By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo
MONTEBELLO — The Tuna Canyon luncheon on Oct. 8 at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello could have been yet another fundraiser centered around the tragic Japanese American internment experience. But it was more.
It could have been another opportunity for our political leaders to vow, “Never again!” as they work to prevent the injustices from being repeated in modern America. But it was more.
The difference could be found in the actual words of Tuna Canyon Detention Station’s Issei prisoners echoing back from the 1940s through their diary entries, letters, and poems enhanced by the Grateful Crane Ensemble’s performance and executive producer/writer Soji Kashiwagi’s dramatic interpretation.
Compelled by a reverence for history and a gift for interpreting life from a Nikkei perspective, Grateful Crane actors, singers, and musicians tapped into war’s parasitic toll and took the audience of nearly 400 on an emotional journey, vaulting seven decades.
Japanese American National Museum President and Chief Executive Officer Ann Burroughs set an insightful tone during her address, underscoring “the unbelievable courage and fortitude that saw (the detainees) through those dark years.” She reminded the descendants attending the event that the injustices endured by their parents and grandparents “shaped you as surely as it shaped them,” adding a cautionary reference to today’s political climate: “We find ourselves once again at a time of division and discrimination.”
Consul General of Japan Akira Chiba paid tribute to the Issei, who exercised gaman (“enduring the unbearable”) during the war. He also commended those “who convinced America that redress was an honorable request.”
Unique in that it imprisoned Japanese, Italian, German, and Japanese Peruvian immigrants after the outbreak of World War II, Tuna Canyon was little known until a few years ago when preservation efforts began and the lifelong work of Lloyd Hitt and the late Paul Tsuneishi to raise awareness of the camp came to light.
Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition President Nancy Oda called upon the descendants to help preserve the lessons embodied in the wartime stories through donations and by providing their oral histories. “It all starts with us,” she reminded.
The coalition was recently awarded a National Park Service Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant for $54,000 to support the capturing of at least 25 oral histories, which will eventually become part of the TCDS collection. The TCDS Legacy Project will be led by June Aochi Berk and focuses on interviewing the descendants of the Tuna Canyon detainees.
An earlier NPS grant enabled the coalition to create “Only the Oaks Remain,” a traveling exhibit that debuted at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center and is being shown throughout California and the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff served as the event’s honorary chair, and a Democratic colleague, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, joined other elected officials in encouraging the Coalition’s preservation and educational efforts. Chu called for the building of a permanent home for the Tuna Canyon collection near the TCDS’ original site.
Also on hand were State Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who recently championed legislation for historic preservation and education; Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu; and former City Councilmember Jan Perry, an early advocate for Tuna Canyon’s designation as an historical landmark.
Attendees took time to honor the memory of Tak Hamano, who passed away earlier this year and whose mother was one of the few women arrested along with other Japanese community leaders after the Pearl Harbor attack. She died while in custody. Until his retirement, Hamano led Umeya Rice Cake Company, which was established in 1924.
The purpose of the event was to raise matching funds required by the NPS grant. “We reached our goal,” Oda said. She may have been alluding to committee’s fundraising target, but as attendees struggled to hold back tears during the Grateful Crane’s emotion-infused trek back to a dark chapter in U.S. history…it was more.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo