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Tanforan Memorial Plaza Dedicated

Alice Furuzawa Neishi returned to the place where 80 years before she saw her mother cry for the first time as the family looked at their new home.


“She saw the horse stall we were going to be in,” said the 94-year-old Neishi from Hayward.


The horse stalls of Tanforan are long gone. Now, where Neishi saw the tears fall down her mother’s face in the spring of 1942 is a $1.5 million memorial plaza to her and other Japanese Americans who were imprisoned at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, that was established at a racetrack.


About 600 people gathered Aug. 27 to help unveil the memorial, believed to be the largest of its kind about the World War II incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans.


“We’re here to do two things. One obviously is to honor those 8,000 Japanese who were imprisoned here at Tanforan,” memorial committee vice president Steve Okamoto, a San Mateo Buddhist Temple Sangha member and BCA Endowment Foundation director, told NBC Bay Area. “The other thing is to show those people who never heard of Tanforan to remind them that something like this can never happen again.”


A large white tent shielded the audience from the afternoon sun, as volunteers offered cups of water during the more than two-hour program. Seated at the front were 46 people wearing red carnations, signifying they were survivors of Tanforan and other incarceration centers and camps.


The San Mateo Buddhist Temple Taiko Group began the program, highlighted by musical interludes and speeches by elected officials and representatives of community groups and foundations that supported the project.


“I apologize for what our government did to you,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, hailing the memorial plaza as the “newest civil rights monument.”


Soji Kashiwagi read part of a poem his late father, the pioneering Nisei poet, playwright and actor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, wrote in 1979 about the incarceration:


“Detention Center, no, concentration camp, where we languished for three years.”


The unveiling ceremony also comes during a wave of violence against Asian Americans and as some try to brand teaching about the incarceration as “biased.”


“This memorial is not an end in itself, isolated and disconnected,” said Doug Yamamoto, president of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee. He pointed out there are people who are homeless and hungry, others separated at the border from their families, others like Breonna Taylor, who police fatally shot in her Louisville apartment.


Mike Inouye, the popular NBC Bay Area morning traffic anchor and the host of the event, thanked the organizations, agencies and individuals who made the memorial possible, urging people to think about the “causes and conditions” that “brought us here.”


Located just outside of the San Bruno BART Station, on land donated by the transit agency, the memorial is a plaza that faces the station. The centerpiece is an 800-pound-plus bronze statue based on a Dorothea Lange photo of the Mochida family in 1942 as they awaited a bus that would take them from Hayward to Tanforan. Made by sculptor Sandra Shaw, the statue features two members of the Mochida family, young sisters Miyuki and Hiroko, standing with suitcases that have tags with the family’s name.


A cherry tree side sits on one side of the statue and behind it are metal plates etched with the names of the 7,816 Japanese Americans who spent time at Tanforan from April 28, 1942, to Oct. 13, 1942 and a 9-by-20-foot wood frame that was the size of an average horse stall.


San Leandro resident Takeo Kato was 5 years old at the time his family of nine arrived at Tanforan, but he has indelible memories of the time. They were given cotton bags.


“See that stack of hay?” the 85-year-old remembers being told. “Fill these bags with hay and it’ll be your mattress.”


Then there was the stench, the sickening smell of horse manure and urine.


“You can’t scrub, whitewash, sweep away the smell of horse manure and urine,” Kato said. It penetrated everything from their clothes to the sacks of hay.


About half of the people at Tanforan lived in horse stalls. The rest were in barracks built elsewhere at the racetrack.


The memorial sprang from the intersection of photographs of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and a community’s desire to remember the Tanforan Assembly Center.


Pulitzer Prize-winning Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki’s grandparents, father and aunt were among the people Lange photographed as they waited to be taken to assembly centers and incarceration camps. In 2005, he set out to find the people in those photos and shoot new photographs, many of them in the same location as the originals.


Seven years later, as Japanese American community members were looking to educate people about the World War II incarceration and Tanforan, Richard Oba remembered reading about Kitagaki’s project.


Oba contacted Kitagaki, leading to an exhibit of Lange’s photos and the 12 photos Kitagaki had taken at that point inside the San Bruno station on the 70th anniversary of the assembly center. The committee that formed to sponsor the exhibit also began working to plan and build the memorial.


“I thought we could build it in three years, but it took 10 (years),” Oba said.


Kitagaki’s project, “Gambatte — Legacy of an Enduring Spirit — is up to 61 pieces, photographs and written text, and he’s working on five more.


“I really feel honored to be a part of this and share the stories of our families,” Kitagaki said.


Before and after the program, the survivors looked for their names and the names of friends and relatives on the lists, had their photos taken in front of the statue and soaked up the sun and the emotions of the day.


Neishi and Kato reacted to the day with one-word answers. “Wonderful,” Kato said. “Tremendous,” Neishi said.


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