A view of Sharp Park Detention Center. (Pacifica Historical Society)
Katie Czekowski grew up in the picturesque seaside town of Pacifica, where golf courses brush up against the Pacific Ocean and locals enjoy hikes at Mori Point. A year ago, she was scrolling on social media when a photo grabbed her attention.
“They were black-and-white photos of large, I would say barn-like, buildings,” Czekowski said. “It looked like an army base of some sort.”
The photos were shared to a group for Pacifica locals, and the buildings she saw looked like dormitories surrounded by high fencing. Turns out she was looking at pictures of the Sharp Park Detention Center, where people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in Pacifica during the 1940s.
The site is now home to an archery range, and there are no signs or discernible features distinguishing the park as the former site of a concentration camp.
“I didn’t know anything about this, this is horrible,” she said. “This was right in our town. I feel bad growing up there and not knowing, driving by and having no clue.”
Note: Places like Sharp Park are commonly known as internment camps, but internment describes the imprisonment of foreign nationals. Since many of the people held in the camps during World War II were American residents, we’re using the more accurate term "concentration camp."
Katie wrote in to Bay Curious, wanting to know more about Sharp Park, and why it isn’t more widely talked about.
The early government surveillance of Japanese Americans
“There are fundamentally two different roundups of Japanese Americans,” said Brian Niiya, content director for Densho, an online archive of Japanese American wartime incarceration. “Sharp Park is definitely one part of that story that’s different from the better known part of Manzanar and Tule Lake.”
When Japan started to slowly invade China in the beginning of the 1930s, the United States government grew worried about potential espionage among Japanese Americans. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover drove an effort to secretly investigate all people of Japanese descent in the country. Then, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the military to force all people of Japanese descent into detention centers. Meanwhile, the U.S. government spread xenophobic propaganda to justify their war efforts.
The War Relocation Agency, a special governmental division created to organize the facilities, began to send residents to camps across the United States. They were often first sent to nearby "assembly centers," before being relocated to larger, more permanent "relocation centers."
The San Pedro neighborhood near Long Beach in Southern California had one of the largest Japanese communities in the country, so many were sent to the large detention center there.
In Northern California, some Japanese Americans were sent to the Tanforan assembly center, located near the San Francisco airport. Many eventually were transfered to the larger Tule Lake camp near the California-Oregon border, or Manzanar Camp in the Owen's Valley.
Residents the government considered “highly dangerous” were often assembled at Sharp Park in Pacifica. Brian Niiya explained that these Japanese Americans were community leaders, and therefore deemed highly influential by the government. “It was Buddhist priests, it was Japanese language school teachers, newspaper editors,” Niiya said.
The haunting stories of those incarcerated at Sharp Park
Kimiko Marr, the founder of Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, has been trying to track down her family’s story at Sharp Park. On March 30, 1942, her great-grandfather, Tajiro Baba, and his son, Shigeru, spent about a month at Sharp Park before being transferred to larger prisons.
“They had no idea where they were going, how long they were going to be gone,” Marr said. “That’s got to be really stressful to not know what’s going to happen.”
Get our monthly newsletter featuring listener questions not answered on the Bay Curious podcast.
Thanks for signing up for the newsletter.
Tajiro and Shigeru were strawberry farmers working in Northern California when they were detained. Marr found records at the National Archives that show Tajiro once donated $2 to the Japanese military, which served as justification by the government to detain them. The rest of her family, including her mother, who was a baby at the time, were sent to the Topaz detention center in Utah. Tajiro and Shigeru eventually joined them and were incarcerated until the war ended in 1945.
Marr gets angry when she thinks about what her family went through, partially because her great-grandfather and granduncle died before she was born, and because it makes her question her own identity as a Japanese American.
“It’s almost as if when you come here as an immigrant, you have to disavow your native country,” Marr said. “You can’t be proud of your native country because that’s being disloyal.”
Firsthand information about Sharp Park is difficult to find, partly because the people who were held there didn’t stay for long. They were usually transferred to larger camps and reunited with their families quickly. But it’s also because most of the people held at the detention center were older, more established members of Japanese American society who are not alive today to share their stories.
