By John Sammon
Most people who stop in at a shopping center in San Bruno titled “The Shops at Tanforan” are unaware the site was once a scene of wrenching heartbreak, people who had lost everything except their lives imprisoned here for no reason other than ethnic heritage.
“The memorial we are planning at the site will be a symbol not just to people of Japanese ancestry, but all Americans,” said Steve Okamoto. “We want to make it universal so that something like this can never happen again.”
Located in San Bruno, Tanforan was once a horse race track and occasional airstrip until the 1960’s. Today it is a shopping center. In 1942 when the U.S. Government declared 115,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast to be potential enemies based only on their Japanese heritage, Tanforan became a temporary holding site. A way station until the victims could be moved to more permanent concentration camps scattered mostly in desert areas of the rural Southwest.
Race hose stalls could easily be quickly converted into substandard living quarters, in reality prison cells. Race tracks in Southern California like that at Santa Anita were used for the same purpose.
“The army constructed barracks at the Tanforan Race Track,” Okamoto explained. “But because of the number of people held there, horse stalls had to be used for the overflow. The stalls were white-washed and mucked out of manure. My family members were held here for several weeks and though they forgot parts of the experience later on, they said they could never forget the smell of the manure.”
Okamoto was only six weeks old when his family began their incarceration at Tanforan.
“Before the war my dad Takeo had been a merchant in San Francisco and later went into the insurance and real estate business,” he recalled. “My dad and my mom Kay were both born in California. My grandparents had been in the shoe business prior to World War II.”
Tanforan became a temporary holding pen from April of 1942 until October of that year and held approximately 7,800 people. Many of the inmates were later shipped to Topaz, a permanent prison camp in Central Utah.
Today Okamoto is a City Councilman in Foster City who has also served as a director of the American Cancer Society and a consultant advising nonprofits (pro bono) on their “Planned Giving Programs.” He grew up in San Francisco and attended Cal Berkeley where he majored in business administration.
“My dad went to Berkeley in 1933, I was there in 1963 and my son attended in 1983, that makes three of us,” Okamoto said.
He said the genesis idea for the memorial came about when a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station in San Bruno adjacent to the Tanforan site allowed the installment of a photo exhibit on its property.
“Paul Kitagaki, a well-known photographer and journalist for the Sacramento Bee newspaper, had a collection of photos taken by Dorthea Lange in 1942, photos of people waiting for the buses that would take them to the prison camps,” Okamoto said.
Lange, a world-renowned photographer, had already taken photos that humanized in graphic detail the suffering of migrants during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Her photos of displaced Japanese Americans on their way to imprisonment and especially the children were particularly poignant.
“Paul (Kitagaki) found people in the photos, those surviving, and took pictures of what they look like today,” Okamoto said. “We put the photos on display at the San Bruno Bart Station. They offered to donate property at the site for a more permanent display.”
The Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee was formed; four of the committee members had themselves been imprisoned at Tanforan. The committee decided a statue would serve as the centerpiece of the memorial display and chose a photo showing two young girls seated on their suitcases waiting to be transported to prison to serve as a model for the statue.
The photo has been sent to a sculptor who will duplicate it in metal.
A regional shopping center, Shops at Tanforan previously had little acknowledgement of its history except for a small metal plaque affixed (mostly unseen) in front of the mall. The plaque will be moved to the San Bruno BART Station where the memorial will be installed, located just adjacent to the mall at 1150 El Camino Real.
In addition to the statue and the plaque, the site will include a rock garden and recreated doors to the horse stalls on which will be carved the names of the approximate 7,800 prisoners of Tanforan.
The project can’t move forward until funding is secured and approximately $1 million is needed. Though grant money is being pursued and San Mateo County gave a $250,000 donation, most of the amount will have to come from private contributions.
“The campaign to raise the money kicked off on Oct. 31,” Okamoto said.
Okamoto said the violation of people’s personal and Constitutional rights would forever be recalled when the memorial display is competed.
“I have a headline from a newspaper of that day that reads, ‘Alien and Non-Aliens Shipped to Interior,’” Okamoto said. “Non-Aliens? They were American citizens. All this was done on purpose. The Congressional Committee that studied it said the imprisonment was a result of war hysteria, racism and lack of political leadership.”
Okamoto said the memorial project has been gaining momentum.
“The City of San Bruno is one hundred percent behind it,” he said. “This will be a place where all people can learn about the World War II imprisonment and the injustice done. It’s especially important that school children learn about what happened and we expect hundreds of them to visit the site (BART Station) when the memorial is completed.”
Those wishing to donate can go to www.tanforanmemorial.org.