Lessons from internment

Sacramento Muslims find similarities and solace through involvement with the area’s Japanese-Americans, who work to keep the memory of wartime camps alive

Stan and Christine Umeda, members of the Florin JACL, sit in a makeshift Japanese-American internment barrack constructed inside the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.

Stan and Christine Umeda, members of the Florin JACL, sit in a makeshift Japanese-American internment barrack constructed inside the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Carol Hironaka, whose family owned a 40-acre ranch in Florin, just south of Sacramento, was 17 years old in the spring of 1942. She was just about to graduate high school when her family and approximately 120,000 other people of Japanese descent were ordered into internment camps for the duration of World War II. She remembers traveling by train through the Central Valley and the Mojave Desert with the shades drawn. “I guess they didn’t want outsiders to know what was going on.”

With her grandparents, parents and two siblings, Hironaka was squeezed into a small room at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley. The room had one bare electric light bulb, an oil stove and no privacy. “It was cold in the wintertime and very dusty.”

Hironaka remembers that her high school mailed her diploma to the camp.

Japanese-Americans in Sacramento have found kindred spirits in local Muslims— another group of Americans who’ve felt targeted by the American government, especially since the events of 9/11. And this spring, when a coalition of local Japanese-Americans made its first pilgrimage from Sacramento to Manzanar—newly preserved as a National Historic Site—they were joined by members of Sacramento’s Muslim community.

“We’ve been working with Arab, Muslim and East Asian communities for the last 15 years,” explained Andy Noguchi, co-chair of the Civil Rights Committee of the Florin Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Since the first Gulf War, the Florin JACL has been sharing its World War II history with the Muslim community as an example of what can happen when a specific ethnic group is placed under suspicion because of its race or religion.

During the nearly five years since the attacks of September 11, Japanese-Americans have given presentations to Muslim students, bringing the internment experience to life for them by asking what they would carry if they were allowed only one suitcase when leaving their homes. They’ve stood beside Muslims during press conferences and workshops and launched escort programs to make sure Muslims made it safely to and from mosques to pray. This year, the Florin JACL invited members of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to be part of the first Japanese-American pilgrimage to Manzanar.

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento chapter of CAIR, said that it was “a very emotional and moving trip” for those Muslims who attended. “The Japanese-Americans, they were also looked on as suspicious, even though they were loyal citizens of the U.S.”

Though the federal government did not intern Middle Easterners after the bombing of the World Trade Center, Japanese-Americans see striking similarities between these two chapters in history, especially as local Muslims were detained, deported or kept under regular surveillance by the government. The recently concluded federal terrorism cases against two members of the Hayat family in Lodi bring back memories of the 1940s for local Japanese-Americans.

“A number of the members of our group had their fathers taken away and held secretly,” Noguchi said.

Hironaka remembers: “We noticed that many first-generation men were taken and incarcerated in places like Montana. I have a feeling that there were more Buddhists than Christians taken.” Hironaka remembers how afraid her parents were until a friend of the family assured them that they would not be whisked away.

To remind Americans of the Japanese internment, for which the federal government belatedly apologized in 1988, the league has kept alive the memory of camps like Manzanar by collecting almost 100 oral histories from local Japanese-Americans. They are available through the Japanese American Archival Collection at California State University, Sacramento. Thousands of artifacts from the camps, including a collection of carved wooden birds that women wore as lapel pins, are part of the exhibit. These birds, as well as dolls draped in kimonos, carved wooden furniture and decorative crafts made from the tiny seashells found at the camps, can be seen in the south wing of the first floor of the CSUS library. They show a tremendous ingenuity and what author Delphine Hirasuna called “gaman,” or “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Photos from the exhibit are collected in Hirasuna’s 2005 book, The Art of Gaman.

In stories like Hironaka’s, Elaine Yamaguchi, who directs the state library’s California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, finds valuable lessons for Muslim Americans and any other group that feels targeted by a suspicious government.

“In the 1940s,” said Yamaguchi, “Japanese-Americans were very isolated. There were no unity groups. The Muslim community as a whole can reach out, and they’ll find allies.”

Yamaguchi sees the Japanese-American community as very pro-law-and-order, so she also understands how difficult it is to both support the American government and fear being targeted by it.

“We want to make sure the roots of our patriotism, the Constitution, apply to everyone equally. As long as we have people willing to tell their stories,” she added, “it won’t be like 1942.”

A room similar to Hironaka’s Manzanar barrack has been reconstructed as part of an expanded exhibit on the Japanese-American internment at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts in Sacramento. The exhibit runs through February 2007.

Like many adults who were interned as young people, Hironaka doesn’t remember her parents discussing their feelings about the internment. “I just knew they were afraid, very afraid of the situation. They kept most of it to themselves.”

When Hironaka and her family were released, they moved into a hostel in Florin. The 40-acre farm was gone, bought for what Hironaka’s family called “chickenfeed.” “While we were in the camp, they were not able to pay the mortgage,” said Hironaka.

From the hostel, her family wrote to friends who grew Tokay grapes in Lodi. Luckily, they needed a foreman, said Hironaka, so for the next 10 years, her family made its post-World War II home in the same region made internationally famous earlier this year by the Hayat terrorism trials.

In the years after the war, Hironaka married a man who fought with the celebrated 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Like many of her generation, she remembered the camps but moved on with her life and the raising of her children.

Now, Hironaka calls her recent pilgrimage to Manzanar “an awakening.”

“I feel settled,” she said. “I’m sorry to say it, but it’s kind of fading away. It doesn’t bring up any anxiety. … It was done, and it’s over.”