The most comprehensive account of Sharp Park comes from Stanford scholar Yamato Ichihashi. He was 16 years old when he immigrated from Japan to San Francisco in 1894, a time when Bay Area Asian immigrants faced heavy racism. Ichihashi was a determined scholar, attending Lowell High School, then Stanford, and eventually Harvard, where he got his doctorate. He accepted a position at Stanford, teaching international relations and Japanese studies.
“He may have been the most esteemed or certainly one of the most esteemed members of the Japanese American community nationally,” said Gordon Chang, a Stanford professor who has studied Ichihashi’s life. “He considered himself certainly of the elite.”
According to Chang’s research, Ichihashi thought of himself as an American, naming his son Woodrow, after President Woodrow Wilson. He looked down on other Japanese Americans who were of a lower socioeconomic status or held tightly to their traditional values and culture.
Most of his friends were white professors at Stanford and other prestigious universities. When the war began, he publicly condemned the Japanese military for starting conflict with the United States and purchased $100 U.S. war bonds every month.
In May 1942, six months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Ichihashi and his wife, Kei, saw signs around Stanford’s campus instructing people of Japanese ancestry to report to a designated spot in the city with only what they could carry. When they arrived, they were taken by bus to a concentration camp at the Santa Anita Racetrack, just outside of Los Angeles.
After they were shuffled to different camps around the state, including the Tule Lake facility in Northern California, Ichihashi was informed he alone would be transferred back to the Bay Area — to Sharp Park. Below is an excerpt from his diaries he kept while incarcerated:
"I faced an unforgettable incident: an F.B.I. agent named Robert Hart came to the room at 2:30 and told me that I was 'under arrest.' I asked [what] was the charge and he replied no charge as far as he knew. I was told to pack things I wanted to take with me, but, I had no spare things with me."
He was separated from Kei and Woodrow for two months while incarcerated at Sharp Park. According to his diaries, there were tall iron net fences that surrounded the camp with 10 army barracks within it.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the make-up of this camp, particularly [after] my experience at the crowded Santa Anita Center. When I reached there, the flowers were in full bloom; the sight was delightful to the eye. Treatment was satisfactory– food abundant though often too greasy and powerfully seasoned with garlic; supplies were freely given such as toothbrush and paste. Sheets and pillow-case were changed every Monday, blankets were clean.”
Because Sharp Park specifically held Japanese Americans with supposed influence, the U.S. government treated them carefully for fear of Japanese armies treating American prisoners poorly. Sharp Park held about 500 prisoners, compared to the thousands of people at other camps. Ichihashi was held at Sharp Park from late August to late October 1942 before being reunited with his family at Tule Lake.
'He very much was a broken person'
Over the next three years that Ichihashi was incarcerated, he continued to keep diaries of the day-to-day happenings inside the camps, but as the years went on, he wrote less and less.
“He accumulated a substantial portion [of his experiences] but this material became less rich because he’s sort of reduced to just an internee and no longer a scholar,” said Chang. “He very much felt this was a challenge to his dignity and his prestige and he tried to recreate for himself a sort of world in which he was highly regarded, but in a prison camp, he’s just a number.”
When the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans ended in 1945, the Ichihashis were released back to the Bay Area, but they did not look forward to returning. Anti-Japanese sentiment was still high, and leaving the camps felt dangerous. While imprisoned, many Japanese Americans lost their homes and businesses, and their possessions were stolen.
Ichihashi came out of the experience a completely changed man. By the time he returned to Stanford, the university was looking for his replacement.
“His professional career had been crushed and he was no longer an active faculty member,” Chang said. “His marriage fell apart, he was disaffected with his son. After he got out, he was very much a broken person, as many of the older Japanese Americans were.”
Ichihashi had worked so hard to assimilate to a country where white men held power, attending the best universities and achieving the supposed American dream. But it wasn’t enough to be considered an American. “There is this long history in the United States of those from Asia being held as somehow perpetually foreign,” said Chang. In the eyes of the U.S. government, Ichihashi was a dangerous foreigner, and that classification destroyed him.
Sharp Park today
A few years after the end of the war, the Sharp Park concentration camp was torn apart. Right now, there aren’t any pushes from the local government or advocacy groups to recognize what happened there. And while local schools teach students about Japanese imprisonment at Tanforan and other camps around the state, there isn’t any specific mention of Sharp Park.
Get our monthly newsletter featuring listener questions not answered on the Bay Curious podcast.