Tuna Canyon Coalition Honors Legacy of Detained Families

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Dramatic presentation tells story of Chica and Kenzo Sugino.

Attendees at the luncheon included descendants of Tuna Canyon detainees.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo

MONTEBELLO — “Honoring the Legacy Project” was the theme of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition’s Fall Classic Luncheon, held Oct. 13 at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello.

The coalition is dedicated to preserving the history of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, which held Los Angeles-area Japanese, Italian and German immigrants during World War II. Many families were separated when their husbands and fathers were taken away by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor.

Located at a site in Tujunga most recently occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, it is one of the lesser-known government-run camps of that era. There is now no trace of Tuna Canyon except for a grove of oak trees.

The event, emceed by Helen Ota of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, opened with greetings from Hans Everhard, TCDS board member and co-founder/chairman of the Tricentennial Foundation, which preserves German American history; and a moment of silence led by Ernie Nishii, president of the ABC Unified School District Board of Trustees.

This map shows the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site (red), the Snowball West development (yellow), and the proposed memorial site and purchase options (blue). (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Nishii, the grandson of Tuna Canyon incarceree Guzei Nishii, remembered coalition member Marc Stirdivant, who recently passed away. Stirdivant wrote a 2016 grant proposal that led to National Park Service funding for the coalition’s traveling exhibit, “Only the Oaks Remain.”

“Usually we do these moments of silence with our eyes closed, to concentrate on the person that we are honoring,” said Nishii. “But in this case, I think it’s more appropriate that we keep our eyes open, and the reason we need to keep our eyes open is because all of you in this audience are part of this experience. We’re part of the future. We need to keep this memory alive … We’re going to rely on each other … because later on we’re going to be acting, we’re going to be making this happen.

“[A permanent memorial of] Tuna Canyon Detention Station will become a reality because of people like Mark Stirdivant and Mr. [Paul] Tsuneishi and Lloyd Hitt. So for the next few seconds, with our eyes open, let’s have a moment of silence.”

Special guests included Colleen Oinuma, representing Rep. Adam Schiff, honorary chair of the event; Vickere Murphy and David Kim for State Sen. Anthony Portantino; Daniel Kim for Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu; and Joseph Edmiston, CEO of the Mountain Conservancy Recreation Authority.

The coalition’s three newest board members were introduced: Nancy Hayata, who wrote the biography of Nikuma and Ted Tanouye for the traveling exhibition and designed the luncheon’s souvenir program; Donna Sugimoto, who researched the life of her grandfather, Tuna Canyon detainee Shinsuke Sugimoto; and Jeanette Stirdivant, wife of Marc Stirdivant, who was unable to attend but was represented by her family.

Derek Yee, associate pastor at Bethany Congregational Church in Santa Barbara, gave the blessing. “I come here representing my great-grandfather Tsuruhiko Abe [a Tuna Canyon detainee]as well as many families from our church … At that time our pastor and several of the church members were taken to Tuna Canyon from Santa Barbara … This was indeed a painful time in our personal family histories and the history of our nation,” he said.

Elizabeth Ayako Sugino Shigekawa, 88, with Helen Ota, who portrayed her in “Letters for Our Grandchildren.” At left is Darrell Kunitomi, who played Kenzo Sugino.

Throughout the program, brief excerpts from video interviews with descendants of Tuna Canyon incarcerees were shown. Nancy Oda, president of the TCDS Coalition, which conducted the interviews with the help of the Japanese American National Museum’s Watase Media Center, noted that while it may be difficult to speak on camera, “We must be the voice of our parents and grandparents, who can longer speak.” She added that more descendants of Italian and German incarcerees need to come forward. “We’ve had very few non-Asian representation.”

“Letters for Our Grandchildren”

The Grateful Crane Ensemble presented a piece titled “Letters for Our Grandchildren,” based on letters that Chica Sugino and her three children wrote to her husband Kenzo, who was held at Tuna Canyon. The rest of the family was sent to the Poston concentration camp in Arizona.

The cast: Susan Haruye Ioka as Chica, Darrell Kunitomi (who also directed) as Kenzo, Kurt Kuniyoshi as Arthur “Tecky” and Paul Sugino, Ota as Elizabeth Ayako Sugino, and Ping Wu as narrator. The musicians: Hiro Morozumi (keyboard), Walter Nishinaka (taiko/Japanese percussion) and Miko Shudo (violin/vocals).

Soji Kashiwagi, the playwright and executive director of the ensemble, said, “We know that there are over 100 people here today who are Tuna Canyon descendants, and I just wanted to let you know that you are a part of this. This is your family history.

“And although the Sugino family story we’re sharing with you today is but one story, it is also your story as well because as descendants of these Issei, you all share what your families went through in 1942 — the unlawful arrests of Issei and family separation and not knowing where your father or grandfather was being taken; the shock of seeing them as a prisoner behind barbed wire at Tuna Canyon; and finally the stress and trauma of having to close down your family business, sell your belongings and being forcibly removed to remote, desolate, American-style concentration camps.

“So this was in 1942 and back then there was no television. There were no cell phones, texting, Skyping, or Facetime … In order to stay in touch and stay together as a family, the only thing they had was letters sent via the U.S. Postal Service, and they were censored letters at that. But as you’re about to see, the Sugino family, especially Issei mother Chica Sugino, made the most of their letter-writing, using words and paragraphs to tell each other so much about what was happening, how they were doing, and assure each other over and over that they were feeling fine when they really weren’t.”

Grateful Crane Ensemble performs “Letters for Our Grandchildren.” From right: Darrell Kunitomi, Helen Ota, Susan Haruye Ioka (obscured), Kurt Kuniyoshi, Ping Wu.

