‘We were tagged with a number.’ Japanese American incarceration focus of California exhibit

Museum News

By Maya Miller, Sacramento Bee
March 10, 2023

Marielle Tsukamoto still remembers the morning in 1942 she and her family were forced to leave their Florin home.

The Japanese military had bombed Pearl Harbor and wartime hysteria seized the United States.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 gave U.S.military leaders the authority to forcibly remove and detain Japanese American residents – including citizens like Marielle and her parents.

The sun hadn’t risen yet, and the Tsukamoto family had to leave early to catch a train that would eventually take them to an “assembly center” in Fresno. Even today at age 85, Marielle recalls fetching her grandmother from the yard so she wouldn’t miss the train. A chill hung in the nighttime air.

Only 4 years old at the time, Marielle walked into the family garden and found her grandmother – her baachan – gazing forlornly at her roses. Tears stained her face.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see these again,” the older woman said in Japanese.

“It’s OK ,” the 4-year-old responded, also in Japanese. “You will come back.”

Almost 80 years later, Marielle’s story is one of many featured in a new-and-improved permanent exhibit at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento.

“Uprooted: An American Story” immerses visitors in the stories and experiences of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated en masse during World War II. The exhibit includes a life-size replica of a barrack where families lived and a scale model of a guard tower.

“We redid everything,” said Amanda Meeker, executive director of the California Museum and the curator of the original exhibit. “It was a big project.”

The revamped exhibit features never-before seen artifacts and a sleek AI-based display where visitors can hold conversations with incarceration survivors, including Marielle.

Public viewings begin this weekend. Tickets for Saturday’s kickoff event are sold out, but museum visitors will be able to explore “Uprooted” starting Sunday, March 12.

“The exhibit is so exhilarating to me,” said Stan Umeda, an incarceration survivor and one of the docents who leads tours for school groups. “Sometimes I have a hard time believing that I went through all of this as a kid,” he continued, “because, you know, for it to happen in America seems so much out of character with the American Dream.”


When Japanese American families were forced to leave their homes, each person and their luggage had to wear identification tags with a unique number. Stan Umeda’s family, also from Florin, wore tags bearing the number “22004,” which are on display in the new exhibit.

“Thinking back now, I just felt like it was a little dehumanizing that we were tagged with a number,” said Christine Umeda, Stan’s wife and a fellow incarceration survivor. She found her husband’s family’s tags while sorting through old family belongings.

“I know it was for a purpose, but it just felt weird that, you know, we were like baggage. Because that’s what it was. It was a baggage tag.”

In May 1942, both the Umedas and Tsukamotos boarded trains from Florin to the Fresno fairgrounds. Tsukamoto recalled that her family’s train arrived late, for which she was very grateful. The people on the earlier trains had to sleep in the fairgrounds’ horse stables, which reeked of manure.

The Tsukamotos stayed in temporary buildings set up on an asphalt parking lot. Temperatures soared far above 100 degrees during the day, melting the blacktop into a viscous, gooey mess. Marielle said her grandmother wouldn’t let the children sit on the edge of their cots during the day. Otherwise the legs would sink into the melted ground and leave the cot crooked.

“I was so fearful of getting lost since all the barracks looked the same,” Stan said, talking about the Fresno encampment. “I memorized my address so that I could tell an adult where I lived, which I remember to this day as ‘J-10-4’.” Block J. Building 10. Apartment 4.

The two families spent May through October 1942 at the Fresno fairgrounds while the military finished construction on a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Then they boarded another train and journeyed nearly 2,000 miles to Jerome by way of Los Angeles.

After two years in Jerome and another two-and-a-half in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Marielle and her family made their way back to Florin in her uncle Harold Ouchida’s car. The journey was long, and the family had to carefully select which towns they stopped in. Anti-Japanese racism ran deep following the war.

