Joanne Iritani taught thousands of children about Japanese internment
By Steve Maginini, The Sacramento Bee
April 5, 2015
Taeko Joanne Ono Iritani, who taught thousands of California children about the internment of 120,000 Japanese Californians during World War II, will be honored at a memorial service Saturday.
Ms. Iritani died after a stroke March 19 at age 85.
She was interned at Poston Relocation Camp in Arizona from 1942 until August 1945. She finished high school in the camp, graduated from UC Berkeley and devoted her life to teaching. Ms. Iritani taught at a school for the developmentally disabled in Bakersfield for 25 years.
She moved to Sacramento with her husband, the late Frank Iritani, in 1992 because of its active Japanese community, said her daughter Susanna Minard.
Ms. Iritani never forgot how the internment separated and broke up Japanese American families, Minard said. In 1998, Ms. Iritani took an active role in the Time of Remembrance Project started by Elk Grove teacher Mary Tsukamoto and her daughter, Marielle Tsukamoto, in 1983.
She helped move the project, designed to teach California students about the internment, to its permanent home at The California Museum in 2001 in partnership with the Elk Grove Unified School District and California State University, Sacramento. The museum now has a replica of an internment camp barracks and memorabilia from internees.
Ms. Iritani was one of the 30 or so former internees who served as docents at the museum between the last week of January and the third week of March each year. “In the last two years, we’ve had over 5,000 kids each year, most of them from Elk Grove Unified, and in 2004 we had as many as 7,000,” Marielle Tsukamoto said.
The Iritanis also worked to get Congress to pass a law granting reparations to thousands of internees.
“Joanne was always very humble but had a strong vision of what was important, and she dedicated herself to making sure what happened to Japanese Americans not only was taught, but that it would never happen to another group again,” Marielle Tsukamoto said.
Using a tape recorder, Ms. Iritani took about 40 oral histories of camp survivors for Sacramento State’s oral history project. She also wrote a book with her husband called “Ten Visits,” which documented their trips to 10 internment camps, including maps and directions. Because many internees never told their children and grandchildren what they had endured and why, many didn’t even know there were camps other than Manzanar and Tule Lake, Tsukamoto said.
Ms. Iritani served two years as president of the Florin Japanese American Citizens League and for 20 years shared her personal story with countless students and helped develop a curriculum to be taught in public schools, Minard said. Despite her early hardships, “she instilled in all of us a joyful outlook on life.”
Ms. Iritani’s mantra was, “It’s not patience, it’s persistence,” Minard said. “She’d always say, ‘Have no regrets about anything you do for yourself and others, and don’t hesitate.’”
Ms. Iritani is survived by her children, Susanna Iritani Minard of Bow, N.H.; Ken Iritani of Sacramento; and Bonita Iritani of Chapel Hill, N.C.; and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Centennial United Methodist Church in Sacramento with lunch following.
Donations may be made to: Centennial UMC, 5401 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95822; Florin JACL Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 292634, Sacramento, CA 95829-2634; or the Iritani Scholarship Fund, Centennial UMC, 5401 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95822.