By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Los Angeles street signs officially marking the site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station were unveiled April 12 by city officials and community leaders, including some with family members who were interned.
Located in Tujunga, Tuna Canyon was originally a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Department of Justice transformed it into a detention center that housed some 2,000 Japanese, Italian and German immigrants from 1941 to 1943. The detainees lived behind barbed wire, surrounded by armed guards, until they were transferred to other camps.
The buildings were later razed to make way for the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, which is now closed. The Los Angeles City Council designated a grove of oak trees — which was present when the camp was in operation — as a historical-cultural monument. However, the property owner is trying to have the designation rescinded, and no memorial has been established at the site of the camp.
The street signs, spearheaded by City Councilmembers Monica Rodriguez of District 7 and David Ryu of District 4, are on city property and are unaffected by the lack of public access to the site. They are located at the intersection of La Tuna Canyon Road, Tujunga Canyon Boulevard and Honolulu Avenue.
Rodriguez noted that people of Japanese ancestry were uprooted not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina and other countries. Those from Latin America were shipped to camps in the U.S., including Tuna Canyon.
“This site is an important piece of our history in the northeast San Fernando Valley, and a timely reminder … in particular at a time when I think we find too often the narrative that vilifies groups of people,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s particularly special that I’m joined by my colleague David Ryu as communities of color, as a community of immigrants. We need to stand in solidarity with one another to assure that civil rights are never violated, that people’s rights are protected and that we continue to remember our deepest and darkest histories so that we never repeat them.”
Noting that her parents immigrated from Mexico and her father served in Vietnam, she added, “We must embrace the contributions our cultural diversity brings us in this country and in this city.”
Rodriguez also pointed out that she and Ryu were “appropriately dressed” in red, white and blue, and said, “This is what America looks like.”
Ryu, the city’s first Korean American councilmember and only the second Asian American ever to serve on the council, said, “These are hallowed grounds. Today we honor this site with a sign which stands tall to remind us of human rights and dignity that were lost here. It was here where so many were wrongfully detained, taken from their homes, degraded and dehumanized.
“This is where everyday people were denied their American rights as human beings. This is where the politics of fear allowed our country to betray our neighbors, to betray our Constitution and to betray the fundamental values of freedom and equality. This is not ancient history … We gather here today to preserve and to remember because we will not let history repeat itself and we will not be silent, for silence is a friend of evil.
“We are here to resist … the politics of fear, to resist the bans, to resist the walls, and anyone who says to be American, you must look a certain way, pray a certain way or think a certain way. I say no. To be American, it takes courage … to believe in a bond greater than the color of our skin, courage to believe that all people are created equal and courage to remember what happened here and at Manzanar, and in Tule Lake … We refuse to go back. We refuse to be intimidated … We matter and the stories here matter.”
Deputy Consul General Hiroki Matsuo praised recent efforts to commemorate wartime confinement sites. “Tuna Canyon serves as a reminder of all the negative consequences of war, something that has greatly inspired me in getting to know the regional Japanese American community, and I have been moved to hear of the difficult history and the community’s perseverance through the **gaman** spirit and contributions to American society. Tuna Canyon is one of those stories that has much to teach us.
“I hope more Japanese people will learn of the history of internment, including Tuna Canyon, and understand more keenly the value and gift of the U.S.-Japan relationship. May the memory of those who suffered at Tuna Canyon continue to live within our hearts and bring the diverse communities of Los Angeles together always in a spirit of friendship.”
Nancy Oda, president of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, remarked, “Coming down La Tuna Canyon Road, I could feel the spirit of the 2,000 immigrants who were here, and they are thanking you for remembering them today. Because of the beautiful signs that are going up, Angelenos and travelers from all over the world will stop at … one of these corners and learn about the history and the confinement of Japanese, German, Italian immigrants and Japanese taken from Peru … For the descendants of the detainees, the healing is going to begin …
“During the last 76 years this was a hidden part of history, so today we are working very hard to capture the stories, the letters, the poems of the detainees … During the Dec. 16, 1941 opening of Tuna Canyon, there was a presidential proclamation, 2525, to arrest or cause the arrest of Japanese; 2526 to cause the arrest of Germans; and also 2527 to arrest the Italians. As we stand in this space today … it’s really important to remember these stories of history.”
Chris Komai, president of the Little Tokyo Community Council, talked about his grandfather Toyosaku, who was the publisher of The Rafu Shimpo. As a community leader prior to the war, “He was the one who told the Japanese community, ‘We’re here in America. We need to support America.’ When they said, ‘Let’s all have all the Japanese immigrants fingerprinted,’ my grandfather said, ‘I’m going to be the first one in line,’ and he had his picture taken … As so many immigrants did, he chose America. He chose for this to be his home. He chose this for him to raise his children and his grandchildren.”
But on Dec. 7, 1941, “Pearl Harbor happens in the morning and my grandfather is incarcerated by the FBI. In fact, they were waiting for him at his house … He was held until 1946, when he was finally released. He was not given a trial. He was not given any hearing. He was never charged with a crime.”
Komai noted that in addition to Tuna Canyon, Issei like his grandfather were held in several different camps, including Fort Sill (Oklahoma), Missoula (Montana), Livingston (Louisiana), Santa Fe (New Mexico) and Crystal City (Texas). In many cases they were separated from their families for the duration of the war.
“It is a story, unfortunately, that could occur again,” Komai warned. “It is a story that we could see happening; maybe we already are seeing it happening as we speak right now. And the danger of that is the waste. What good did it do for the government to incarcerate my grandfather for that long? What did it save anybody? He was not a danger. These are the things that we have to remember — that they were people.”
With camera crews recording the moment, the dignitaries pulled a cord to unveil one of the signs.
Among those participating in the ceremony were James Okazaki, formerly with the city Department of Transportation and now a Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition board member; Elizabeth Doomey, board member of the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center; Lloyd Hitt, local historian and chairman of TCDSC; Marlene Hitt, Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council board member; Marianna Gatto, director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles; Hans Everhard of the Tricentennial Foundation; Bill Skiles of the Little Landers Historical Society; Consul Shigeru Kikuma; TCDSC board members Kanji Sahara, Kay Oda and Nancy Takayama; and Donna Sugimoto, whose grandfather was interned at Tuna Canyon (as was Takayama’s).
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo