Coming of age in an American internment camp

Coming of age in an American internment camp

Rose Tanaka, a Denver UU, graduated high school at Manzanar, the infamous American internment camp for people of Japanese descent.

Kenny Wiley
Rose and Floyd Tanaka in 2007.

Rose and Floyd Tanaka in 2007. Floyd designed the Nisei Memorial at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, which honors
Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II. (© Mark Itkonen)

© Mark Itkonen


A dozen Unitarian Universalist teenagers have excitedly crowded the entryway to the multipurpose room in the basement of First Unitarian Society of Denver. Some are from Colorado, but most have flown in for Thrive, a Unitarian Universalist Association-run program for young UUs of color.

There is a palpable feeling spreading through the group—that history has, metaphorically and perhaps literally, slowly walked through the door. Rose Tanaka, 90, has arrived bearing a smile, a sharp wit, and home-cooked snacks. Somehow simultaneously regal and unassuming, Tanaka has come to pay the youth of color a “brief” visit. Brief was the plan, anyway.

She asks what the group has been up to. Multiple voices reply. They happened to show up just as a wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations took hold in cities across the country, Denver included.

Something about Tanaka’s presence invites the youth to open up. “To be an American and a person of color is to feel not fully welcome, but the people in BLM just . . . they’re American too, truly,” one youth says.

After a few minutes, Tanaka raises a hand and says to the youth, laughing, “You know, I just showed up to bring you all some treats, but if you’ve got a minute, I have a bit of a story to tell.”

Rose Tanaka (née Hanawa) finished high school in a Japanese internment camp in 1944, hundreds of miles from the California town where her immigrant parents raised her and her siblings. That is, almost certainly, the most-known thing about her, but it is far from the whole story. She tells some version of her story often—to interested press outlets, to fellow church members, and to wide-eyed UU teens fresh from an afternoon of protesting in downtown Denver.

Tanaka’s father came from Japan to the California coast in 1900 at age 15. He came as a legal immigrant, but the language barrier and his eighth-grade education meant he did “whatever kind of work he could do.” He helped with the cleanup of the 1908 San Francisco earthquake. Tanaka’s mother was a “picture bride,” also from Japan, and one day after meeting in 1912, her parents married in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

A classroom at World War II era Manzanar Japanese internment camp.

A classroom at Manzanar internment camp. (Courtesy Rose Tanaka)

Courtesy Rose Tanaka

Tanaka came along in 1927 and grew up the youngest of five children in Cayucos, a coastal town that she describes as “an integrated community—the best of what America could really be.” She grew up alongside other “hyphenated Americans,” primarily Italian-, Swiss-, and some Mexican-Americans. “I had friends who looked like me, but most of them didn’t, and that was fine,” she says of her fairly comfortable preadolescence.

Pearl Harbor changed everything. The FBI came looking for her father in early 1942, just weeks after the attack on Hawaii. They were suspicious of many men who came over from Japan. Though he’d spent four decades in the States by then, it didn’t matter. “Suddenly, my father, who’d cleaned up an earthquake and done so much more, was an ‘alien.’ Since I was born here, I was a ‘non-alien,’” Tanaka recalls.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the exclusion of Japanese persons from the West Coast. Tanaka’s voice rises as she describes the hostile climate she and others endured. She’s told the story so many times that it has a practiced quality to it, but the emotion is no less authentic. “About 70 percent of the people that got rounded up were born here, but it didn’t matter. Unlike the Italians—think Joe DiMaggio—we were seen as ‘other’ in ways that those with lighter skin weren’t.”

Eventually her father was taken away, and his fate could have been far worse had Capt. Frank Williams, an army officer, not intervened on his behalf. “This man went in full uniform to the camp near Monterey and demanded to know the charges being placed on him.” Tanaka describes Williams as “the embodiment” of what it means to live out values of justice and freedom. “He sacrificed a lot to speak out against hate, and to stick up for a good man, my father.”

Tanaka’s family was forced to report to Manzanar internment camp, near the California-Nevada border, and would end up spending two years there. Tanaka was 15 when they arrived to find nothing but iron cots in barracks, she told the Denver Post in 2014. “There was a lot of anger and rage, but it’s hard to rebel against government with guns pointed at you,” she told the Post.

