A memorial plaza honoring Americans of Japanese ancestry who were wrongly imprisoned during World War II will be built near the San Bruno BART station, at a site where in 1942 nearly 8,000 were held in what was then a horse track.
Officials broke ground on the plaza Friday, marking a milestone in a decadelong effort by a group of organizers, including some who were interned at the site early in their lives.
“This day is 10 years in the making, and 80 years in the making for those imprisoned,” said Doug Yamamoto, president of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee, the group leading the effort.
While now home to a sprawling indoor mall, prior to 1964 a race track occupied the site adjacent to the train line, now the San Bruno BART station. Between April and October 1942, the track was used as a temporary detention center to hold Japanese Americans until they were transferred to more permanent concentration camps across the country.
The new plaza will feature a bronze statue depicting two young girls who were imprisoned, inspired by a photograph taken at the time. Other installations will represent horse stalls similar to those in which families were forced to live.
“We are always going to remember the horrific incident that occurred here,” said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. “The constitution was stripped and America lost its way.”
Steve Okamoto, the committee’s vice president, was just 5 weeks old when his family was ordered into the camp. He recalled stories from his parents, including their struggle to provide him with warm formula and his mother’s memory of the smell of manure and urine in the horse stall in which they were forced to live.
The Tanforan site was one of multiple race tracks hastily converted to “assembly centers” following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In all, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned during the war, the vast majority of whom were never charged with crimes, their detention based solely on their Japanese descent amid fears that those who appeared to be Japanese would conspire with or aid the Japanese government.
San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina noted the importance of establishing the memorial to educate and remind of the site’s history.
“I can tell you as a third generation, lifelong San Bruno resident, when I grew up, I knew this was a race track, I was taught that. I never was told, never was educated, what else transpired,” he said.
The plaza is estimated to cost $1.4 million to construct, $1.2 million of which Okamoto said has been raised. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors granted the project $250,000 and another $363,000 was granted by the National Parks Service. BART donated the land for the plaza. The committee is seeking the remaining $200,000 from additional grants and donations.
The Tanforan committee previously aided in an installation within the BART station, which features photos of those held at Tanforan taken by Dorothea Lange. The new bronze statue is based also on one of Lange’s photos.
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