(Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles regarding the incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1942–1945. This project is made possible through a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, a program of the California State Library.)
On a summer day in the year 2000, Dr. Isao Fujimoto (1933–2022) came to Fresno for a presentation about popular education, organized by the Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee. Afterward, during a chat with several attendees, he talked about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II—one of the most infamous civil rights violations by the United States.
From 1942 to 1945, the U.S. government incarcerated more than 127,000 people of Japanese descent, including U.S. citizens, in isolated camps, in what is considered a reaction, or revenge, to the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan on the United States in December 1941.
I knew little about this historical event, so I paid close attention to Dr. Fujimoto’s conversation. As a young boy, he was an inmate—along with his family—of the Heart Mountain, Wyo., and Tule Lake, Calif., concentration camps.
He was a soft, charming speaker, and his words didn’t express resentfulness or bitterness. However, he was good at presenting a case, and this was a special one for him.
He told us about the “assembly centers,” places used by the military to gather Japanese people from different cities for a later “distribution” to camps.
“In Fresno, there were two; one was in Pinedale and the other one was at the Fresno Fairgrounds,” he said. To me, this was shocking news. “Pinedale?” I asked. “That’s almost in my backyard!” I couldn’t believe it, and I experienced an uncomfortable feeling.
The following day, I jumped in my car and drove to Pinedale to locate the Pinedale Assembly Center. It didn’t take much time, the place was marked by a plaque. Behind it was a big, empty terrain now surrounded by developers’ endless appetite for new land.
I stood in front of that terrain, and I imagined families being brought by the dozens into the barracks. I tried to imagine how they felt at that moment. Fear, uncertainty, confusion.
Suddenly, I started to feel confused and my imagination started to take a dark turn. I felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but to “see” another tragedy in my mind, when thousands of young—and not so young—people in my country (Argentina) were rounded up, kidnapped on the streets—during daylight and at night—in front of their families and sent either to another kind of barracks (jails or military camps) or simply killed—bodies appeared here, there and everywhere.
At the beginning, during the “democratic” Argentine government of Isabel Perón, in 1975, paramilitary groups, organized by a known Perón adviser, started a “war against leftists.” On a daily basis, unmarked cars kidnapped hundreds of young people, mainly belonging to the Perónist movement, and killed them.
One year later, the military took over in Argentina. That coup d’etat lasted until 1982—six years in which about 30,000 people were killed after being kidnapped or arrested. All without any warrants or charges. Attorneys who tried to help were also murdered. Students, journalists and union leaders were among the victims.
The military was more efficient than the paramilitary groups, and so the killing machine—as well as the propaganda one—worked nonstop. Even pregnant young women were held in captivity until their babies were born. Then the babies were given in adoption and the mothers killed.
Both the Japanese people sent to concentration camps in the United States and the victims of state terrorism in Argentina have something in common: In both cases, the U.S. government was responsible or deeply involved.
Before Argentina’s coup of 1976, Washington’s hands got dirty, again, in the Sept. 11, 1973, bloody coup in Chile, in which General Augusto Pinochet deposed democratically elected president Salvador Allende, who was killed during the attack on the Presidential Palace.
My daydreaming was dissipating, and I was still in front of an empty landfill that was once an Assembly Center—a “pre-concentration camp.” But I was still feeling bad, nauseous because of the memories. And getting worse as I told myself “this happened here years ago, but it happened here.”
Why is it that humans go through these types of events? Is history repeating itself? Innocent people paying the consequences of abusive governments.
After all, why were Japanese people—either immigrants or those born here—incarcerated? Just because they were Japanese. Why were people killed in Argentina? Just because they didn’t think like those in power. Is there any way to stop this circle of power abuse and racism?
In Argentina, many of the military officers and their civilian partners in crime were judged and convicted; the movie Argentina 1985 portrays some of these events. No U.S. officer or elected official who participated in the abuses of Japanese Americans was charged.
The only way to stop these abuses and crimes is if the population learns from other communities’ dramatic past, get organized and say “Nunca mas” (“Never again”). In Argentina, when democracy finally returned, in 1982, a strong movement led by survivors of the state terrorism, family members of victims, activists and union leaders came together under the flag of “Nunca mas,” with the intention to avoid this from happening again. They compromised to keep the memory of those atrocities alive to avoid it from happening again.
In the United States, we must also say “Never again.”
What has happened to others, as to Japanese Americans, should motivate us to be alert. Telling the stories of abused communities is part of this process. No one should ignore these dramatic events when they are happening.
Argentina’s state terrorism hit my family and some friends. But also some family members and friends justified their lack of action at the time with the cold “I didn’t know.” They knew. Everybody knew. What helped to end this abusive regime was people’s solidarity, both internal and international.
Pinedale and the Fresno Fairgrounds are local landmarks of this historic memory of unfairness and mistreat. Let’s not forget.
Incarceration of Japanese Americans
Pinedale Assembly Center
Opened May 7–July 23, 1942
Held Japanese Americans from Washington State, Hood River, Ore., and Sacramento. Peak population: 4,792 people, sent later to the Tule Lake, Calif., and Poston, Ariz., concentration camps.
People were sent to the assembly centers by train. The photos of the trains with incarcerated people and the barracks on the camps remind us of the Jews being sent to death at the concentration camps set up on purpose by the Nazis.
Fresno Assembly Center (Fresno Fairgrounds)
Open May 6–Oct. 30, 1942
Held Japanese from Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. Peak population: 5,120. They were then sent to the Jerome, Ark., and Gila River, Ariz., concentration camps.
The attack on Pearl Harbor marked the entrance of the United States into WWII. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, as commander-in-chief, issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the internment of Japanese Americans.
The entire West Coast was deemed a military area and was divided into military zones. Executive Order 9066 authorized military commanders to exclude civilians from military areas. Although the language of the order did not specify any ethnic group, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command proceeded to announce curfews that included only Japanese Americans.
Before WWII (which started in Europe in 1939), the FBI had identified German, Italian and Japanese aliens who were suspected of being potential enemy agents. With the Pearl Harbor attack, public hysteria and the military propaganda pointed at people of Japanese descent as enemies. After the war, not a single case of espionage by a Japanese American was uncovered.
General DeWitt, based then in San Francisco, was instrumental in spreading false and baseless suspicions about Japanese Americans’ support of Japan and sabotage-type of activities against the United States.
The U.S. government set up 10 concentration camps to hold Japanese Americans, situated many miles inland, often in remote and desolate locales: Tule Lake and Manzanar, Calif.; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; Jerome and Rohwer, Ark.; Heart Mountain, Wyo.; Poston and Gila River, Ariz.; and Granada, Colo.