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Internment camp bill's message: Don't forget

Supporters want to preserve remnants of the WWII centers around the nation.

By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, September 18, 2005
Story appeared on Page A3 of The Bee

WASHINGTON - On the wall of the weathered jail at the World War II Japanese American internment camp known as the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, an inmate wrote these words: "Show me the way to go home."

Between 1942 and 1946, this desolate area in Modoc County, 10 miles from the town of Tulelake, was home to tens of thousands of Japanese Americans.

They were uprooted from their homes, yanked with few possessions from their communities and held as virtual prisoners by the U.S. government because of what Congress later declared a post-Pearl Harbor hysteria.

Now there is an effort under way in Congress to preserve these fading remnants of a dark chapter in U.S. history by establishing $38 million in grants to help local communities and preservation groups use these artifacts to establish centers of remembrance and education.

In 1988, Congress passed legislation calling for a formal apology to Japanese Americans and to provide compensation for their treatment. The apology was delivered a year later by President George H.W. Bush.

The new legislation is intended to keep alive the memory of the 10 internment camps and numerous gathering centers around the country.

It is sponsored by Rep. William Thomas, R-Bakersfield, and Democratic Reps. Michael Honda of San Jose and Doris Matsui of Sacramento. It has drawn more than 110 co-sponsors, been cleared by the House Resources Committee for approval by the full House and soon will be introduced in the Senate.

"This legislation is designed to help ensure the United States and, more importantly, its citizens never forget the lessons learned from this mistake," Thomas said. "It is a modest recognition of a period in our history that needs to be remembered, particularly as many of the sites and people are being overtaken by time."

The legislation was the idea of the Japanese American Citizens League, and Thomas' involvement was no accident. He is a close friend of former California Assemblyman Floyd Mori, who is now the organization's public policy chief in Washington.

Mori said that when he dropped by Thomas' office last year for a casual visit, he mentioned JACL's concept, and Thomas latched on.

"He is very aware of what happened, and that it was very wrong," said Mori, who once roomed with Thomas in Sacramento when they served in the Legislature.

At the time, Thomas and Mori thought they would be working with Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento, on the bill. Matsui lived in the Tule Lake center, an episode that scarred him deeply and inflamed his passions as he led the battle for the act that delivered the federal apology.

But the congressman died Jan. 1, and his widow, Doris, was elected to fill his seat. Born in the Poston camp in Arizona, she doesn't have the vivid memories that her husband had but grew up under the shadow of the experience.

"My parents never wanted to burden me with this so that we could grow up as 'American' as possible," she said.

For many Japanese Americans, the experience was humiliating because of the public doubt about their loyalty, even though most were U.S. citizens.

"We want to make sure this doesn't fade from anyone's memory," Doris Matsui said.

Honda said his experience spending the first three years of his life in a Colorado relocation center drifted back in dreams - bits and pieces of memories about life in confinement as a toddler - shooting vividly up through his consciousness. His parents affirmed their accuracy.

"I didn't show anger until I was a little older," he said. "Then I began to understand why it was important to remember these things, work toward that apology and now to try to make sure these confinement sites are preserved."

There were two confinement centers in California. The Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, in what used to be Thomas' district, was made a national historic site in 1985 and has a National Park Service interpretive center.

Tule Lake, which may have had the darkest history of all the centers, stands to benefit most in California from the Thomas bill.

Declared a state historic site in 1975, most of what remains is part of a state highway maintenance yard, although the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation owns roughly 23 acres of the old camp and a few of its buildings.

Jimi Yamaichi, 83, is the president of the Tule Lake preservation committee, and his story is part of the sad history of the camp, which at its peak housed 18,750 Japanese Americans.

Yamaichi lives with the distinction of being the person who built the jail.

Of all the camps, Tule Lake in 1943 became the site where difficult detainees were sent. Maybe it was because they were too angry to sign loyalty oaths, Yamaichi said. Maybe it was because they had defied an order. Or maybe it was because they were youthful troublemakers.

Whatever the reason, Yamaichi said, even among Japanese American detainees who still have a hard time talking about their experience, those assigned to Tule Lake live under an even more burdensome stigma.

"People don't want to talk about that they were at Tule Lake," he said. "Even in our community today, if we say we were in Tule Lake, it's, 'Oh, you were bad guys' right off the bat. Even among our own people. We were labeled - disloyal."

Now Yamaichi lives with the fact that his hands helped build the jail where inscriptions carved or written on the wall tell of the misery of those for whom it was home.

One inscription in Japanese reads, "Down with the United States."

Another, more poignant, says curiously: "Please he a second when I commit Harakiri."

"I was the builder," Yamaichi said. "I was in charge" of building it.

"That's my monument to incarceration," he said.

For Yamaichi, for Matsui and Honda and for others whom the camps remain a dark symbol of ethnic stereotyping and persecution, the legislation has become an act of national contrition.

"We'd like to do an interpretive center at Tule Lake and to tell people what happened, how it happened and how we were treated - and how we survived," Yamaichi said.




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