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'Tag Project' Brings To Light A Dark Time In U.S. History

September 12, 2012 1:10 p.m.


Linda Canada, president, Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego

Related Story: 'Tag Project' Brings To Light A Dark Time In U.S. History


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: During the dark days after the Japanese attack on pearl harbor, Americans reacted in a number of proud and courageous ways, but also in one terribly atrocious way. Tens of thousands of Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced to leave their homes and transported out of state to internment camps. It is a shameful part of our history, and one that is often forgotten. In conjunction with the new musical, allegiance, running at The Old Globe, the tag project by Wendy Maruyama. Any my guest is Linda Canada, president of the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego. Linda, do you find that many people are unfamiliar with the Japanese-American internment?

CANADA: It is surprising to me how many people have never heard about it, and others who just -- that's just a glimmer of knowledge. We really don't teach it in the schools.

CAVANAUGH: Is that why? Is it really overlooked in the way we teach American history and the we we teach World War II?

CANADA: Well, if you think about it, are it's a pretty shameful aspect of our history. And I'm sure it's a difficult discussion to lead in the classroom.

CAVANAUGH: I thought I knew a good deal about the internment before I started reading some background. But I didn't know for instance the order for Japanese Americans in San Diego to leave only gave them a week to do it?

CANADA: Absolutely. They knew that something was up. And there were a lot of rumors going around. In fact, in the Union Tribune there was an article that said they were going to Manzanar, a camp up in Northern California. So people started to buy wool clothes and things to keep warm because it's cold up there. And as it turns out, they were sent to the middle of the desert in Arizona.

CAVANAUGH: How does someone leave their home and life in a week? How is that possible?

CANADA: I would think that would be greatly difficult. Many of the Japanese were farmers with crops in the fields that they just had to abandon. Others had pets, businesses, family heirlooms that they had to leave behind.

CANADA: What were they allowed to take with them?

CANADA: Just what they could carry in a suitcase.

CAVANAUGH: How many people were interned from San Diego County?

CANADA: From San Diego County roughly 2,000 people.

CAVANAUGH: And what did they do with their homes and businesses? Put them up for sale or just shutter them down before they left?

CANADA: We have to remember that the United States' laws and California's laws did not allow Japanese citizens to own land or businesses. So some of them were renting that land anyway. But still, leaving their property had to be very hard.

CAVANAUGH: Linda, fill us in. Why did this happen?

CANADA: Well, I suspect that there was a lot of racial profiling going on. It was Japanese who attacked pearl harbor. Japanese lived here along the coast of California and in San Diego from about the 18 '80s or 1990s. They looked different, talked in a different manner, they ate different food. They stood out unlike Germans or Italians who did not.

CAVANAUGH: Were there concerns that Japanese Americans on the west coast would somehow aid and abet the Japanese who were waging war against the United States?

CANADA: Oh, absolutely. There were a bunch of ridiculous rumors like that the farmers were plowing the fields in such a way to point to military installations. Completely bogus.

CAVANAUGH: Now, many of the people who were forced to leave their homes were U.S. citizens, right?

CANADA: Well, the people who had come from Japan and settled here as farmers or business people were ineligible for citizenship. They could not be naturalized citizens. But as they started to have children, their children by birth were American citizens. So when internment happened, roughly 2/3 of the people who were taken away were these children who were American citizens.

CAVANAUGH: Where did they go? Where did the people intern from San Diego go?

CANADA: The San Luis ray in the county was the dividing line. But people who lived south of the river were taken to an interim place at the Santa Anita race track in Arcadia, and they lived there for four months. Some people living in actual former horse stalls where you could still smell the stench of the horses.

CAVANAUGH: Just to be clear, it wasn't as if the Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and then set up as a Ramadan somewhere. These camps weren't too great.

CANADA: They were not great for many different reasons. Although there was some sentiment on the outside that the people had it easier. We had just come out of a great depression, so the fact that Japanese had housing and food and they had medical care and education, there were people who were very unhappy about that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let's get to the tag project by Wendy maruia ma. It is a project that displays literally thousands of tags. What do they represent?

CANADA: When the people were sent away in 1942, they were required to wear a paper tag on their clothing, attached to a button. So it's a 3 or 4-inch long paper tag. These are replicas in the tag project. She started her project with the idea that she would replicate the tags for the people in San Diego who she knew and loved. And she realized that she knew most of the people from San Diego, but then she got to thinking there were these nine other camps, there were 120,000 people impacted, and she wanted to do all of those tags.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about the artist. &%F0

CANADA: Oh, Wendy is a world-renowned artist based here in San Diego. She's been teaching at San Diego state university for more than 25 years. In the nontraditional role for women artists in teaching and the furniture and the art/craft department. So she works a lot with wood. So working with paper is a little departure for her.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell people if you're interested in seeing what it is we're talking about, photos of the tag project are on our website. But I'm wondering how did this project actually come to be? What inspired it?

