Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Congress expands Minidoka site

Ketchum man recalls his early years as an American captive

Express Staff Writer

Rod Tatsuno recalls his family’s trials as Japanese American captives in their own country during World War II. Expansion of the Minidoka National Internment Site near Jerome will help Americans remember where they’ve been, Tatsuno says. Photo by Greg Stahl

For Rod Tatsuno, a Japanese American who lives in Ketchum, expansion of the Minidoka National Internment Site in southern Idaho near Jerome is a welcomed opportunity to raise awareness about a piece of U.S. history that isn't always featured prominently in books.

"It's not on my consciousness all the time, but it is back there in my subconscious," Tatsuno said in an interview at his home on First Avenue. "It's not going to go away. It's going to be there the rest of my life."

Tatsuno was born in 1942 on the infield at a horseracing track in San Francisco where his Japanese American parents were being held. At only 1 month old, he was moved with his parents to the Topaz Internment Camp near Delta, Utah. He and his family spent the ensuing three years there until they were released in 1945.

It took some time for Tatsuno to come to grips with his heritage.

"You can relate to it more as an adult," he said. "And you can start to see it in a different light. You can see the significance of your heritage without the baggage."

Tatsuno said expanding the Minidoka National Internment Site, one of 10 Japanese American internment sites scattered around the United States, helps educate about human rights issues and where the United States has been.

"It raises consciousness to keep something for people who don't know, or know very little," he said.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, intensified hostility toward Japanese Americans. As wartime hysteria mounted, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing more than 120,000 West Coast people of Japanese ancestry, called Nikkei, to leave their homes, jobs, and lives behind to move to one of the 10 relocation camps. The action constituted the single largest forced relocation in U.S. history.

Minidoka, which is also called the Hunt Camp, was the largest site. Annual human rights events and discussions are held every year at the site and at College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. The Minidoka National Internment Site was designated a national monument in January 2001.

The Idaho congressional delegation is praising President Bush's signing of the legislation that included provisions to expand the borders of the Minidoka site. Sens. Mike Crapo and Larry Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson, all Idaho Republicans, authored the provision, which was included in the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, an omnibus bill including dozens of conservation, natural resources and public lands provisions.

The bill also added the Bainbridge Island site in Washington state as a satellite to the Minidoka monument. Bainbridge Island was also used to house Japanese Americans during World War II.

Emily Hanako Momohara, chairwoman of the Friends of Minidoka, said that at its peak, Minidoka was one of the largest cities in Idaho, with about 30,000 Japanese Americans retained there. She said the internment camp was divided into 44 blocks, each containing eight barracks, and each barrack housed three to five families.

She said the legislation signed into law by President Bush last week facilitates the transfer of land from the Bureau of Reclamation to the National Park Service, the addition of the Bainbridge Island site and acquisition of the adjacent Herrmann farm, which was purchased by a returning World War II veteran through a lottery at the conclusion of the war. The farm had been part of the internment camp.

"Now it will allow, when the monument is finished being compiled, for barracks to be moved back to the original site," Hanako Momohara said.

Idaho's congressmen were pleased with the provision's passage.

"While visiting the (Minidoka) site last summer, I couldn't help but be buoyed by the enthusiasm that many Japanese Americans and other Idahoans have regarding the potential for this site educating the world about human rights," Crapo said. "The signing of this bill helps clear the way for private fundraising by the Friends of Minidoka and other groups that will make Minidoka a permanent landmark in the education of all Idahoans about civil rights in Idaho."

Simpson expressed similar satisfaction at the Minidoka provision's passage.

"I am happy to see this legislation finally signed into law," Simpson said. "The Minidoka internment camp gives Idaho a unique place in history. This legislation will ensure that future generations will learn important lessons from a critical time in our nation's history."

Hanako Momohara said her organization is pleased with the passage and signing of the bill, including the Minidoka provision.

"The boundary expansion will allow the story of Minidoka to be told in a much more thorough and exciting way," she said. "We're at war again, and we want to make sure these stories are told, so that we don't make the same mistakes again. Even though it's painful, I am so thankful for those people who have been able to tell their stories."

Hanako Momohara, who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, said her grandparents and great-grandparents were housed at Minidoka.

"My grandparents and great-grandparents didn't talk about it," she said. "It's something they felt was a horrible time in their lives, and they didn't want to talk about it."

That was until President George H.W. Bush helped orchestrate a public apology to Japanese Americans who had been held in camps throughout the country.

"That apology really gave her (Hanako Momohara's grandmother) the agency to be able to tell me the story," she said. "It's very brave, and I'm so thankful for those people who do speak and tell us what did happen to them."

The lands bill containing the Minidoka provisions also allows some Idaho irrigators to prepay unallocated water rights to the federal government in some cases, in order to pass along their family farms and ranches.

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