By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
PACOIMA — The Tuna Canyon Detention Station is gone but definitely not forgotten.
Located in Tujunga on land now occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, the Department of Justice camp held Japanese, German and Italian immigrants and Nikkei taken from Peru from December 1941 to October 1943. Though there is no trace of the camp, a grove of trees from that era still stands, hence the title of a new traveling exhibit, “Only the Oaks Remain.”
Created by the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, the exhibit premiered on Oct. 2 with a one-day-only showing at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center in Pacoima. It’s the culmination of years of work by the all-volunteer coalition, which includes family members of those who were imprisoned.
The exhibit includes an Honor Roll of the more than 2,000 detainees, most of whom were later transferred to other camps and some of whom were used in prisoner exchanges with Axis nations; wartime government documents concerning “enemy aliens”; profiles of detainees, including Rev. Daisho Tana and Sasabune Sasaki; a virtual tour of the camp; and a scale model of the camp.
“Only the Oaks Remain” is now on view through Dec. 3 at the History Museum of San Diego in Balboa Park and will open at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on Dec. 10.
Following a performance by San Fernando Valley Taiko, TCDSC Vice President Kanji Sahara explained how the exhibit came about: “The first director of Tuna Canyon was a man named Merrill Scott … a real kind man … He had the guards eat in the same mess hall and eat the same food as the detainees … He kept on emphasizing to the guards that these people here in the prison were not criminals, they were just aliens …
“Merrill Scott took a lot of photographs … He took photographs of the guard tower, the fence, the guard station and stuff like that … When you see photos of Manzanar that were taken by Ansel Adams, those photographs do not show guard towers … Ansel Adams was commissioned to do photographs of contented people. But here Merrill Scott wanted to show the real situation in Tuna Canyon. After he took the photographs, he did not turn them over to the government but he gave them to his family to keep …
“When our coalition was first formed … a young man in the back said he had photographs of Tuna Canyon … He was the grandson of Merrill Scott. That’s how these photographs came about and what we decided to do was have a traveling exhibit that shows the Merrill Scott photographs … I think Merrill Scott 75 years ago wanted the story of Tuna Canyon told to the public. That’s what we’re doing today.”
Sahara added that there was another internment camp in Griffith Park with double rows of fences and floodlights “like Guantanamo,” but “there are no known photographs … so it’s hard to tell the Griffith Park story.”
SFVJACC President Paul Jonokuchi congratulated the coalition for working very hard “to preserve the past and to educate … future generations.”
TCDSC Chairman Dr. Lloyd Hitt, a local historian, commented, “Of the many community projects I have championed over the years … to be involved in the Tuna Canyon exhibit … has been the most important project for me. The camp’s history is relevant to the past, to the present and to the future.”
For the past 10 years, Hitt has been doing research and working with a “wide range of talents, races and ethnicities … to determine what happened at the World War II Tuna Canyon camp and, more important, to educate the American public that it must never happen again. The timing is perfect with the world in its current state as people are divided over race and religion.”
His friend Paul Tsuneishi, who died in 2014 at age 91, “would be proud of this,” Hitt said.
Consul General Akira Chiba, who assumed his duties in Los Angeles at the end of July, said he has visited the Japanese American National Museum and the Go For Broke National Education Center, and attended the dedication of the Pomona Assembly Center plaque. “I’ve been deeply moved by all those events. All of these experiences have impressed upon me the resilience of the Japanese American people in the face of tremendous challenges and their tireless commitment to keeping alive the memories of injustices so that future generations can learn the lessons of history.”
He commended the TCDSC for “your remarkable achievements in just three short years” since the Los Angeles City Council designated Tuna Canyon as a Historic-Cultural Monument. “My predecessor, Ambassador Harry Horinouchi, was happy to be part of such efforts. And now we witness the opening of ‘Only the Oaks Remain.’ Today is a day to celebrate as a community because it is through so many people coming together in support of this cause that the realization of this exhibit has been achieved.”
