Venice Japanese-American Memorial Monument dedication stirs vivid recollections of WWII internments

By Beige Luciano-Adams

(1) The April 27 monument dedication crowd; (2) a Wartime Civil Control Administration luggage tag; (3) Manzanar survivor Mae Kakehashi (4) former Assemblyman Warren Furutani and (5) the VJAMM Committee

Seventy-five years ago, about a thousand Japanese-American residents of West Los Angeles neighborhoods lined up on the corner of Venice and Lincoln boulevards to await compulsory transport to Manzanar concentration camp in California’s Owens Valley.

They brought only what they could carry and left their lives behind.

On April 27, local survivors and their families witnessed the unveiling of a monument to memorialize that painful history — and joined a rallying cry against future erosion of our constitutionally enshrined human rights.

Gathered around the new Venice Japanese Memorial Monument, a stunning granite obelisk rising nearly 10 feet tall above the monstrous din of morning traffic, media and audience spilled out dangerously close to the buses and cars streaming by.

Firebrand former California Assemblyman Warren Furutani urged attendees to see the monument as a reminder of what happens when the power of government — regardless of party affiliation — is allowed to run unchecked.

“Back in 1942 when Executive Order 9066 was passed, no one stood up to say anything. A few troublemakers like those of you in Venice [did],” Furutani said, adding that opposition voices were quickly submerged in the surge of fear and xenophobia that overtook the country.

Noting the current president’s penchant for executive orders, he compared “military necessity” — the preferred WWII-era justification for internment — to today’s cries of “national security” that are used to justify xenophobia, Islamophobia and violent nationalism.

“We are a democratic nation based on a constitution that guarantees that what happened to Japanese Americans should never happen again,” Furutani said.

As a member of the Venice Japanese American Memorial Marker Committee, Mae Kakehashi spent the last 15 years working toward this day. In 1942 she
was 18; she’d just graduated from Venice High School. Pearl Harbor came in December of the prior year, and she was sent to camp in the spring.

“It feels very accomplished for us,” she said. “I’m happy that people will remember.”

Kakehashi’s husband, Hideo, was drafted to fight in the war — from camp — ultimately working as a translator for the Marines.

“So we’re supposed to be the enemy and we’re behind barbed wire, but Uncle Sam took him,” she said, now able to laugh at the bitter irony.

Amy Takahashi — 16 when she lined up on this same corner on April 25, 1942 — watched from a back row with her granddaughter.

“I think it’s wonderful. I think it tells it all, what we went through,” she said.

Her voice began quiet and bright, then stopped, dragged under some tremendous, invisible weight.

“I get emotional when I talk about camp. You know it was a bad thing … that because we had a face of the enemy. We were young so we didn’t realize; now, my goodness, they took everything away and gave us nothing,” Takahashi continued. “My father worked so hard to get to that point. After the Depression and all, the farm, being able to stand on our feet — then the government came and took everything away.”

Both Kakehashi and Takahashi realized later that they’d been somewhat shielded from the worst realities.

“When you think about it, it must have been devastating for the parents. They never complained,” Takahashi said. “There was a saying, sho ganai in Japanese, ‘it can’t be helped.’ So you just keep going. That was their attitude. It’s really their attitude that got us all through.”

Another Japanese word, gaman, she said, aptly described her parents’ generation: “‘Not to complain’, ‘to do the best you can’ … that’s how we were all brought up. I think our parents were well-disciplined people and that’s how we were able to cope with all this, just take it in stride.”

Sisters Margaret and Alice Maeno, both members of the Venice Japanese Community Center, also remembered their parents saying shikata ga nai — “it can’t be helped” — and a great deal of silence.

“I was too young to really realize what was going on, but many years later we realized it was a great injustice by our own government. So a monument like this will let people know,” said Margaret, 78, who was sent to a camp in Bismarck, Az., with her mother and three young siblings.

“Japanese-Americans, they never talked about it. I’m the youngest, I was born after the war,” said Alice, 65. “Japanese-Americans are very reticent. They kinda don’t talk about shameful things. And I couldn’t believe not one sibling [told me]. … They just kept saying shikata ga nai.”

Animated and delightfully bombastic, Alice went on: “That generation didn’t even protest! … But my generation, the ’60s generation, we were more vocal and radical. As you can tell it’s a generational gap,” she said, looking to an amused Margaret, who smiled and said, “Yeah, very vocal.”

“See how quiet and docile she is!?” Alice exclaimed, both of them laughing.

After spending the better part of the last decade working on the VJAMM committee, filmmaker Brian Maeda, 72, said he was moved by the final installation.

“I was born in Manzanar, one of my dubious distinctions — the last baby. I was penciled in the logbook,” he said. “It shaped me. I was always curious about this place I was born. Dad took me out there for the first time when I was eight. I said, ‘Dad, there’s nothing here.’ And he was very angry; he kinda snapped at me and said, ‘Yes, there was. At one time there was a lot here.’”