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Oxnard Library Fights Time to Preserve Detainees' Stories

A state grant is funding a project to record the memories of Japanese Americans interned during World War II, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling.

June 19, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

In many ways, 82-year-old Lillie Fujita's life mirrors those of millions of American women of her generation.

She married, raised children, worked as a secretary and a schoolteacher, all part of a relatively ordinary existence. But Fujita's story also includes many months in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II -- a dark chapter in her life and American history that makes the Oxnard grandmother's experiences anything but ordinary.

This fall, thanks to a state grant to the Oxnard Public Library, local volunteers will be videotaping interviews with Fujita and other Japanese Americans who were living in Oxnard in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the mass incarceration of all people of Japanese descent residing on the West Coast.

It's a subject many survivors don't like to talk about, but as a member of a steadily dwindling group of people who actually lived through the experience, Fujita knows it's a story she must tell.

"This is history," Fujita says softly. "It's not something we should hide."

Oxnard is one of two public libraries in the state this year to receive the $15,000 grants from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program, created in 1999 as part of legislation to provide funding for educational activities pertaining to the World War II internment.

Jo Ann Van Reenan, a reference librarian at the Oxnard Public Library, received enough money for 12 interviews. She would like to begin taping in September, but has had some trouble finding people willing to talk, even though about 500 of Oxnard's 8,000 residents were interned, Van Reenan said.

"This is a big chunk of people who just vanished," Van Reenan said. "They have a lot of mixed feelings. To some degree, they'd rather forget about it. They're just saying they don't want to talk right now."

But for Van Reenan and others trying to document this period, time is of the essence. Many survivors have already died, and their numbers continue to decline.

The Oxnard project is one of several efforts across the state to document acts sanctioned by the U.S. government during World War II. Most notable perhaps is the National Park Service's restoration of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, where approximately 10,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent once lived in military-style barracks.

Fujita, who was born in Stockton, was a 21-year-old newlywed who had moved to Oxnard from Northern California in 1942 to be near her husband's family. About 10 days after her wedding, she took everything she could carry and boarded a train for the Tulare County Fairgrounds, where Japanese Americans were temporarily placed.

"All I remember was crying," Fujita said. "It was just the shock of it all and not knowing what to do or what was happening to us."

But Fujita and the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were rounded up and placed in 10 relocation centers in seven states forged on and made the best of a bad situation. The children attended schools built in the camps, and there were baseball and basketball teams, newspapers, church services and socials.

Fujita ordered material for curtains from the Sears catalog to try to create some privacy in the barracks, she recalled.

Her life at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona was a constant contradiction. It was where she dealt with blatant prejudice and a lack of freedom, but also where she made some great friends. It was a place where there was a humiliating lack of privacy, but where her first child, Rod, took his first breath.

"I don't think we'll ever be rid of prejudice," Fujita said. "I accept that. I'm just glad that people are interested enough in knowing what occurred. I'm glad this isn't all being buried."

Shortly after her son's birth in 1943, Fujita was offered a job in New Jersey and she was allowed to move there.

Nao Takasugi, a former Oxnard mayor and state assemblyman, was also interned at the Gila center. He remembers how slices of Spam were their "Sunday treat" and how he made $16 a month as a Spanish and business tutor at the camp.

His family members were forced to sell most of their possessions but were able to hold on to their store, thanks to a friend who volunteered to manage the business while they were gone. When the war was over, the Takasugis, unlike many Japanese families, still had something waiting for them back home.

Several months into his internment, a Quaker organization offered Takasugi the opportunity to complete his business administration degree at Temple University in Philadelphia. With his family's blessing, he left the camp and, like the rest of America, was elated when Japan finally surrendered.

"It was a great day," he said. "People were just screaming, dancing, yelling, hugging and singing in the streets."

Takasugi returned home, where he ran the family store and later entered politics. Today, sitting in his spacious Oxnard home decorated with pictures and scrapbooks of several generations of Takasugis, he still marvels at the path his life has taken.

He hopes history does not repeat itself. The lessons gleaned from the Japanese American internment are very poignant in post-Sept. 11 America, which has sometimes been suspicious of Muslim Americans, he said.

"I thought, 'My gosh, I hope this isn't going to escalate into what we were forced to go through,' " he said. "That should never happen again."

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