SAN BRUNO, CA — Takeo Kato remembers sitting in the grandstand of San Bruno’s Tanforan Racetrack in 1942, imagining horses and jockeys going around. He remembers living in the horse stalls and sleeping on hay mattresses, the smell of horses wafting in.
Tanforan was the site of a racetrack from 1899 to 1964. But in 1942, when Kato was 5 years old, it was a detention center where Kato’s family and 8,000 other Bay Area residents of Japanese ancestry were held amid a rise in anti-Japanese sentiment following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Eighty years later, Kato was back at the same spot, now the San Bruno BART station next to a shopping center called The Shops at Tanforan, for Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony of the Tanforan Memorial Statue and Plaza to honor those who were imprisoned at Tanforan during World War II.
The memorial features a bronze statue based on a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange that showed two sisters of the Mochida family waiting for the bus that would take them to Tanforan.
“Eighty years — there are some things you don’t forget,” Kato said in an interview with Patch after the ceremony. “We don’t want this crap to go on any more.”
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Tanforan was one of 17 such facilities in the country, called “assembly centers” by the U.S. government. Open from April until October of 1942, it served as a temporary place to hold Japanese Americans before a majority of them were sent to a permanent detention center in Topaz, Utah.
Kato didn’t recall exactly when his family left for Topaz except that it was hot. He said his father shielded him from knowing too much about why they were living in horse stalls.
“I learned more about camp through the eyes of others, especially those that never went to camp,” Kato said. “It was the third- and fourth-generation kids that made us aware of how bad things were.”
Kato’s father lived by a Japanese saying: shikata ga nai, which means, “It cannot be helped.”
“He made the best that he could out of a really bad situation,” Kato said. “He tried to make it as comfortable as he possibly could for all of us, and he did a damn good job.”
The conditions at the detention center, according to the Tanforan Memorial website, were awful. The building lacked sanitation. Many toilets didn’t have partitions. Hot water ran out by midmorning. Some, like the Kato family, had to sleep in horse stalls, which smelled like urine and manure.
Kato remembers being envious of other families who got to live in newly constructed barracks.
“Damn, we were jealous,” Kato said. “How did we end up in a freaking horse stall, and they have brand new barracks?”
A Commitment To Remember
The Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee, formed in 2012, spent a decade planning for a memorial to document the history of the site.
It included a photography exhibit inside the BART station showing historical pictures of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, including the Moshida family.
The project is expected to be completed this spring.
At the groundbreaking Friday, local officials spoke about the importance of remembering. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco) called President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 “an enormous abuse of human rights.”
“The Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial will remind everyone that sees it that at a certain moment in history, bigotry prevailed,” Speier said. “The constitution was scrapped, and Americans lost their way.”