space, I’m sure that you could feel the breeze and the presence of the people who were here,” said Nancy Oda of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center and the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition. “We can begin to imagine what the trees have heard if only they could talk … They were farmers, fishermen, Buddhist priests, leaders like bankers, businessmen, Japanese language school teachers, mostly men …
“One goal of the coalition is to collect the stories, poems and photos to preserve materials for educational purposes. We have the opportunity to teach the people of the city of Los Angeles, the nation and the world about a dark episode … Today we begin the first step in memorializing this space and eventually plan to install a walking path with informative plaques.”
Special guests included David Scott, whose grandfather, Merrill H. Scott, was the officer in charge of Tuna Canyon; Teresa Lamb Simpson, field deputy to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who presented a certificate of recognition to the coalition; Wesley Hernandez from the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Felipe Fuentes; and family members of the detainees.
The purification rite was conducted by Rev. Dr. Yoshi Alfred Tsuyuki of Konko Church, whose father was among those interned at Tuna Canyon. He was assisted by Michelle Kuruma, with Ms. Aiko Kurland playing the flute.
“Today, upon the 72nd anniversary of this former detention station, may its historical significance be transmitted to the children of this generation and their children’s children to learn about how the United States of America goes about righting injustices placed upon their own citizens,” said Tsuyuki. “… It should be our purpose to see that this and other sites, set apart from time to time, remain undefiled in fact as well as in ideal. Let not the devastating politics be allowed to despoil this site and other significant sites … Let changes or alterations be made by friends and respecters of sites meaningful and historical, not by those who fail to understand.”
Tsuyuki called on members of the audience to make offerings of tamakushi (sacred tree branches), including H. Ernie Nishii, grandson of an arrested Buddhist priest; Hans Eberhard, representing the German community; Mariana Gatto, representing the Italian community; architect Janek Dombrona, representing Snowball West; Lloyd Hitt of the Little Landers Historical Society and Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition; and Hank Umemoto, author of “Manzanar to Mount Whitney.”
Hitt gave thanks to his friend Paul Tsuneishi, who was unable to attend. “Paul was someone who helped me to understand what really happened during World War II and the postwar racism that still existed in Southern California towards Japanese Americans.”
Tsuyuki recognized Oda, whose father, Tatsuo Inouye, was his judo teacher. He recalled training as a 15-year-old with Oda and her sister, Ernie Jane Nishii, who “were throwing me around like a wet rag all over the place.” Since then, Tsuyuki said, “I’ve had the utmost respect for women. So when Nancy Oda said, ‘Sensei, I need your assistance for this purification dedication,’ it was a no-brainer.”
At a reception held after the ceremony at the SFVJACC in Pacoima, attendees sang “Silent Night” in English, Japanese, German, Italian, and Spanish to show solidarity.
In a letter thanking Michael Hoberman of Snowball West for allowing the ceremony to be held, Oda said, “Let’s continue to work together for the development of our common goals and better relations.”
Snowball West has filed suit against the city to have the historic-cultural landmark designation rescinded.
To see a video of the ceremony shot by Joe Barrett, click here.
Photos by Marc Stirdivant