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Bad memories Former internee from San Mateo now passes lessons of dark times to youths
March 14, 2001, 12:00 AM Neil G. Greene
In 1942, one month before he was going to graduate from Hayward Park High School in San Mateo, Yoneo Kawakita, his father, mother and sister were imprisoned at Tanforan race track under then-President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066.

The family was forced to sell its few possessions, move out of its $5-a-month home on the Leslie Salt works plant -- where K-Mart now sits -- and join thousands of other Japanese-Americans who were deemed a threat to national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"It's a matter of one day you're going to school, and the next you have to leave, not knowing what the future holds, leaving your classmates. They were still friendly, but the feeling is not the same as before," said Kawakita.

"We had to assemble by the Masonic Temple on North B. and Tilton Avenue. They turned our family name into a number, transported us on buses with armed soldiers, carted us off to Tanforan, opened the gates. We exited the bus, got checked for contraband, searched, given inoculations, and were assigned to temporary living barracks," he added.

What was most perplexing and upsetting to Kawakita was not merely the way Japanese aliens were being treated, but the way he himself, born in the United States and defined by the Constitution as a U.S. citizen, was deemed an enemy of his own country.

Fortunately, Kawakita's parents had purchased a piece of San Mateo property -- now 231 S. Idaho St. -- which remained undeveloped during their three years of imprisonment. Their other son was able to keep the deed to the land because he was stationed abroad fighting under General George S. Patton.

And while the little plot of land waited for a home to be built upon it, Kawakita and his family lived their life far from San Mateo in Topaz, Utah, where they had been transported.

There they lived the best they could, stuffing newspaper between floorboards to keep the wind out, and trying not to think about their pilfered freedom.

"I still feel bitter about it, that I wasn't an enemy alien, but looking for the so called pursuit of happiness, looking forward to living life -- to be a U.S. citizen and be treated in a similar way Hitler did the Jews," Kawakita said.

Kawakita was allowed a job at a nearby country club where he worked as a dishwasher, and where he received his draft notice. He had tried to volunteer earlier, telling his father that he wanted to fight for the United States to prove he was a good citizen, but his father talked him out of fighting because one son in the war was enough.

He never made it abroad. While stationed in Fort Meade, he and his unit were sabotaged by German POWs who somehow gave Kawatika's unit dysentery.

After appendicitis and an appendectomy, Kawakita says he was involuntarily volunteered for counter-intelligence work and shipped to Japan to seek out war criminals and search for contraband.

He returned to the United States in 1946, dressed in uniform. He met back up with his parents who were working as servants for a Hillsdale family.

His parents did finally get to build their house on Idaho street, which still stands today. Kawakita began working for the U.S. Postal Service, where he would retire 32 years later.

"I want to let people know what happened -- that it could happen again. I have to ask -- how can this happen to a U.S. citizen with the Constitution? Martial law, the public panics, fear. As U.S. citizens we are guaranteed due process of the law and that can not be given to us," he said.

Kawakita is doing his best to reach out to the San Mateo community about his experience and a dark piece of United States history. He is a regular speaker in area schools for the nonprofit Japanese American Citizen's League (JACL), a national civil-rights organization with 25,000 national members, 600 in the San Mateo chapter.

Since 1995, the JACL has been sponsoring teacher workshops, cultivating a class curriculum guide, and getting people from the community like Kawakita to come into classrooms and tell their stories.

The JACL also promotes The Day of Remembrance, February 19th, which marks the anniversary of Roosevelt's executive order to intern Japanese Americans.

JACL President George Ikuta says it is speakers like Kawakita who can prevent history from repeating itself.

"We have to keep them informed about this part of American history, and make sure the story is passed onto the younger generation so constitutional rights won't be trampled on again," said Ikuta.

Ikuta believes that while immense progress has been made in the United States in regards to race, there is still great need for increased understanding. He stated that racial discrimination is not at the scale of the internment period, it is still prevalent in American society.

"Progress has been made, but there are still problems to be dealt with," he said.

There is currently an exhibit on the Japanese Internment period on display at the San Mateo Historical Society in Redwood City.

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