[lg policy] California: Togo W. Tanaka dies at 93; journalist documented life at Manzanar internment camp
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Mon Jul 6 13:31:39 UTC 2009
Togo W. Tanaka dies at 93; journalist documented life at Manzanar
In 1942, Togo W. Tanaka and his family were evacuated to Manzanar
internment camp, where his "rich daily accounts of everyday life” and
his unflinching support of the United States "got him into a lot of
trouble,” historians say. Many of his reports were critical of camp
administrators and the policy that led to the internment of 10,000
people of Japanese descent, most of whom were U.S. citizens from Los
By Elaine Woo
July 5, 2009
Togo W. Tanaka, a former journalist and businessman whose reports on
life inside the Manzanar internment camp illuminated divisions in the
Japanese American community after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the
tensions that eventually erupted in riots at the World War II-era
detention center, has died. He was 93. Tanaka died of natural causes
May 21 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, according to his
As editor of the English-language section of the bilingual newspaper
Rafu Shimpo, Tanaka helped oversee the last issue in the spring of
1942 before 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded
up under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 and
forced to relocate to detention centers scattered across several
states. Tanaka was sent to Manzanar, in the Owens Valley at the foot
of the Sierra Nevada.
Because of his journalism background, Tanaka worked as a camp
historian documenting the internee experience for the War Relocation
Authority. He also wrote reports for a UC Berkeley study on the
evacuation and resettlement of Japanese Americans during the war. "He
left hundreds of rich daily accounts of everyday life" at Manzanar,
said USC professor Lon Kurashige, an expert on Japanese American
history and identity. "These reports . . . are a rare and intelligent
window into not just Manzanar but Japanese American life in pre-war
His diligent reporting on every aspect of camp life, including the
political factions dividing Manzanar's population, "got him into a lot
of trouble," said Arthur Hansen, a Manzanar scholar and emeritus
professor of history and Asian American studies at Cal State
Fullerton. So did Tanaka's unflinching support of the United States.
He advocated cooperation with the government that had branded lawful
Japanese Americans as security threats and forced them to give up
their homes and livelihoods for confinement behind barbed wire.
"What we didn't realize at the time was that we would soon be
identified as informers, spies and dogs, people who were abusing or
invading the privacy of the evacuees," Tanaka said decades later of
himself and another camp historian. Stripped of his liberty by the
U.S. government and hated by many of his fellow Japanese Americans, he
was "truly in a no man's land," said his son, Wesley.
Born in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 7, 1916, Tanaka grew up in Los
Angeles, where his immigrant parents ran a small vegetable store. At
16, he graduated from Hollywood High School and entered UCLA, where he
wrote for the Daily Bruin and majored in political science, earning a
bachelor's degree in 1936. In his senior year he was hired by the Rafu
Shimpo, the leading Japanese American daily in Southern California, to
edit its English-language section. He wrote editorials urging Nisei --
the first generation of American-born Japanese -- to be loyal and
"He was a mentor for a lot of us Nisei who were aspiring to be in the
journalism game," said veteran journalist Harry Honda, who worked
under Tanaka in the 1930s. As U.S. relations with Japan deteriorated,
Rafu Shimpo's publisher sent Tanaka to Washington to seek assurances
that the newspaper would be allowed to continue publishing when war
came. His request landed him in an interrogation room of the War
Department, where officers insinuated that his patriotism was a sham.
The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941, FBI agents
arrested scores of Japanese immigrants considered "enemy aliens."
Tanaka was one of the few American-born Japanese rounded up in the
sweep. He was held for 11 days without explanation and was not
permitted to contact anyone, including his wife, Jean, who was
expecting their first child.
He was released on the 12th day without having been charged with any
crime. Four months later, on April 23, 1942, he and his family were
evacuated to Manzanar, which would eventually be occupied by 10,000
people of Japanese descent, most of whom were U.S. citizens from Los
Angeles County. He described Manzanar as an "outdoor jail," where
internees lived in rough-hewn barracks filled with dust blown in by
windstorms and got sick from eating ill-prepared food.
Many of the reports he filed at Manzanar were critical of camp
administrators and the policy that led to internment. "I cannot see
how it is possible for any human being of normal impulses to be cooped
up within limited confines of barbed wires, watchtowers, and all the
atmosphere of internment and not be touched by the bitterness and
disillusionment all around him," he wrote.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, unrest
swept Manzanar. The targets were people like Tanaka who favored
cooperation with camp authorities and the U.S. government. Led by
pro-Japan internees, an angry mob stormed Tanaka's barracks but found
only his wife and infant daughter. Warned of their approach, Tanaka
had disguised himself and hid in the crowd, with a knife under his
coat to defend himself and his family.
Two protesters died as a result of the rioting, but Tanaka and his
family were saved. Camp officials removed him and a few dozen others
who had been branded as collaborators to another camp in Death Valley.
In 1943 he moved to Chicago and spent the remainder of the war years
as a volunteer for the Quakers, helping to find jobs and housing for
refugees from the Nazi concentration camps and Japanese Americans
released from internment.
Having suffered numerous traumas because of his former profession,
Tanaka did not return to journalism after the war. He headed the
editorial department of a Chicago textbook publisher and helped start
a company that published Scene magazine, which covered Asian affairs.
In 1955 he moved back to California and started a company that
produced trade publications. In 1963 he founded Gramercy Enterprises,
a highly successful real estate holding company. He retired as board
chairman in 1985.
In 2005, he returned to Manzanar, where he found his desk and
typewriter preserved in a permanent exhibit. "We were very touched to
see him," said interpretive park ranger Richard Potashin, who had
helped plan the exhibit. "It was like history walking in the front
Tanaka is survived by his wife of 68 years, Jean Miho Tanaka of
Westwood; three children; five grandchildren; and eight
great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held July 17. For more
information, call (310) 598-7912.
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