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Judge’s Flag-Signing Project Goes ‘Viral’ to Honor WWII Japanese Americans

Judge Johnny Cepeda Gogo is on a mission.


What began as a project in the heart of Silicon Valley to honor Americans of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in internment camps during World War II by signing a vintage 48-star United States flag has blossomed into an undertaking filled with deep appreciation and gratitude.


“I thought this would be in San Jose only,” said Gogo, who serves as a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge for the city of San Jose. “But it has gone viral among the Japanese American community and has taken off.”


The judge’s inspiration was to honor surviving members who were either born in camp or spent time there as young children or young adults.


“As more and more of them are leaving us, eventually, there’s going to be a point where there are no further survivors of the camp,” Gogo said in an interview in April.


“Ultimately, (the project) was to try and honor those surviving members of the camps who are still with us in our community,” Gogo added.


Gogo’s vision was to get the 48-star flag signed by as many former internees as possible, then present it on Fred Korematsu Day on Jan. 30, 2022.


“Fred (Korematsu) represents all of the 120,000-plus Japanese Americans that were incarcerated unlawfully. I knew that there were still members of our community that were still with us, and I wanted to honor them while they are still alive.”


Since its launch in March 2021, the 48-star flag signing project has been well-received, reaching out to BCA temples, and many community groups throughout California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, the mountain states and all 10 former relocation centers.


Up to this point, seven BCA temples — Buddhist Temple of Alameda, Buddhist Temple of San Diego, Fowler Buddhist Temple, Mountain View Buddhist Temple, Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and Vista Buddhist Temple — have hosted flag-signing events.


“I thought it would be difficult finding enough people to sign the first flag. And that was my goal, just to have one flag,” Gogo said.


That one-flag project has grown to six.

Gogo estimates that over 1,000 former internees, family members of former internees and service members of recent war conflicts have signed the flags.


As the first flag signed quickly, Gogo thought to himself that there are more survivors in communities outside of California. He was able to purchase the vintage flags online through eBay and donations.


“Because I have family and relatives in Seattle, that was one of the first cities that I put on my list to reach out to the local Japanese American community in Seattle,” Gogo said.

From there, the project accelerated with interest.


Flag number one was donated to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose on Jan. 30 earlier this year on Fred Korematsu Day. Flag two was donated to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on Feb. 19, which is Remembrance Day, the 80-year observance when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Flag three was donated to the Fred T. Korematsu Institute in San Francisco. Flag four has been donated to the Japanese American Museum in Portland, Oregon.


Gogo plans to have flag five as part of a traveling photo exhibition conducted by Renee Billingslea, an Art and Art History professor at Santa Clara University. Billingslea visited all 10 major camps and will document comparisons of the locations with present day and the camps during WWII. Flag six is making its rounds collecting more signatures.


In March, flag six made an appearance in Southern California at the San Diego and Vista temples.


“This is the flag that I grew up with,” said Hide Omori, a Sangha member of the Vista Buddhist Temple who gleamed before signing the flag.


In April, Gogo took the flag to California’s Central Valley.


“The event in Fowler was nice with a small group of folks signing,” Gogo said of the temple located south of Fresno.


During the visit in Fowler, Gogo met George Teraoka, the father of Janet Umezu and father-in-law of former Bishop Rev. Kodo Umezu.


“I was really inspired by meeting George,” Gogo said. “He is 100 years old (now 101) and was interned in Rohwer (internment camp) in Arkansas. George, who was in the agricultural business, is still mentally sharp.”


“There are a lot more people out there who have not signed the flag,” Gogo added. “We have only scratched the surface.”


Gogo encourages temples and churches of the BCA to contact him to set up the opportunity for survivors and individuals whose family members were in the camps to sign the flag. Interested temples, churches and Sanghas are welcome to contact Gogo by email at jgogo@scscourt.org


Gogo’s educational resume includes attending Sacramento City College and Riverside City College. He graduated from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in political science and obtained his JD from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.


As the incredible journey continues for Gogo, the compassion of the mission grows.


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