Thankfully, the Tsukamotos didn’t lose their grape farm. A neighbor, Bob Fletcher, quit his job with the state of California in order to tend to multiple farms, as the Japanese American families they belonged to had been unjustly incarcerated. He planted the crops, reaped the harvest, paid the taxes and mortgage and saved the profits for those families upon their return.

The Umeda family was also lucky enough to return home to their property. Stan’s father belonged to a grape grower’s association, which helped keep up with the taxes and mortgage while the family was incarcerated.

“A lot of my relatives lost their ranches, their homes,” Stan said. “When you’re gone for three years and you don’t pay any taxes, you lose everything.”

Stan, who was only 10 back then, only had one thing on his mind when he returned home: his favorite toy.

“I remember going to my room and found my cap pistol still intact,” he said, “and I was happy as can be.”


The new “Uprooted” exhibit builds on a legacy of teaching that started over 50 years ago, largely thanks to Marielle’s mother, Mary Tsukamoto.

After returning to Florin, Mary fought to become one of the first credentialed Japanese American teachers. She became a renowned third grade teacher in the Elk Grove Unified School District and was one of two teachers to win the inaugural Sacramento County Teacher of the Year award.

But Mary had long suffered from severe arthritis, and eventually she had to retire once she could no longer write on a chalkboard. After her retirement, a group of third-generation Japanese American parents came to her and said they wanted to teach their children about Japanese heritage.

Many older camp survivors had internalized the anti-Japanese racism and distanced themselves from their culture.

“The Niseis (second generation Japanese Americans) didn’t want to talk about it,” Marielle Tsukamoto said. “They didn’t want to rock the boat.”

Mary refused to let the community forget their culture. Along with a group of other Japanese American parents, in 1976 she helped found a program called Jan Ken Po Gakko, inspired by the name of a Japanese children’s game similar to “rock, paper, scissors.”

The program, which still exists today, gives Japanese children and parents a framework to explore their culture and heritage together. Topics covered include Japanese spoken and written language, traditional customs, games and art.

Originally, instructors tried to portray a balanced picture of the experience Japanese Americans had gone through during World War II. But youngsters couldn’t understand why the U.S. government would imprison their grandparents unless they had done something wrong.

“One day, while I was telling the children about their wonderful, hard-working grandparents and internment experience, the children said, ‘You are lying! I can’t believe you. How could our grandparents be so nice and the government put them away unless they were spies or traitors?’” wrote Mary in a reflection on the Jan Ken Po Gakko website.

“She realized that the young children had the idea that we must have been guilty,” said Marielle. “And she wanted to correct that.”

Mary set out in 1981 to create a presentation that detailed the experiences of life in the detention camps. She set up a display in the Elk Grove Unified School District’s office. Plus for two years in a row, for two weeks, she sat ready to present to anyone who stopped by. But no one came. Not a single person, Marielle said.

Fast forward to 1983. After years of negotiating and convincing district officials to let students learn this curriculum, Elk Grove Unified passed a resolution to include Mary’s lessons on Japanese incarceration as a part of the fifth-grade curriculum, partnered with the teaching of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, school groups from all over Sacramento County and surrounding areas bus their students to the California Museum for an entire day of learning about the unconstitutional detainment of Japanese people.

The students alternate between a tour of the “Uprooted” exhibit, led by docents who are survivors or family of survivors, and a classroom presentation where they hear first-hand stories from people like Marielle, Christine and Stan.

Unlike the previous rendition of “Uprooted” which first opened in 2007, the new version goes beyond the reparations and redress given to survivors in the 1980s. The last part of the exhibit ties the story of Japanese American incarceration to the present day and urges visitors to speak out against injustices.

“Back in ‘42, we didn’t have a voice,” said Christine. “So we need to, as a group, stand up for other people who are being oppressed.”


What: “Uprooted: An American Story,” an interactive and immersive exhibit about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Where: California Museum, 1020 O St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $8 to $10 (some discounts available online at californiamuseum.org/special-offers-promotions)

Info: californiamuseum.org/uprooted