Anaheim school and museum making sure experiences of Japanese Americans in interment camps not forgotten
By LOU PONSI
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Close to 80 years ago, Anaheim High School Principal Paul Demaree called for an assembly in the school auditorium.
Speaking from the stage, Demaree announced to the student body that 14 Japanese-American students sitting in the front row were about to be separated from their classmates and friends.
The students were among thousands of Japanese Americans ordered to report to a Civil Control Station, before being sent to the Colorado River Relocation Center in Yuma County, Arizona, commonly known as Poston, where they were then confined for more than three years. It was one of several relocation centers created by the government during World War II.
On Saturday, Aug. 24, Michael Matsuda, the superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, stood on the same stage in the same auditorium to remember the plight of the families interned at the 71,000-acre camp and honor the legacy of Demaree, who maintained relationships with his students while they were interned at Poston.
“The Poston Experience, Paving the Way for the Next Generations” featured a panel discussion with former Poston internees and others impacted by the events of that period.
“At the height of bigotry against Japanese-American students and their families, Mr. Demaree, in this very auditorium packed with students, looked them in the eyes and in essence, said to them, ‘You belong,’” said Mutsada, whose mother and her two sisters were confined at Poston. “He reached out to Japanese-American kids like my mom and assured them they were going be OK. Today is really about revisiting history and to learn about acts of courage – things that we can do as acts of courage.”
One of the panelists, Robert Wada, is a first-generation Japanese American who was born in Redlands. He lived in Poston for three years.
While in the camp, Wada was in a Boy Scout troop and recalled while being on an outing with other scouts and their scoutmaster they went into a luncheonette for a bite to eat.
They were ignored for several minutes, Wada said, until finally being told by the waitress that she would not serve them and they needed to leave.
“I haven’t forgotten those exact words,” said Wada, who went on to serve in the Marines during the Korean War. “I was really hurt. I never forgot that day.”
Panelist Marlene Shigekawa, now president of the Poston Community Alliance, was born in Poston. A 1962 graduate of Anaheim High School, Shigekawa was a young child when the camp was liberated.
She went on to author two children’s books that focus on the Japanese-American internment experience.
In 1993, Shigekawa returned to Poston with her husband and 1-year-old daughter for the first time since her internment.
“I’d heard about it through many years from my parents and read about it, but I’d never really visited the site,” Shigekawa said. “It was quite enlightening in terms of the desolation, the baroness, the isolation … the feeling of rejection by your own country.”
The program at Anaheim Union High School also served as a kickoff to an exhibit, “I am an American: Japanese Incarceration in a Time of Fear,” which opened Sunday, Aug. 25, and runs through Nov. 3 at the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit chronicles the life of Japanese Americans in Anaheim prior, during and after their incarceration. It features photos, artifacts and memorabilia, much of which are on loan from 13 local families.
The journey of the Matsuda family is among those chronicled in the exhibit.
Matsuda’s mother, Ruth (her maiden name is Ikeda), was a 14-year-old AHS freshman when she was sent to Poston.
Had Ikeda not been confined to Poston, she would have graduated in 1945.
In 1997, Matsuda arranged for his mother to walk with the school’s graduating class and receive her diploma.