How Pearl Harbor grieved the Japanese community in Sonoma County
A a few years ago, Margarette Murakami attended an event that commemorated the Holocaust and other instances of ethnic persecution.
A black and white photograph hanging on the wall attracted him. It showed a young girl during WWII, pale and delicate.
Murakami thought it was Anne Frank.
– It’s me, said a voice behind her.
Murakami turned to find a much older version of the girl in the photo. They introduced themselves and spoke, and the woman told Murakami that she had survived a Nazi concentration camp.
“Well you’ve been through a lot worse than us,” Murakami told him.
“But what about this train ride?” The woman replied. It was a question that took Murakami by surprise.
“You went through the same thing,” the woman continued. “They put you on a train and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Murakami was 12 when she boarded this train in the Santa Rosa Railroad Square in May 1942.
Like those gathered in wartime Germany, the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were targeted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii 80 years ago had no idea where they were going, neither of what might happen to their homes and orchards, or when – or if – they ever returned.
About 750 of these people lived in Sonoma County on December 7, 1941.
Murakami, whose last name was Masuoka at the time, was in the car with his family that morning, heading to a Sunday newspaper in Sevastopol, when they heard a radio bulletin announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It was a shock, naturally, to hear something like that,” said Murakami, who is now 91 and lives in a house on a gravel road between Santa Rosa and Forestville.
While the attack was a shock, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
Japan entered World War II alongside the Axis forces, while the United States was firmly aligned with the Allies. Tensions had been mounting for months in the theater of the Pacific War, as had anti-Japanese hostility on the American West Coast.
After Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 US personnel died, problems began immediately for local families of Japanese descent.
Some residents reported that stones had been thrown at their cars. The people of Santa Rosa of Chinese origin began to wear ribbons that read: “I’m not Japanese!”
“When I got back to work on Monday, the owner was already there with a termination check,” a man named Shiro Nakano told the Democratic Press in 1991 on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
“He said, ‘I have to let you go because we’re not on the same side anymore.’ He kept thinking that I was an American citizen, born and raised in Los Angeles.
Within days, restrictions were imposed on Japanese households. Everyone had to be home by 5 p.m. No light after dark. No movement outside a 5 mile radius.
It was a turning point for families in Sonoma County, many of whom were deeply rooted in community life here. At least 48 farms in the county were owned by Japanese, according to a 1942 government survey. Many more first- and second-generation immigrants worked for wages in apple orchards, hop fields, and egg farms.
They attended local churches and enrolled their children in local schools.
Their alien status struck home, however, when the FBI – backed by city and county law enforcement – began to bring together prominent Japanese business and cultural leaders. Most would soon be reunited with their families, but some were sent to Justice Department internment camps for extended confinement.
Authorities have also started to search houses occupied by the Japanese. They confiscated firearms, ammunition, communications devices and other materials that they believed could be used against a country at war.
Murakami’s family had voluntarily handed over their prohibited goods. But the FBI found two items it found alarming: a loose shotgun cartridge and a photo of Peter Masuoka and a friend taken at a critical infrastructure site. It was a tourist snapshot of the Hoover Dam.