“At Manzanar,” Tanaka says of her fellow prisoners, “they all looked like me, but I didn’t know any of them. Teachers and professionals and laborers were brought together.”

Camps were guarded by the military—she shows a photo of a guard tower and barbed wire fence—and though the federal government decided to have civilians run the interior of the facility, the state of California came to Manzanar and set up an accredited school system.

“How do you get through something like that?” Tanaka asks. “There’s a Japanese term, shikata ga nai, and it means, ‘what happens can’t be helped.’ The second thing we had, and this comes from old Buddhist teachings, I suppose, was gaman, meaning ‘persevere’.”

Tanaka describes the Manzanar experience as both dehumanizing and also almost normal in moments. She cracks a joke: “Well, all our expenses were paid—free food and lodging!”

“We had music teachers, parks went up, recreation for kids, and so on,” she says. She spent her junior and senior year at Manzanar. “On some level, what else can you do but study hard?”

The week Tanaka graduated, U.S. authorities told her she’d be going to Denver, Colorado. “I wondered: where’s Denver, Colorado?” Tanaka credits a Japanese student relocation council, the Quakers, and a national Presbyterian organization for helping her get to the University of Denver.

“I was told, ‘We have a train ticket for you,’ and they paid for my first year at $175”—she stops to laugh—“imagine a semester of college now at $175! I got a place on Josephine Street and my life here was under way.”

At university, she found Floyd Tanaka, the man who would become her spouse. He was also at Manzanar, then drafted into the 442nd, a segregated Army division made up almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese ancestry, before coming to Denver on the G.I. Bill and subsequently graduating from the University of Denver in 1951.

In 1957 she began attending First Unitarian, becoming a member in 1958. More Sundays than not in the 59 years since, she’s shown up—as a board member, religious education volunteer, and much more.

“I felt very much at home because this was an integrated church,” she says. First Unitarian reminded her of her childhood town of Cayucos. “The Methodist church was all-Japanese and that wasn’t what I wanted. I believe in true integration.”

As person-of-color identity groups have become popular in UU circles—First Unitarian’s POC group has had several meetings in the last two years—Tanaka has supported the groups and shown up, but she also struggles with the concept of segregating by racial identity, for any reason. “I understand how people of color do feel . . . they feel as if they have been excluded.”

“A few years back, I was near the [church] kitchen and a person I didn’t know came in and demanded to know, ‘what are you?’” she says. “I knew what he wanted to know, but instead I told him, ‘I’m a Unitarian Universalist,’ and he looked at me with disgust because I didn’t give him the answer he obviously wanted.”

First Unitarian recently became home to Jeanette Vizguerra, an undocumented Denver activist who entered into sanctuary with her children to avoid deportation. “Her situation is a little different, but not a whole lot different, from my parents,” says Tanaka. “Both looked upon by too many as undesireables. . . .” Tanaka’s voice fades, the sentences punctuated with repeated shaking of her head. She knows Vizguerra’s story well. “I think [what happened to us] could happen again,” Tanaka told the Denver Post in 2014. “I’ve realized what happens to people of color in this country.”

Rose Tanaka is a woman who shows up. She still drives regularly and took herself to the Denver Women’s March, to the February “Protect Our Muslim Neighbors” public action in Denver, and to some Black Lives Matter events in 2015 and 2016. “I’ve been involved a lot over the years in justice work,” she says. “Sometimes through the church, and sometimes I just drive on over and know I’ll run into people from church.”

First Unitarian’s senior minister the Rev. Mike Morran says, “Rose is an institution in this church—and she’s also almost dangerously funny,” before referring to her as his hero. “Oh, don’t do that,” Tanaka replies, with a laugh, “you need better heroes, then.”

Her oldest brother is still alive, at 103—but like him, her children and grandchildren live outside of Denver, and so her church is her chosen family.

Her message to Unitarian Universalists: “It’s a long-term healing process. We all say the Pledge of Allegiance, but then people look and some of us don’t count in that ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ UUs have to keep working to make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen again, and to do so in a kind manner.”

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