While in Washington, D.C., many years ago, I spent an incredible Saturday afternoon in the Smithsonian’s American history museum.
Nothing made a greater lasting impression than the exhibit of the internment camps where more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In fact, the very first photo on the wall entering the exhibit hit home because it depicted a family living in a horse stall. It was taken at the fairground in Stockton, which was used as an assembly center where the internees were processed before going to their respective camps.
This week, a New Jersey auctioneer – under fire from the Japanese American Citizens League and others – aborted plans to sell hundreds of artifacts that came from the internment camps. The controversy resonated here in the Valley, as well.
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Why? Because thousands of Japanese Americans who lived here were forced to go to the camps. Many farmed in Turlock, Livingston, Delhi, Atwater, Merced and Stockton. Anti-Japanese sentiment existed well before Pearl Harbor, though.
The state of California established a farming community in Delhi in 1919 specifically to “prevent Japanese farmers from purchasing the 8,000-acre tract,” according to Sarah Lim of the Merced County Historical Society. And when a group of Japanese settlers marched into downtown Turlock around that time, lifelong Livingston resident Sherman Kishi said, “(white residents) chased them out.”
Shortly after the attack that drew America into the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order commanding all of Japanese ancestry to be relocated to the camps. It didn’t matter whether they were naturalized citizens or born here, or whether they pledged their allegiance to this nation. They were forced to leave their homes and farms to report to assembly centers throughout the region, among them the fairgrounds in Merced and Turlock. Two buildings on the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock that were used to process the Japanese Americans beginning in 1942 are still in use today. A small monument at the fairgrounds serves as a reminder.
“When we did the dedication in 2011, there were at least 80 or 90 issei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) and nisei (second-generation) who attended,” Stanislaus County Fair CEO Chris Borovansky said. “There was no bitterness, no anger. They were very dignified.”
They flocked to the photos posted on the walls, looking for themselves, family members or friends, he said.
“They had their own culture, their own activities, their own baseball teams,” Borovansky said. “Some of them pointed to the horse stalls and said that’s where they stayed. ”
From there, the Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps in remote and windswept hellholes like Tulelake and Manzanar in California. Livingston’s Kishi and his family were processed at the Merced fairground and sent to the Amache relocation camp in Colorado.
“That was an event that never should have happened,” Kishi said. “We were citizens. In fact, 80,000 (who were relocated). It was a wrong.”
When the war ended and they were allowed to return home, many found they had to start over because they’d sold their homes and farms for a fraction of their value to opportunists, fearing they might otherwise lose them and get nothing at all.
Yet they came back to rebuild their way of life while maintaining their traditions, as well as their commitment to family, farming and their communities.
A monument dedicated in 2010 at the Merced County Fairgrounds etched in stone the names of all who came through that assembly center.
While imprisoned, most will tell you they tried to make the best of a bad situation, including creating the same kinds of arts and crafts that were supposed to go up for auction on Friday until the protests halted the sale.
“I still have what I made, and I would never sell it to anybody,” Kishi said. “I made several little bird lapel pins to give my girlfriend. She’s the one I married.”
Which is why the New Jersey auction plan disturbed so many people regardless of ancestry. The owner of the collection simply planned to profit from the injustice done to Japanese Americans by selling to the highest bidder the artwork and crafts they made while in the camps.
The collection belongs in a museum like the Smithsonian – not in somebody’s den or man cave or for-profit museum.
It needs to be where it can remind or educate visitors about one of the most unjust times in the nation’s history.