The inspiration for the show came from a letter that Chica wrote on April 15, 1942:

“Someday there must be an awakening to the awful truth that warring never settled anything.

“And I suppose this will be after most of the world is gone, maimed, diseased and morally and spiritually crushed. And to think that a handful of men could have prevented this.

“Believe me, when this is all over, the women will take over the helm of government and there will be no wars. Men make a mess of things and women do the cleaning. At least that is what I seem to be doing along with the wives of a good many happy-go-lucky men.

“Love, Chica

“P.S. Hope you are saving these letters for the perusal of our grandchildren.”

The Suginos had 12 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. Representing those grandchildren and all descendants of the Tuna Canyon Issei, Shudo performed “Koko ni Sachi Ari” (Here Is Happiness).

Elizabeth Ayako Sugino Shigekawa, 88, who went on to become a teacher, attended the luncheon and was brought on stage at the end of the show. “You did a marvelous job — I’m just speechless,” she told the performers.

Ota noted that over 150 letters were scanned to tell a small portion of the Sugino family’s story, and that the pipe used by Kunitomi and the necklace worn by Ioka actually belonged to Kenzo and Chica.

The cast and musicians of “Letters for Our Grandchildren” (from left): Darrell Kunitomi, Susan Haruye Ioka, Soji Kashiwagi (writer), Kurt Kuniyoshi, Miko Shudo, Hiro Morozumi, Helen Ota, Walter Nishinaka, Ping Wu.

Plans for Site

Claudia Culling, a founding TCDS board member, recalled working with Stirdivant since he became a founding member of Glendale-Crescenta VOICE (Volunteers Organized in Conserving the Environment) in 1997. When they learned about Tuna Canyon, “we realized it was extremely important to preserve that part of our history, dark as it was, to teach those who didn’t know how easily our nation could be moved to discriminate and violate human and civil rights …

“Marc, who passed away two months ago, was an extraordinary person. He had a firm understanding and appreciation for history and for conservation. He felt passionately about preserving the Tuna Canyon site and immediately supported the historical-cultural designation [by the city].”

The property is owned by Snowball West, which opposed the historical-cultural designation because it might interfere with development of the site. Culling credited Stirdivant with working hard on a compromise and eventually reaching an understanding.

Snowball West plans to sell 47 of the 215 parcels to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (a state open space and park agency) to be preserved as open space for recreation and as part of a memorial to Tuna Canyon.

There would be a one-time fund for the coalition to make improvements to the park related to Tuna Canyon.

The coalition wishes to swap out parcels along the western portion of La Tuna Canyon Road for parcels that lie within the footprint of the former camp so that descendants of the internees can walk on the land where their ancestors were held against their will.

“We are continuing Marc’s efforts to make this park a reality both in terms of the size, configuration and funding,” said Culling. “… I see this compromise park proposal as Marc’s legacy to all of us in our efforts to memorialize the site, preserve its history and honor those who were imprisoned there. We thank Marc for all his efforts … He envisioned the entire property being turned into a regional park with a museum and meditation garden.”

June Aochi Berk (right), who conducted oral history interviews for Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, takes a selfie with Nancy Oda and Helen Ota.

TCDS board members Dr. Russell Endo, who was unable to attend, and June Aochi Berk were applauded for their efforts to preserve Tuna Canyon’s legacy. Endo did extensive research on the detainees and Berk conducted over 30 oral history interviews.

Bringing Berk up on stage, Oda said that most of the interviews are an hour long. “She does all the transcribing … does all the paperwork for the National Park Service [grant]and now she has applied for Legacy Project No. 2 — 25 more.”

Berk, in turn, thanked the media arts department at JANM and Evan Kodani and Yuka Murakami for doing all the videotaping and photography. Of Endo, she said, “Without him we would not have all the information that we need for each descendant. He is spending hours, weeks and months at the National Archives in Maryland and doing research on each name, making sure that they were there at Tuna Canyon.”

In closing, Oda emphasized the fact that Tuna Canyon, unlike other confinement sites, is located in Los Angeles, where millions of people live. “It is our opportunity to speak up to make sure this never happens again. learn from history. This site must be saved.”

The traveling exhibit’s wall listing all Tuna Canyon detainees was in the room, enabling attendees to find the names of loved ones.

The Honor Roll contains the names of the Tuna Canyon detainees. Descendants looked for names of family members on the list. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Tuna Canyon Interviewees

Participants in the oral history program, excerpts of which were shown during the luncheon, include:

Fukuzawa sisters on their father, Tsumoru Fukuzawa

Norman and Ken Furuta on their grandfather, Mitsuji Furuta

Yoshiko Hazama on her father, Kotaro Ishimoto

Mits Hino on his father, Haramatsu Hino

Kiyomi Hirayama on her father, Kanaye Saneto

Tom Ige on his father, Tamaroku Ige

Marvin Inouye on his grandfather, Tokiji Utsushigawa

Sharon Kamiya on her grandfather, Sokichi Teshiba

Kathy and Gene Kanamori on their father, Jintsuke Kanamori

Yukio Kawamoto on his father, Imataro Kawamoto

Walt Matsui on his father, Masanaka Matsui

Daniel Mayeda on his grandfather, Kunitomo Mayeda, and father, Kuniteru Mayeda

Scott Nagatani on his grandfather, Kichigoro Yoshimori

John Nakaki on his grandfather, Shiro Fujioka

David Scott on his grandfather, Merrill Scott, officer in charge of Tuna Canyon

Cedric Shimo on his father, Tamori Shimo

Mack Shiroishi on his father, Toshio Shiroishi

Fujiko Yamashita on her father, Tokujiro Ikeda

Derek Yee on his great-grandfather, Tsuruhiko Abe

Photos by MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)

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