Executive Order 9066 making possible the displacement and confinement of 120,000 people, many U.S. citizens, was signed amidst a climate of fear and racial tension.
Despite parallels that some recent visitors to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County found disturbingly similar to modern times, that order was signed 75 years ago on Feb. 19, 1942.
For the anniversary, after opening a brand new exhibit to recall the experiences of local Issei and Nisei – first and second generation Japanese immigrant families – during World War II, historians at the Center on Monterrey Street in SLO stood ready to, “scan family photographs, record personal stories, and discuss new ways that we can continue working together to collect and preserve the history of Japanese Americans on the Central Coast.”
Despite having more than 70 visitors in the first two hours that the “Tranquility Disrupted: Japanese Exclusion and San Luis Obispo County” exhibit was open on Sunday, their largest contingent of family members arrived just before the doors opened for the day, the family of Haruo Hayashi visiting his banner with quotes already on display.
“The Nisei community here is really in the very beginning stages of agreeing to speak with us,” said curator Eva Ulz, adding that the popular conception that Japanese Americans returning to the Central Coast faired better than in other parts of the Western Seaboard after the War wasn’t strictly true.
Decades of laws with racist and xenophobic origins prohibited first generation immigrants from naturalizing as U.S. citizens, or from owning land.
That had the effect of dichotomizing the community among those who’d been able to gather resources and purchase properties in the second generation or find ways to own and sell agricultural products through co-operative corporations and the share crop or tenant farmers.
After the end of the War families with properties that had been kept in trust by their neighbors did indeed return, but merchants, the average laborer and families forced to sell their holdings had nothing to return too.
While there are materials available to document those experiences, many of which are on display at the museum through July 2017, Ultz is concerned they’re running out of time to collect more.
“This is the last major anniversary that anyone who lived through, or remembers the camps may be around,” she said.
Since 1980 Dan Krieger, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly, and his wife Liz Krieger, have almost literally written the book on Japanese Exclusion and the Central Coast. War Comes to the Middle Kingdom a compellation they edited together with Stan Harth in 1991 contains a 30-page essay on the subject.
Through the years, he said, they had a very personal connection with the folks they chronicled.
While explaining some of the efforts of the community to reconnect for years before the most recent anniversary, Dan Krieger said, “I’m 76. Most of the Nisei are 10 years older than me.”
He said, the first reunion of local families was held in 1981 in Arroyo Grande. Many had returned to farming and prospered in California after the war but did so in the Central Valley, not the Central Coast.
“We used to hold the reunions at McLintocks,” he said. “That went on until 2009. I’ll never forget Pat Nagano, from Morro Bay, coming in carrying his wife on his back. She wasn’t doing well but she wanted to be there…. many of these people went from 1942 to 1981 without seeing each other.”
Patrick “Pat” Noriyoshi Nagano’s story was an exception to the tales of those who left never to return permanently. According to the obituary published by his family in 2015, he passed away at the age of 96 having spent his entire life in Morro Bay, aside from the time he spent in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service during the War. His wife, Ann passed in 2006.
Quotations from some of the other Nisei who did return SLO County, out of an estimated 925 local people of Japanese heritage before the War, adorn the new History Center exhibit. Many are names familiar in Arroyo Grande and the Los Osos Valley.
“I was very bitter,” said Ben Dohi, “I tell you, I don’t know why it affected me like that. I look back, and yet it didn’t seem to bother the ones older than I. I couldn’t understand that, they lost more than I did, all I missed was my youth.”
While the History Center’s latest exhibit has been far from the only effort to remember, institutional knowledge and the way people remember changes.
In 1996 an event at Cal Poly hosted 900 people to honor the families like the Loomis’ that had assisted their Japanese neighbors and kept property viable awaiting return. Never-the-less, said Krieger, many “ the best” plots of land took years to return to their pre-war production levels.
The physical legacy of San Luis Obispo was changed as well. On Feb. 24, 1942 the San Luis Obispo City Council changed the name of Eto Street in the “Nippon Tract” to Brook Street. That, added Ultz, set the stage for another all but forgotten slice of local history as African American workers moved into the area during the War and in the 1950s.
The language has changed as well. For decades the terms Japanese Internment and interment camps hid the nature of what this country was willing to do to it’s own citizens behind comfortable euphemisms.
In recent years the memory of what was known at the time, wherein camps like Gila and Manzanar were called War Relocation Centers has been reasserted. Those incarcerated and their descendants have revived the term concentration camp, “a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined,” to describe the experience.
While the Nisei experience is theirs alone to own and relate, the legacy of Executive Order 9066 is also still open for interpretation to a modern public.
On Feb. 19, a woman appearing to be in her 60s with Caucasian features stood quietly in the History Center reading a reproduction of the orders publically posted April 24, 1942 and signed by Lt. Gen. J.L. DeWitt, “Instructions to all Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” She stood for a long moment then turned to the nearest person at hand, pointing to the sign and said, “That’s what Trump is trying to do now.”
Anyone wishing to contribute oral history or information can call the History Center of SLO County at 543-0638 or email email@example.com for more information. A special “Girls Day” or Hina Mtsur event will add to the exhibit March 3.
-Story and Photos by Camas Frank