Times Past: Event recalls victims of internment and tsunami

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake hit Japan. Tsunamis as high as 30 feet crashed ashore. The scale of the human tragedy was overwhelming.

Foreign news correspondents were emotionally drained as they documented the events. The reporters were amazed by the response of so many victims who had lost so much: “Shikata ga nai,” meaning “it can’t be helped.”

This was also a common saying among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment centers during the late winter and spring of 1942 under Executive Order 9066, the so-called War Relocation Act.

Frank T. Suzuki’s family had purchased a farm only to lose it during the Great Depression. His father tried sharecropping on another site and was successful enough to send Frank to Cal Poly in 1940.

Frank had a little more than $3,000 in his savings account to pay for college.

Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Frank left his room in Heron Hall to work with a landscaping crew. They came back for lunch in the cafeteria, where the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor was made.

Suddenly the food did not taste very good, so Frank went back to his room.

Several days later, Frank received a call from his father: “Can you withdraw all your funds and come home to work?”

Frank’s father explained that as a Japanese-born “enemy alien” who couldn’t become a citizen, his bank account had been frozen. An American-born Nisei, Frank’s bank account was still available.

Frank’s college education was finished. Back at the family farm, he was yelled at by the sheriff. Soon, he was en route to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho.

Kazunori Katayama came to Cal Poly from Brawley in 1941 on an athletic scholarship. He played on the basketball team. He studied ornamental horticulture and worked on the landscaping of the school, particularly the gardens surrounding the newly completed Administration Building, now known as the Clock Tower Building. Sadly, he was not able to complete the spring 1942 term.

Instead, his family drove to Ogden, Utah, where he was able to find gardening work. Later, he landscaped the homes of Hollywood stars such as Loretta Young, but he never got a degree.

On June 7, 2010, then-Cal Poly President Warren Baker conferred honorary bachelor degrees on students of Japanese ancestry who had to leave Cal Poly because of Executive Order 9066.

The loss of these students in 1942 and the loss from the 2011 tsunami in Japan inspired Alexander Kato-Willis of USC’s School of Music to produce a composition for piano around the theme of “emptiness fostering the spirit of growth and innovation.”

On March 11 at 2 p.m. in Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center, the university will screen a video highlighting the experiences of its Nisei degree recipients and hold a benefit concert to support relief efforts for communities affected by the tsunami.

The event is free. Complimentary parking will be available in the Performing Arts Center lot.

Cal Poly’s American Red Cross chapter will be on hand to accept donations for the tsunami relief effort.

I’ll be there to make some comments on this never-to-be-forgotten part of times past.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.