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'Now we are happy again'

Defaced in WWII, a memorial to Japanese Americans is restored

May 17, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

The phone call to Tom Shiokari came last July. The news was unexpected. But after almost 70 years, a wrong was to be set right and a dishonorable chapter in the history of the Antelope Valley's Japanese American community rewritten.

Dayle DeBry, director of marketing and historical research at Lancaster Cemetery, was on the line. A memorial erected in 1938 to honor Japanese citizens who had lived and died in the Antelope Valley was finally going to be restored.

It had been vandalized during World War II. What was left of the monument, including the base and a middle block engraved with the names of 13 Japanese families who installed it, had sunk into the soil and stood less than half its original size -- a sad testament to ignorance.

Now it was to be replaced with a new obelisk, handcrafted in India from pearl white granite.

"I was just taken aback, because I figured it was an issue that was pretty much dead," said Shiokari, 81, whose stepfather Teiji "Fred" Kobayashi contributed money toward the original memorial.

Jimmie Nishimoto's father also helped to pay for the initial memorial, which featured a white granite obelisk almost 8 feet high.

"I didn't think anything would come of it," said Nishimoto, 88, of the efforts to restore the cemetery centerpiece.

Today, at Lancaster Cemetery, something will most definitely come of it. At least 60 first-generation Japanese Americans and their families are expected to be honored and presented with gifts as the memorial is unveiled and rededicated.

"We are trying to right something that was done wrong to Japanese Americans, to their heritage, their community," said DeBry. "I hope that we can express that we are truly sorry for the wrong that was done to them. Restoring the monument will be symbolic of that."

The Nishimotos and Shiokaris were among 13 Japanese immigrant families, most of them alfalfa farmers, who established a thriving community on the west side of the Antelope Valley in the early 1900s.

"They had the best farms and were able to produce what other farms in the area couldn't," said DeBry. One family became the region's main celery producer for Safeway supermarkets, DeBry said; while another advised to the area's leading onion farmers on how to produce the best crop. A story in a 1941 edition of the Ledger-Gazette newspaper described how Antelope Valley businessmen and farmers "applauded" the efforts of Japanese farmers to produce green vegetables "which they thought would improve the valley much faster and better."

Their mostly American-born children attended local schools. And they lived a largely peaceful life until the Japanese air strike on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 pulled America into World War II.

The Japanese families of the Antelope Valley were among around 120,000 people of Japanese heritage who were moved to internment camps in the Western United States.

Shiokari's stepfather was arrested and temporarily jailed in Tujunga. Restrictions on the movement of Japanese residents prevented Shiokari from continuing in school. In May 1942, his family was ordered to move to an internment camp near Poston, Ariz.

Staunchly patriotic, Jimmie Nishimoto had enlisted in the U.S. Army. Still, his father was arrested and imprisoned in North Dakota on suspicion of having political ties to Japan; his mother and her siblings were sent to the Poston camp.

After vandals toppled the Japanese memorial at Lancaster Cemetery and it broke into pieces, community members reported the crime, DeBry said. But no one ever investigated.

In 2002, Shiokari, whose family settled in Los Angeles and opened a restaurant after the war, learned of the memorial's fate. He, Nishimoto, and Yoshio Ekimoto -- the son of another supporter of the original monument -- launched a quest to try to restore it.

They wrote to the Lancaster cemetery and city officials requesting help with planning, logistics and the cost. They also rallied members of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles County.

But their efforts failed to come to fruition -- until Dayle DeBry came along.

Shortly after being hired by the cemetery last June, DeBry came across a folder labeled "Japanese Memorial." It included letters of appeal from Shiokari and Ekimoto.

"I started researching the Japanese community and found wonderful stories about them, and felt they were an integral part of the community, beginning in the 1900s," said DeBry.

But few of the original 13 families returned to the Antelope Valley after the war. The Shiokaris had wanted to go back, but an attack on their ranch prompted the family to sell their land.

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