By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
ANAHEIM — About 800 people were transported back in time during “The Poston Experience: Paving the Way for the Next Generations,” presented by Anaheim Union High School District and Anaheim High School at the school’s Cook Auditorium on Aug. 24.
Both students and alumni remembered the Japanese American residents of Anaheim, particularly students at Anaheim High, who were uprooted and incarcerated during World War II. Members of the school’s Las Sirenas Choir sang popular tunes from the 1940s — “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “Sentimental Journey.”
The main organizer and emcee was Patti Hirahara, Class of 1973. She noted that the event was dedicated to Dr. Paul Demaree, who was principal of Anaheim Union High School (1941-1954) and superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District (1941-1958). As a teacher he was acquainted with many of the Nisei students who graduated before the war, and kept in touch with those who missed their graduation because they were sent to the Poston camp in Arizona.
AUHSD Superintendent Michael Matsuda said, “Due to the efforts of the Anaheim Public Library, the Anaheim Muzeo, and determined people like Patti Hirahara, we honor our history, we honor Anaheim’s history, and we honor America’s history in which this great auditorium played an important part. It was right here nearly 80 years ago where the principal, Paul Demaree, did something quite profound, quite courageous.
“At the height of bigotry against Japanese American students and their families, Mr. Demeree, in this very auditorium packed with students, had 14 Japanese students in the front row. He looked them in the eye and in essence said to them, ‘You belong.’ Today, we find America, the nation of immigrants and Native Americans, once again wrestling with the notion of who belongs and who does not.”
On the 75th anniversary of the opening of the camps, Matsuda and former JACL National President Ken Inouye arranged for two busloads of AUHSD students to attend the Manzanar Pilgrimage. “That was an amazing day for our kids and for ourselves,” Matsuda recalled. “Amazing speakers and really transformational, and the day ended with a tour of the camp. They have rebuilt some of the barracks …
“As we were walking, there was a young Anaheim boy speaking to another friend and I overheard him say, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ I turned to him and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Mr. Matsuda, at least they had a bed.’ This young man reminded me of the collective pain and trauma that our kids have every night. 4,200 of our kids sleep in motels, they sleep in garages and they sleep in really poor conditions and apartments. They are food-deprived yet they come to school.”
Matsuda discussed a speech given by presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 in Indianapolis upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Quoting the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, Kennedy said, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
“Robert Kennedy knew that the pain and the anger could go two ways, the path of violence or the path of peace, and indeed across America there were riots that night, but not in Indianapolis,” Matsuda explained. “Every day I think of that boy at Manzanar and I am haunted by his words … The point of RFK’s poem was that through acknowledging our collective pain, we can grow wise through our very acts, as small as they might seem. We can determine what kind of America our kids, our families and our community will live in …
“There will be those who say that Mr Demaree’s acts were acts of courage, and they were. My good friend and former mayor Tom Tait would say it was kindness, and it was. Our students would say it was … character, and it was. But my mother, her sisters and 110,000 Japanese Americans would say it was love.”
Also present were Anaheim Elementary School District President Ryan Ruelas, Clerk Dr. Paulo Magcalas, and Trustees Mark Lopez and Jackie Filbeck; AUHSD board members Katherine Smith, Annemarie Randle-Trejo and Al Jabbar; former AUHSD Superintendent Jan Billings; and Student Ambassadors Haven Enriquez (Katella HS), Tiffany Nguyen (Kennedy HS), Jack Fennell (Savanna HS), and Hazel Fernandez (Anaheim HS). Fernandez led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Ryan Yoshikawa, president of SELANOCO (Southeast Los Angeles-North Orange County) JACL, said, “The SELANOCO chapter is honored to help preserve the history of Japanese Americans in Anaheim and Orange County by supporting programs like this to show the tragic story of the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens in their own country 77 years ago. These relocation camps closed their doors, but they still serve as a reminder for all of the need for all of us to stand together against social injustice.”
Anaheim High School Principal Robert Saldivar, the first alumnus (Class of 1996) to become principal, said, “Anaheim High School was first established in 1898 and is the oldest high school in the Anaheim Union high School District, and the third-oldest school in Orange County. Anaheim Union High School, as it was called, then was the center of north Orange County education for the Japanese community, not only for those that lived in Anaheim, but others that lived in the neighboring cities … Students traveled many miles to go to school by bicycle or even walked.
“From 1926 to 1942, over 70 students of Japanese ancestry graduated from Anaheim High School … Our Anaheim High School students are very, very proud to help share both your Poston history and ours by performing the songs that you heard this morning … creating a special dance revue … building a model of the Poston, Ariz. Japanese American incarceration camp that will be on display at the Muzeo, and helping with your arrival today to welcome you to our campus.
“The Anaheim Union High School District’s Film Academy has produced a special documentary on our rich history, which was created by six students from Anaheim, Katella and Loara high schools and is making its debut for today’s program.”
“Remembering Us: An Historic Chapter at Anaheim High School” was screened along with “Cherry Blossom,” a tribute to the Anaheim Japanese pioneers and the Poston experience by Anaheim High School Dance Production, choreographed by Dance Director Oscar Gonzelez. Both videos can be viewed on YouTube. (Click here and here.)
