Steve Okamoto and Dianne Fukami present Q&A + screening of documentary “Tanforan: From Racetrack to Assembly Center”


“One of the biggest audiences I want to reach are young people.”—Peninsula resident Steve Okamoto, pictured at the San Bruno BART station where a photo exhibit explores the history of the Tanforan detention center. Okamoto was an infant when his family was interned at Tanforan during World War II. (Photo by Charles Russo)

At a young 79 years old, Steve Okamoto is full of energy and shows no signs that retirement means slowing down — he takes a senior exercise class four days a week and walks a couple of miles daily. He also doesn’t see retirement as an excuse to stop being civically engaged. He is on the Foster City Rotary and Endowment Foundation boards, and was also a Foster City Councilmember from 2011–2015, where as Chairman of the Foster City Sister City Association, he formed a relationship with Inagi City in Japan.

Aside from the numerous other board and foundation memberships he holds, Okamoto is part of the last surviving generation of Japanese American internees. He feels the urgency to keep educating people about the history of his community’s incarceration.

One of Dorothea Lange’s images for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), taken at Tanforan on April 29, 1942 with the caption: “San Bruno, Calif.—Families of Japanese ancestry arrive at assembly center at Tanforan Race Track. Evacuees will be transferred later to War Relocation Authority centers where they will be housed for the duration.” (Image via The Museum of the City of San Francisco from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration)

“One of the biggest audiences I want to reach are young people,” he said. Reactions such as, “My parents never told me this!” and, “Wow, my parents had to go through that!” are the sort of sentiments that fuel Okamoto’s mission.

As part of that mission, Okamoto assisted filmmaker Dianne Fukami in creating a documentary about Tanforan’s detention center history, called “Tanforan: From Racetrack to Assembly Center,” which originally aired on KCSM-TV Channel 60 in 1995.

Through efforts of the Millbrae Anti-Racist Coalition to facilitate dialogue about racial and social justice (the coalition formed in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter uprisings of summer 2020), the documentary will screen virtually this Thursday, hosted by San Mateo County Libraries and cosponsored by the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee, of which Okamoto is an active member.

Before Tanforan became a shopping center in 1971, it was a racetrack from 1899–1964. During World War II, the racetrack was a site where the U.S. government wrongfully held thousands of Japanese Americans, simply based on their ethnicity. In 1988, after a years-long advocacy effort by the Japanese American community, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology and $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. Still, the legacy of Tanforan often goes unnoticed by many Bay Area residents, an all-too-forgotten history that Okamoto seeks to remedy.

Scenes from the Tanforan detention center, which held approximately 8,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. In addition to the small, hastily-constructed barracks, horse stalls were used to house many of the detainees. (Top images courtesy of Steve Okamoto; bottom via The Museum of the City of San Francisco from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Resentment, discrimination & American memory

Okamoto was just an infant when his family was forced to leave their home in San Francisco’s Western Addition. Because the small, hastily-constructed barracks at Tanforan could not hold everyone, the Okamotos were placed in the racetrack horse stalls for weeks.

“Manure was embedded into the walls. That and the urine. It’s a smell you never forget,” he said of his mother’s strongest memory of the time.

Officially called the Tanforan Assembly Center, this detention facility was one of many used to process Japanese Americans forcibly uprooted from their homes, before they were sent to internment camps during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which fraudulently justified the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the assumption that they held loyalty to the Japanese government, who had bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Families, many of whom were American-born, lost their homes, farms, businesses, had their assets frozen, and community leaders were arrested on suspicion of being “enemy aliens.”

Ninety percent of the nearly 8,000 Japanese Americans processed at Tanforan were eventually shipped to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, one of 10 incarceration centers in the U.S. However, Okamoto’s family ended up relocating to Boulder, Colorado, where his father, due to his high level of education, had a job teaching Japanese language to U.S. Naval Intelligence.

There was a small Japanese American community there, but “because it was still wartime…we pretty much kept to ourselves,” said Okamoto of his family not wanting to bring unwanted attention unto themselves during this tense period.

Okamoto’s family moved back to San Francisco three years later, with the help of friends pooling together their gas ration stamps to make the drive. The Okamotos were fortunate enough to have contracted with a local bank to manage their house before being forced out, and were thus able to return to it.

However, their experience was the exception, not the rule. Most families lost virtually everything, and Japanese Americans still faced “a lot of resentment and discrimination,” said Okamoto, noting that doctors and lawyers had no job choice but to become domestic helpers due to the racist atmosphere. He recalls it took at least five years to feel a little normal again in his experience.

Okamoto’s circumstances didn’t turn out as badly as many of his fellow Japanese Americans’, but that didn’t make the incarceration any less of a wrong committed by the U.S. government.

As a student at UC Berkeley, he said “I realized I needed to do something about it. The best thing was to educate people about what happened, so it doesn’t happen again…Everyone was kind of an activist in the early 1960s. I took my activism to the Japanese American community.”

His first activist cause was campaigning for San Francisco public school history textbooks to include Japanese American incarceration history. It did have successful results in the state of California, but nationwide, “a lot of books [still] don’t say much about the Japanese,” said Okamoto. So he continues his education campaign to appeal to a broader range of people in different ways—through not only textbooks and documentaries, but also memorials.

“I realized I needed to do something about it. The best thing was to educate people about what happened, so it doesn’t happen again…” — Steve Okamoto, pictured at Tanforan near the San Bruno BART station where the new memorial is planned for 2022. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Tanforan today

Currently at the entrance of The Shops at Tanforan, there is a plaque memorializing the site’s history as a detention center. The effort is applauded, but is also bit too easy to walk past. The Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee fundraised more than $1 million for a more prominent memorial, with plans for an official ribbon cutting ceremony around April 28, 2022 — the 80th anniversary of Tanforan Assembly Center’s opening.

The shopping center will exhibit artifacts that were used and created at the detention center, and signage throughout the mall will lead people to the memorial behind the building. There, the focus will be statues of young Japanese American girls about to be shipped off, in addition to a depiction of a horse stall and a freestanding stone with the 8,000 names of those incarcerated at Tanforan. A storyboard will explain the history of what happened at the site.

The new memorial follows another memorial project the committee also helped assemble at the San Bruno BART station several years ago. Famed photographer Dorothea Lange photographed many Japanese Americans being sent off to the camps in 1942. Sixty years later, Paul Kitagawa, whose parents and grandparents were in some of Lange’s photos, tracked down more of Lange’s subjects and rephotographed them. The exhibit shows the 1942 and 2012 photos side by side, along with text about the camp experiences.

Why dwell on the past? Connecting what happened back then to what has happened in recent history is a key part of Okamoto’s campaign. “[Discriminatory incarceration] happened right after 9/11 … Muslims were rounded up and put into jail cells just because they were Muslim. It happened with the southern border where they took infants from their mothers and put them into incarceration camps. We still need to keep that story alive,” urged Okamoto.

“Tanforan: From Racetrack to Assembly Center,” Thursday 10/7, 7 p.m. — 8:30 p.m, virtual screening and Q&A with Steve Okamoto, register here.

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