WATSONVILLE, Calif. — At noon on Saturday, Japanese-American men, women and children in fedoras and flowered dresses will report to a government building, attach tags with government-issued numbers to their suitcases and buttonholes, and ride a bus to a place with fences and guard towers.
The three dozen participants will be re-enacting what happened to their relatives in 1942, when 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced into 10 U.S. internment camps on orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It will bring back a lot of bad memories and things that we forgot,” said Chiyoko Yagi, who was 21 when she was sent to a camp in Poston, Ariz., and plans to watch on Saturday. “I want to see it to kind of remember it again.”
But, more important, the re-enactment could help others “see what we went through,” said Yagi, 81. “It could happen to anybody. We have to make people realize that something like this could happen in a hysteria.”
The re-enactment is a production of the Watsonville-Santa Cruz Japanese American Citizens League. While internees hold reunions, and others make annual trips to internment camps, Saturday’s event may be the first re-enactment, said JACL national executive director John Tateishi.
More than 1,000 people are expected to watch the event in Watsonville, a coastal town about 50 miles south of San Jose.
Those taking part in the re-enactment will assemble outside a government building on a downtown street that will have such 1940s details as a Greyhound bus on loan from a museum and an antique police car.
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The actors, wearing vintage clothing, will tell their stories to the crowd, and will then be put on a bus and ride to a theater down the street that will represent an internment center in the desert. There will be cyclone fences in the lobby and paintings of guard towers flanking the stage.
The $35,000 production, called “Liberty Lost ... Lessons in Loyalty,” was supported by donors from around the country.
The tales that will be told include those of a father who was taken by the FBI and sent to a camp apart from his family; a high school student who could not graduate; a little girl who had to leave her dog behind; and little Norman Mineta, now U.S. transportation secretary, whose baseball bat was taken by a guard before he left for camp.
Saturday’s event will also honor Japanese-Americans who served in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service and the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Some say the re-enactment is a bad idea.
“It doesn’t solve anything,” said City Councilwoman Judy Doering-Nielsen, the sole member to vote against a resolution supporting the re-enactment. “It doesn’t do anything other than to bring back old memories and re-create something that was a very sad thing in our history.”
In the 1940s, local politicians passed resolutions opposing the return of internees from the camps. But those who disagreed, and helped the Japanese-Americans, will be honored at Saturday’s event.
Among them: the late Oscar and Opal Marshall, who greeted returning internees at the train station, helped them find jobs and bought food when they heard markets would not sell to Japanese-Americans.
Watsonville artist Howard Ikemoto, who was interned at Tule Lake in Northern California when he was 3, has been telling his family’s stories through the 10-foot paintings of guard towers that will be at the event.
“It’s the kind of incarceration that is still happening and can happen at anytime to any group. Right now it’s focused on Arabs,” Ikemoto said. “It’s not about feeling sorry for oneself. It’s about making sure that it doesn’t happen again.”