CANADA: Wendy had visited Hiroshima Japan, and there is a memorial there to the atomic bomb. And there are long string was paper cranes that children and people make to decorate that memorial. And that connected with her to the idea of making these long strings of paper tags. So when the tags are completed, Wendy ties them together into strings that might be 12-15 feet long then assembles then by internment catch. So there were 10 major camps, there are 10 major tag bundles that are part of this exhibit.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, go ahead.

CANADA: Well, she also did some art pieces as well in which she incorporates founder objects, Japanese ceramic rice bowls, dolls. She did one for her parents in which she sort of replicated on half of it their prewar 1930s wall paper in their home, and on the right side the very rough and weathered home that they had after they went away. Her parents are a little unusual because they didn't go to an internment camp. They were one of the maybe 5% of families who were able to go outside of the restricted zone on the west coast. So they lived in Colorado for most of that period.

CAVANAUGH: But they still had to leave their homes

>> They had to leave their home. And certainly they were impacted. Imagine you're Japanese and you're living on the outside, and here's the country, the papers are screaming about the war and everything that's happening.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell our listeners, from looking at the tag project, looking at these actual columns of tags, they kind of look like beige juniper trees. They're rounded and horizontal, and filled to the brim with these beige, weathered looking tags. From what I understand, when the tag project has been displayed, there have been some emotional reactions to it.

CANADA: Oh, absolutely. There were emotional reactions in just the making of the tags themselves. But once they were displayed, and Wendy did have a display of all 10 of the tag bundles together with her other artwork for this project, and people were able tow look among the bundles, and they found family members and relatives, and people they knew, it was very emotional.

CAVANAUGH: Right now, the tag project is on view at The Old Globe in the lobby, and it's there because of the musical, allegiance, that is being produced there. It's having its world premiere at The Old Globe. And you actually served as a consultant for this musical. What guidance did your organization provide?

CANADA: We have give a lot of background information to the producers, and also helped The Old Globe itself in developing some educational programming. We provided pictures from our collection for the marketing department. We have done this exhibit. And when I say we've done it, part of my role was to read through the script and to identify all the tangible things mentioned in the script that we could then put on exhibit so people could make a connection.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of those things?

CANADA: In the play it talks about how whatever camp you were in, the camps were placed in areas that nobody else wanted to live in. So it was either high desert and cold, low desert and hot, or swamps. And you always had dust or mud or terrible conditions to get to the showers. And the fathers would often carve out of lumber scandals with high ridges on the bottom to keep out of the mud. So some of those are on exhibit.

CAVANAUGH: You've given us a really I think good touchstone to understand what it was like in these internment camps. And after spending years in the camps and then finally the war is over and Japanese Americans are then told to what? Go home?

CANADA: Even before the war was over, they were given the opportunity to leave the camps. And that's one of the critical, dramatic features of the allegiance play. In order to leave the camps in 1943, they had to sign a loyalty oath. Some people didn't want to sign the loyalty oath or they didn't want to sign two questions, 27 and 28, and we have the original oath on exhibit. But if you answered no and no to those questions, you got whisked away to Tully lake, another internment camp, and I were basically prisoned.

CAVANAUGH: What were the questions?

CANADA: They had to do with whether you would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. military and serve anywhere you were sent. Well, some people had family still in Japan, so that was a problem, that they could end up fighting relatives. But the bigger question was 28, which had to do with whether you would foreswear allegiance to the emperor. If they did that, they had no country. For the American-born Japanese, it was difficult because saying yes would imply that they had some allegiance to the Japanese emperor when in fact they hadn't.

CAVANAUGH: And this being asked of them after the government took their homes and businesses away and sent them off to a camp because they couldn't be trusted.

CANADA: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Many of the people who were interned, did they actually come back to San Diego after the camps were closed?

CANADA: They did not come back immediately. There were sort of people who came to test the waters and see what things were like. And some of the early people who came back ran sort of hostels in their homes or businesses, letting other Japanese live. Postwar San Diego, there was a terrible housing shortage. And it was difficult for Japanese Americans to find housing as difficult or perhaps even more so than people who were are looking for housing here. Japanese people who had a U.S. citizen serving in the military could get housing at frontier housing. But that didn't appeal so much to the Caucasians and others who were living in this military housing to have these Japanese move in. So that created some issue as well. But eventually the community came back. And today there are about 20,000 in San Diego who will self-identify as being of Japanese decent.

CAVANAUGH: I really want to thank you for coming in and speaking with us.