Taken Away

A new memorial marks the site where 8,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in the San Francisco Bay area.

By Lydia Lee

The flowering cherry is a Japanese cultural icon that symbolizes resilience. Renderings courtesy RHAA.

Eighty years ago, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forced out of their homes and into prison camps for the three-year duration of the war. In the San Francisco Bay Area, they reported to the euphemistically named Tanforan Assembly Center, a hastily converted racetrack just south of San Francisco. “The most significant thing that people talked about was the horse smell of the stalls they stayed in,” says Harold Nob Kobayashi, FASLA, a former principal at RHAA, who incorporated a stall into his design for the new Tanforan Memorial in San Bruno, California.

Located right outside a major public transit station on an underused plaza, the 2,500-square-foot memorial will be a prominent reminder of the 8,000 people who were detained here for six months before most were transferred to Utah. In 2012, members of the Japanese American community organized a photo exhibit about the wartime incarceration within the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. The exhibit, still in place today, became the inspiration for creating a memorial at the former racetrack, now a shopping center.

Kobayashi, who spent three years in Japanese prison camps as a child, volunteered to help the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee (TACMC) apply for a grant from the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites program, established by Congress in 2009. The group’s first attempt had been rejected because it didn’t have a landscape architect. Per the committee’s request, Kobayashi centered the design on a sculpture of two young girls, modeled after a historical photo by Dorothea Lange. He also included Japanese flowering cherry trees (the original plan’s 11 trees, for each of the camps plus one for Tanforan, have since been pared down to a single tree to maintain sight lines through the space), horse stalls (now a single stall), and space to inscribe the names of the 8,000 former detainees. In 2015, the committee received $400,000 in partial funding and has since raised most of the remaining $1.1 million in private donations. But according to Doug Yamamoto, the president of TACMC, the group is still fund-raising to avoid having to make any further design compromises. Since Kobayashi’s retirement in 2010, RHAA has donated its time in honor of him and two now-deceased founding partners, Asa Hanamoto and Kaz Abey, who were also imprisoned during the war.

The memorial fits neatly into an existing but neglected public space. Renderings courtesy RHAA.

After redevelopment plans for the Tanforan mall delayed its construction for a few years, the memorial is finally scheduled to be completed in March—the 80th anniversary of the opening of the Tanforan Assembly Center. Says Yamamoto: “Many people don’t have any clue that there was a detention camp on the very ground they’re shopping on. We want to bring that to their attention and prevent things like this from happening again.”

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