With a pre-recorded introduction by Anaheim Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher Downing, local elementary school students performed original songs from Poston — “Safety Everywhere” by June Yasukochi, written for Accident Prevention Week (Jan. 25-30, 1943) at Poston I, 4th Grade Class 530; and “The Postman,” composed by Poston I’s 3rd Grade Class for the Tuberculosis Seal Sale Program in December 1944.
Hirahara gave an overview of local Nikkei history. “From the early 1900s, Japanese and their American-born children settled in the city of Anaheim, established local businesses in the community as well as working on truck farms and ranches … They ran a barbershop, fruit and produce stores, the O.K. Grocery Store, nurseries, pool halls, restaurants, and for some, listing gardening as their occupation.
“The community had an Anaheim Japanese Business Association and even The Rafu Shimpo newspaper in Los Angeles had a branch office here. Anaheim also attracted a Japanese Free Methodist Church to be created here along with the Japanese language school, which was originally located where La Palma park now stands …
“The Japanese pioneers of Anaheim and their descendants are also remembered by those that are buried in the historic 15-acre Anaheim Cemetery, which was founded in 1866 and is the county’s oldest public cemetery. Of these early settlers, 63 are from Anaheim, Japanese pioneer families and their descendants who have lived in the area before and after World War II. The first to be buried there was Joe Ogihara in 1907. Ten families make up the majority of those buried there, with the oldest being buried at 103 and the gathering is passing way at birth.
“Education was very important in this city and in 1932, Sakaye Saiki was the valedictorian of her class at Katella Elementary School and graduated from Anaheim High School in 1936. Making a first in Anaheim’s High School’s history was the election of the first Japanese American student body president. We have a surprise guest for you today. I’m happy to introduce Mr. Joe Nakamura.”
Nakamura, from the Class of 1959, stood up and was applauded.
“The story of how the 1942 Japanese American incarceration affected the city and Anaheim High is symbolized in the duffle bags and suitcases that are at the front of the stage, reminding us how this forced evacuation affected those that could bring only what they could carry,” Hirahara said. “It is something that we should never forget.”
A video, “The Shigekawa Family Journey: An American Story,” was shown.
Congressman Speaks Out
Rep. Lou Correra of the 46th Congressional District, a 1976 graduate of Anaheim High, said, “I have to ask you, will we learn from history? When I was in the State Assembly, a colleague of mine, George Nakano … would teach me about California and about history. One day, George told me the story about 1942 when there was a resolution in the California Legislature to support the [executive]order … There were two legislators that stood up on the Assembly and Senate floor and voted against the resolution. One of them lost his political career. He came back later on, but he paid a political price.
“Later on, right before the end of the war, Japanese Americans would be released from the internment camps to come back to California and there was another resolution that came up on the California legislative floor to not permit Japanese Americans back into California. Sen. [John] Shelley stepped up right at the moment when that resolution was being heard in the Senate and brought in Japanese American veterans of World War II, many missing limbs … He said, ‘These are American heroes who fought for our country.’ That resolution was soundly defeated.”
Turning to current events, Correa said, “As you look around, it’s fear again that surrounds us. Fear that leads to hate, hate that leads to paranoia. It’s politics at its worst. Family separations, children, incarcerations, bans of those who can come to this country because of religion or national origin. It’s not political. It’s the truth. And if we don’t stand up and say this is wrong, we are again living history. We are again making mistakes.
“Do we want to be here in 70 years and say what happened in 2019 was essentially what happened in ’42 and ’45? Please take a moment to think of history today. Are we listening? Are we learning? Are we changing our behavior? Don’t ask who is the American, who is the patriot, who should be the American, who should be in this country.
“We cannot stand and make those judgments … That’s what happened in 1942. We questioned a whole group of individuals because of their national ancestry and we put them in concentration camps, and we are about to repeat that mistake again. It’s not popular to say it, but that’s what’s going on right now … Let’s be true Americans … Remember what that flag is about and stand up for what’s right.”
Correa presented commendations to the speakers as well as the team that produced “Remembering Us”: Jeff Numainville, AUHSD Film Academy advisor; Vanessa Diaz, Katella HS; Kenia Lares, Anaheim HS; Fryda Luna, Loara HS; Aleshia Osborn, Vivian Pham and Dillan Tran, Katella HS.
“Although today’s program is just an introduction to the incarceration of Japanese Americans … we hope you enjoyed the interpretations done by the new generations of students today, who have just become acquainted with what happened 77 years ago,” said Hirahara.
“Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the closing of the Japanese American incarceration camps in this country, so I hope this will be just the beginning of more presentations on this subject next year, not only in the junior highs and high schools in this district but also in the Anaheim elementary schools as well. These students are our future and our story and the Japanese American legacy is in good hands.”
Later in the day, many of the program’s participants also attended a preview of “I Am an American: Japanese Incarceration in a Time of Fear” at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim. The exhibition will be on view until Nov. 3. For more information, visit www.muzeo.org.
First of two parts.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo