Tanforan Assembly Center

Guard in a watch tower
A guard on watch duty at Tanforan Assembly Center.
[Click the image to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Leonard J. Arrington Photograph Collection, P0316, Box 3, Fd. 27, image 36)

A First Impression of Tanforan:

When ten-year-old Harry Kawahara entered Tanforan for the first time, he was bewildered. As he witnessed the patrolling guards carrying rifles, he recalled his first impression: “Why are they doing this to us? I didn’t do anything wrong.”[1] Kawahara understood that he and his family were interned because they were of Japanese ancestry, which led him, as well as many other young adolescents, to internalize that it was bad to have Japanese blood.[2]

Illustration of Tanforan living quarters
Illustration from Mine Okubo’ s Citizen 13660 showing the sawdust-covered Tanforan horse stalls where some Japanese Americans were housed in the assembly center.
[click the image to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Citizen 13660, Book Coll 58 no. 15, pg. 37)

Life at Tanforan

Most Japanese Americans who relocated to Topaz were first interned at Tanforan, in San Bruno, California. Before the WRA transformed Tanforan into an assembly center, it was a racetrack. There were some constructed barracks at Tanforan, but many families were housed in hastily refurbished horse stalls that were covered in wood shavings and stunk of manure.[3]

Despite the difficult living conditions at Tanforan and having very few resources, the evacuees worked with the WRA to establish a community by creating makeshift schools, a community government, and organizing recreational activities. Still, life at Tanforan was very dull as the evacuees had to become accustomed to ample amounts of free time as the WRA could only employ a fifth of the assembly center.[4] The evacuees organized events such as sports, games, talent shows, musicals, and dances to entertain themselves. By June, they had organized 110 softball teams that consisted of 1,670 players.[5]

Images of Tanforan

Final Issue of "Tanforan Totalizer"
Final issue of Tanforan Totalizer, Tanforan Assembly Center’s camp newspaper. This issue provides a brief history of life at Tanforan as well as Japanese Americans perceptions of what life at Topaz would be like.
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(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Oversized collection 88, Volume 1, Number 19)

War Morale Behind Barbed Wire

While in Tanforan, some adolescents approached the idea of internment with optimism by asserting that evacuees must continue to support the war effort despite the trial of evacuation.

Teruko Kaneko, a sophomore, wrote in the camp newspaper:

“We should all face the inconveniences, the hot or cold climate, the dust and the barrack life of the assembly and relocation centers cheerfully. To do our share toward winning the war in any way we can is the duty and responsibility which we must undertake as a public demonstration of our loyalty and devotion to this country.”[6]

Motoichi Yanagi, a Kibei junior, similarly wrote that the “task of winning the future for American-Japanese is what we can look forward to in the relocation center.”[7] To some Japanese American youth, the internment experience was synonymous with proving their Americanness and their loyalty to the nation that imprisoned.

While this reaction to internment was not uncommon during internment, the Tanforan Totalizer does not account for the negative responses to internment. The WRA censored and edited all camp newspapers, removing viewpoints they deemed inappropriate. This same issue of the Tanforan Totalizer noted that some youth responded “satirically” to internment but claimed that such views were rare.[8] Negative views towards internment were more common than this statement implied.

[1] Harry Kawahara, interview by Sharon Yamoto, “Harry Kawahara Interview,” September 20, 2011, Densho Digital Archive, Densho Visual History Collection, accessed January 27, 2020, https://ddr.densho.org/media/ddr-densho-1000/ddr-densho-1000-368-transcript-007ea39eec.htm.
[2] Harry Kawahara, “Harry Kawahara Interview.”
[3] Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1982), 69–70.
[4] Taro Katayama, ed., Tanforan Totalizer Vol. 1, No. 19, September 12, 1942, 10.
[5] Tanforan Totalizer, 10.
[6] Tanforan Totalizer, 16.
[7] Tanforan Totalizer, 16.
[8] Tanforan Totalizer, 15. A high school senior satirically wrote, “as for my preparation of the future, I am starting to learn how to clean my house, iron my shirt and wash my own clothes, so that I can prepare to be a houseboy when I get out into the city.”