Lest history repeat itself

Against a backdrop of travel bans, local museums highlight the 75th anniversary of Japanese internment

Children practice calisthenics at the California internment camp Manzanar in this Ansel Adams photograph on display at the Crocker Art Museum.

Children practice calisthenics at the California internment camp Manzanar in this Ansel Adams photograph on display at the Crocker Art Museum.

Photo BY Ansel Adams

See the Two Views exhibit from February 19 to May 14, and attend the Day of Remembrance from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. February 19, at the Crocker Art Museum (216 O Street). Visit Kokoro: The Story of Sacramento’s Lost Japantown from February 12 to May 28 at the California Museum (1020 O Street).

It's more than a little ironic that, in these xenophobic times, with serious talks about travel bans and building a wall across the southern border, we’re marking the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. That law forced American citizens to leave their homes and move to concentration camps here in California and other parts of the American West.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government deemed any person of Japanese ancestry a threat to the nation. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order, designating much of the West Coast as military zones. He called for the War Department to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans and ship them to inland camps guarded by armed soldiers and fenced with barbed wire.

Here in Sacramento, 8,649 Japanese-Americans were sent away to camps, according to Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, director of education at the Crocker Art Museum.

Now, that tragedy is being marked in a contemplative setting: the museum. Along with three exhibits that have some connection to Japanese art and culture, the Crocker will host a Day of Remembrance on February 19, including a tea ceremony and tours. And the California Museum just introduced Kokoro: The Story of Sacramento’s Lost Japantown, a photo exhibit showing the rise, boom and literal wrecking-ball destruction of a part of downtown close to where both museums sit today.

Dreading déjà vu

This year, it’s high time people focused on a part of U.S. history that’s not often in the spotlight, Shelnut-Hendrick says.

“It’s a story people don’t know as well as other parts of U.S. history,” she says. “I think when people look at the photos and participate in the day’s activities, they’ll really be touched by that moment in time, and how we don’t want to go back to that point in time.”

On the day of the event, a 10-minute meditation and a taiko drum performance will lead into the daylong reading of the names of 8,649 Sacramento residents who were moved to the camps.

Located on the eastern flank of the Sierra, Manzanar became one of the most infamous of those camps because of photographer Ansel Adams. Primarily known for his landscapes, Adams decided to focus on people instead when he visited Manzanar. The images show prisoners’ daily lives in a camp of paper-walled frame buildings, where they were forced to live for up to three years. The Crocker will show 40 of those iconic works in the exhibition Two Views: Photographs by Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank.

At the exhibit, camp survivors will share their personal stories throughout the day. One of them is Kiyo Sato, who was 18 when her family was forced to leave its 20-acre strawberry farm near Mather Field. They were eventually moved to Poston War Relocation Center near Yuma, Ariz., where up to 17,000 people lived in barracks during summer days that reached 130 degrees.

Sato, a spry 95-year-old living in Folsom who wrote about her experiences in the memoir Kiko’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream, regularly speaks to grade-schoolers, using giant photos of the camps to prompt their questions.

“They always like the photo of the dog who tried to get into the back of an army truck to go with his owner,” she says. “I tell them about the dogs we had to leave behind, how we put them in the barn with food and water, and the door cracked open. I was told four years later that they died shortly after we left. There were 120,000 people like my family who had to leave their pets behind.”

Film will be the afternoon’s focus, when the Crocker, in conjunction with the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival, will show the animated film Grave of the Fireflies. Made in 1988, it follows a brother and sister who are orphaned during World War II when the U.S. military firebombs their home in Kobe, Japan.

As the last names are read out, local songwriter Haruko Sakakibara will close out the Day of Remembrance with her composition, “We Had to Go,” written to recognize the Japanese-American experience.

The Crocker actually sits in the middle of what used to be the fourth-largest Japantown in the nation, but most Sacramentans don’t know that because there’s no trace of it left.

The ghost of a neighborhood

The California Museum’s Kokoro exhibit, which opened February 12, shows the once-thriving community of Sacramento’s Japantown, six square blocks bordered by L and O streets and Third and Fifth streets, which was first hit by Executive Order 9066, then the relentless march of urban redevelopment a decade later.

With the bulk of the 700 photos coming from former Japantown residents, Kokoro represents a grassroots effort at exhibition design, says Executive Director Amanda Meeker.

“They came together as a community to dig through their attics and basements and pull out amazing wonderful family photos, home movies and other items devoted to that place and time,” Meeker says. “You’re seeing a very personal side of that history. You really feel almost transported almost back in time to a place that is just a few blocks away. The buildings on Capitol Mall replaced a very vibrant community.”

The exhibit was inspired by Kevin Wildie’s 2013 book, Sacramento’s Historic Japantown: Legacy of a Lost Neighborhood. After its publication, Wildie got a call from Bob Matsumoto, a Los Angeles-based art director who was so inspired by the book that he suggested that it be turned into a photo exhibit. The duo spent two years reaching out to the community and asking for photos, but Wildie says credit is due primarily to five Japanese-American women who knew how to network effectively.

“They were on the phone, calling everyone they know, asking them for photos, so their efforts are the reason behind what you see today,” he says.

Music from local jazz singer Betty Inada plays in the background of the exhibit, while black-and-white photos show a bustling neighborhood that got its start in the late 1890s, when Japanese immigrants came across the Pacific to work in Sacramento’s fields and on its train tracks. By 1940, the community had grown to 500 families and 170 Japanese-American owned or operated businesses, social clubs and churches.

Nearby, video reels show those buildings getting destroyed and blocks razed by Sacramento’s post-World War II redevelopment project.

A decade after being uprooted, Japantown’s residents spoke out forcefully about the project that called for a complete demolition of Japantown, Wildie says.

Activists’ efforts to incorporate a new Japantown were blocked, and by 1960 most Japantown residents had moved to South Sacramento. As with Roosevelt’s order, Sacramento’s racial rezoning was shrouded in the darkness of bad historic decisions no one wanted to call attention to.

When Wildie started working on Kokoro, election year 2016 wasn’t yet an issue. He just wanted to let people know about the contributions Japanese-Americans have made to Sacramento. But now, with the old adage “history repeats itself” rearing its head in an all-too-real way, his new goal is to make sure people see why the past shouldn’t return to the present.

“With the racial and nationalistic hysteria occurring during World War II, there were judgments made that, even back then, an overwhelming majority of legal scholars and politicians said were unconstitutional,” Wildie says. “We threw out the Constitution and we regretted it because we exaggerated the fears. This exhibit is a reminder for us to be cognizant of overreaction and the overwhelming damage done to Japanese-Americans—and that we are possibly on the verge of doing to Muslim-Americans. It’s a reminder that we should not overreact.”