Kara Miyagishima, who is based in Denver, spoke on behalf of the National Park Service, which awarded over $102,000 to TCDSC through the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program. “I just want to congratulate all of those … who dedicated their time and put in a lot of hard work to complete this project,” she said. “Not only is it a very significant place in history, it’s one that’s less known about, and I think their efforts to document this history, to recognize the hardships and struggles that our families went through, is very, very important and the issues that were faced during that time are still very relevant today.”
Assemblymember Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando) presented commendations to TCDSC for its work to “raise public awareness of this difficult time in our nation … Learning from past mistakes, this is the only way that we can prevent history from repeating itself.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich also came to view the exhibit.
Koji Steven Sakai, vice president of programs at JANM, recalled being approached by Sahara, Nancy Oda, Sigrid Toye and June Aochi Berk of TCDSC about doing an exhibition. “A lot of ideas come to me, and most of them never happen. But when these four people came to me and told me their idea and I saw their passion, we quickly believed in it.
“Why is this so important? It’s a story that most people don’t know. In fact, every time I drive by it on the 210, I tell my son, ‘This is where they locked up our people’ … My son’s only 4, so he doesn’t really get this, but I know eventually he will … Every time I drive by, it’s a constant reminder.”
JANM Board Chairman Norman Mineta, who has served as a congressman and as U.S. secretary of state and secretary of transportation, recounted his family’s experiences immediately after Pearl Harbor, when he was 10 years old. “[Next-door neighbor] Joyce Hirano came running into our backyard and said, ‘The police are taking Pop away!’ … Mrs. Hirano did not know who came to pick up Mr. Hirano or where he had gone.”
Mineta’s father later found out that the FBI was “picking up people who were sympathetic to the Japanese effort. So Mr. Hirano next door was executive secretary of the San Jose Japanese Association, which was really a social organization.” Mr. Hirano ended up at the Department of Justice camp in Bismarck, N.D.
The roundup included Buddhist and Shinto priests and other community leaders. “My dad thought, ‘I’m a community leader’ … In certain ways he was a little irritated that he was not considered,” Mineta said.
“I’ve only seen my dad cry three times,” Mineta said. “Once on Dec. 7 — he couldn’t understand why the land of his birth was attacking the land of his heart … May 29, 1942 when we boarded the train in San Jose to go somewhere. We didn’t know at that time that we were going to Santa Anita … “The third time was when my mother, his wife of 42 years, passed away in 1956.”
The family was eventually sent to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Mineta’s father, wanting to help the war effort, taught Japanese to U.S. Army personnel at the University of Chicago through the Army Specialized Training Program and got permission for his family to join him in December 1943.
“There are very few who know about Tuna Canyon or Griffith Park or Sand Island [in Hawaii],” Mineta said. “… About four months ago, I visited the Honouliuli site in Hawaii … I thought we had it bad at Santa Anita or Heart Mountain, but when you see the circumstances under which these people were imprisoned at Honouliuli, it was really bad … It was a mixture of POWs who were in tent cities … and about 600 people of Japanese ancestry who were in quarters … I wouldn’t even describe them as barracks … sitting in the middle of a swamp …
“It’s important that we continue to publicize what happened as a result of Executive Order 9066.”
Rev. Dr. Alfred Yosh Tsuyuki of Konko Church of Los Angeles, whose father, also a reverend, was detained at Tuna Canyon, conducted a blessing of the exhibit. Asking the audience to clap four times “as a symbol of all of our hearts coming together as one,” he said, “May this traveling exhibit raise the consciousness and educate every American and individual citizen who experiences its contents. From that consciousness, may a better American society, a greater American nation and a more peaceful community and world be born anew.”
Dignitaries were called upon to place small branches with strips of white paper attached on the dai (table) in front of the altar and clap two times. Participants included Haru Kuromiya, whose father was a detainee.
For more information on the exhibit, which will also be shown at the Manzanar Pilgrimage and the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center next year, visit www.tunacanyon.org.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo