Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII is the California Museum’s longest-running exhibit.

Touching History

At the California Museum and inside local classrooms, survivors of Japanese internment camps tell their story to a new generation

Back Article Dec 26, 2017 By Trish Moratto Litke

Marielle Tsukamoto has a vivid memory of the day her family left for the internment camp during World War II. She remembers standing in the backyard of her family’s farmhouse in Florin as a little girl, where she found her grandmother sobbing in the lovingly-tended garden.

“She feared she would never see her precious garden again,” Tsukamoto says.

The Tsukamoto family was among the 120,000 Americans relocated to camps during the war because of their Japanese heritage. Many of these individuals had less than 48-hours notice before a mandatory evacuation forced them into an assembly center, and then into one of 10, nationwide incarceration camps.

“I’m obligated to share our story, since most people that were incarcerated have already passed. I still have a voice.” Marielle Tsukamoto, volunteer docent, California Museum

Tsukamoto is now a volunteer docent at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento where she helps visitors understand the personal impact that Executive Order 9066 had on the lives of many Americans — including her. She often speaks about her personal experience at events across Northern California.

“I’m obligated to share our story,” Tsukamoto says, “Since most people that were incarcerated have already passed. I still have a voice. I have to speak out and help people understand what happened in 1942, because history does repeat itself.”

Visitors to the museum hear personal stories of internment at the permanent exhibit Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII. New features of the exhibit were installed in early 2017 through a grant from the National Parks Service. The nonprofit California Museum has been open for nearly 20 years and is located at the corner of 10th and O streets. This is the only general-focus history museum in the U.S. to feature a permanent exhibit on internment. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles also educates visitors on the topic and The Smithsonian used to have an exhibit, which has since closed.

According to Amanda Meeker, executive director of the California Museum, the Uprooted! exhibit, Time of Remembrance Program and the traveling trunk program all fit into one of the museum’s stated goals: to let people know the importance they have in California history.

“We want to encourage our students and visitors to think about how they can personally make a difference in our state,” Meeker says.

On the grounds of the museum is a dramatic art display called the Constitution Wall. It stands six stories tall, and words like “rights,” “redress,” “assemble” and “speak” — words selected from the California Constitution — are highlighted, reminding visitors of the freedoms guaranteed to all Californians.

“We take the students at the museum out to view the constitution wall,” Meeker says. “The word ‘speak’ pops out from the state Constitution. We ask the students to consider why that word is prominent. We ask them to think about how any of this applies in the present.”

Uprooted! features the stories of local members of the Japanese-American community, beginning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Photographs, art, an interactive map and a reproduction of camp barracks help bring to life the realities of incarceration. The exhibit also showcases a video series with oral histories from formerly interned Americans, including a video from actor and activist George Takei.

“Uprooted! tells my story,” Takei says in a video introduction he recorded for the museum. Takei’s mother lived in Sacramento prior to marrying his father and moving to Los Angeles. His maternal grandparents were farmers from the Florin area. “I still remember my mother’s tears on the day armed guards marched up our driveway and ordered us out of our home,” he says into the camera.

In his message to museum visitors, Takei says he hopes the exhibit will provoke people to think about what it means to be fair and just, and what it means to be “American.” He says that each individual has power to stop something like this from happening again in the future.

“As with all human tragedies, time erodes memory, and it becomes easy to minimize the significance of what happened,” Takei says. “That’s why exhibits like this, narrated by those who were actually there, are so important. Sadly, the story of how fear and ignorance led this country to incarcerate my family and over a hundred thousand others is still relevant today.”

Teaching the Next Generation

To share information about this time period with students, the museum has developed the “Time of Remembrance” program. One component of the program includes the museum supplying classroom-based resources to local schools. Volunteer docents from Uprooted! visit classrooms and use audiovisual slides and personal stories to bring history to young people.

The museum offers a “traveling trunk” full of tangible items for the children to see, and they come with corresponding curriculum for teachers to start conversations about the items in their classrooms. The artifacts complement the lesson plans and help students understand what life was like for the incarcerated families. The 1940s vintage trunk suitcase includes barbed wire, a washboard, an evacuation notice, identity cards, photographs and origami paper. Suggested activities include discussions on citizenship, the Constitution and the process of government redress.

Chuck Kobayashi, a retired Sacramento superior court judge, presents his story to students through the Time of Remembrance Program. Kobayashi was 8 years old when he was incarcerated, and was released when he was nearly 12.

He was sent to the Tule Lake segregation center, in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. He remembers spending half of his camp days at “American school” and during the second half of his day, he was immersed in Japanese education — taught by other internees. He says that the camp’s school was relatively rudimentary, and they didn’t have homework because they lacked enough books. Even though he was young at the time, Kobayashi says he clearly remembers the turmoil and unrest at the camps.

“I emphasize to students that we don’t want this to happen again,” he says. “We don’t want a group of people targeted by the government based on race or religion. We need to learn from the past.”

Before internment, Kobayashi’s father ran a dry cleaning shop and a tailoring business. After the war, his father was unable to reopen his business due to the animosity in the community toward Japanese Americans. When he was older, Kobayashi served in the U.S. Army in Korea, and later earned a law degree from UC Berkeley.

He says he is hopeful that constitutional infringements are harder to hide these days.

“I am very pleased with how the exhibit tells the story of the pre-war and internment experiences,” Kobayashi says. “I know that the people who have seen the exhibit are very impressed and those who did not know of the incarceration are dumbfounded by what  occurred.”

Tsukamoto recently visited Hannah Kassis’ fourth grade class at Dudley Elementary School in Antelope, where she did a presentation on Japanese internment. When she goes into a classroom, Tsukamoto takes her personal story: Her presentation reflects on her pre-internment life in Florin — where she lived on 40 acres with her immediate family and paternal grandparents. Tsukamoto, a retired teacher and principal, says the process of connecting with students comes naturally.

Related: A little piece of Japanese culture can be found in Walnut Grove

“This is one of the most valuable programs we have offered the students this year,” says Dudley teacher Robert Smith. “Mrs. Tsukamoto was able to share information in ways these young students really connected with. She used examples of people having to leave their pets, metaphors about bullying and other anecdotes that the students could connect with at their age.”

Kassis says her class has been studying segregation and discrimination throughout the year and the presentation by someone who lived through this time period was “a great way for students to really develop opinions and feelings toward the subject,” she says. “The students were moved by the words she shared.”

Even though she was young at the time, Tsukamoto can remember the day the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Her mother was the pianist at their local church, and she remembers her mother was playing when her father ran into the church service with the news. She remembers the pastor dimming the lights and lighting candles — he told the congregants that as long as they held faith in their God, there would never be total darkness.

That faith would be tested in the upcoming years as her family was sent to what she describes as prison camps. In recent years, many people involved in the preservation of this period of American history, including Tsukamoto, have begun to use the word “incarceration” instead of “internment.” They feel it more accurately reflects history, and Tsukamoto says she disagrees with the term “internment center,” as they were guarded with barbed wire and men in towers with firearms.

“The parts that most struck our class was that they had to share a room with their families and leave their homes to be put in ‘prison’ when they hadn’t done anything wrong,” Kassis says of her students. “We talked for an hour after the presentation … Mrs. Tsukamoto told them to not ever let that happen to them. That was powerful.”

In December 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government did not have the right to detain Japanese American citizens without due process. The last internment camp closed in 1945.

Tsukamoto’s late mother, Mary Tsukamoto, told her life story to author Elizabeth Pinkerton in the book We the People, A Story of Internment in America. She tells of her time in the camps, the process of adjusting to life after incarceration and the struggle of getting the U.S. government to formally acknowledge its wrongdoing, a process known as redress.

“We the People” highlights the challenges internees faced as they attempted to find work and encountered resistance and institutionalized racism. Members of the Tsukamoto family were denied daytime employment since some companies did not want customers to see Japanese American employees. Former internees often took positions working at night.

Upon the Tsukamotos’ eventual return to Florin, they were one of very few families able to go back to their original homes after incarceration. A close family friend paid their mortgage and tended their crops while they were interned.

“My family was extremely fortunate,” Tsukamoto says. “We were some of the only roughly 15 percent of Japanese Americans in the greater Sacramento area who came back to their lives and land after the camps.”

And, she adds, “My grandmother was, in fact, reunited with her garden at the farm house.”

This story is part of the 22nd annual Capital Region Cares, Comstock’s special publication dedicated to nonprofits and charitable giving. You can order the 2017-2018 edition online here. To submit your nonprofit success story for consideration in next year’s edition, fill out this online form.