By Christine McFadden, Correspondent
Published November 19, 2010
The black and white photos taken by prolific photographer Dorthea Lange depict Japanese American families waiting by train tracks to be shipped off to concentration camps. They are sitting on the tops of their few suitcases with solemn expressions. All are pinned with matching identification tags that display their name, an identification number, and the isolated camp they are headed toward. The photos with the tags are haunting snapshots of life pre-camp. For artist Wendy Maruyama, they are both haunting and compelling.
Maruyama, the head of the furniture design and woodworking program at San Diego State University has been a Fulbright scholar to England, so she is no stranger to artistic endeavors. But her most recent project is literally a massive undertaking. After making the decision to research her family history, Maruyama, a Sansei, simultaneously found the launching point for her “Tag Project”: a mission to replicate all 120,000 tags worn by the internees during World War II. She began by replicating 1,011 tags from the internees from her hometowns of San Diego and Chula Vista. From there, Maruyama made the commitment to making all 120,000 tags, looking to reflect and educate the public on the sheer scale and numbers of those incarcerated.
Maruyama’s family was directly affected by the WWII incarceration: her mother’s family took the option to leave the West Coast rather than be shipped to concentration camps, but still lived the lives of displaced peoples — “invisible internees,” as Maruyama called them. They had “equally sad and horrible stories about their experiences.”
“The ‘Tag Project’ started at my mother’s dining room table and it was here that she and my aunt shared their stories,” she reflected. “Unfortunately my grandparents never talked about their experiences but I feel fortunate that I was able to hear the stories through my mother.”
The project, now traveling around the nation, has since sparked more dialogue about the internment while bringing generations of JAs together.
Tale of the Tags
“I remember seeing photos and seeing the Nisei and Issei at the train station with these tags,” said Robert Ito, a Sansei San Diego JACL board member. “[I] always wondered what it was.” After hearing Maruyama present her project to the San Diego JACL board in 2008, he knew he had to get involved. “I just totally embraced it.”
Utilizing his expertise in grant writing, Ito volunteered in 2008 to take the lead in writing a grant application for the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. Earlier this year, the ‘Tag Project’ received news that it had won the $25,000 grant. “I knew that it was going to resonate with whoever read it [the grant proposal],” he said. Both of Ito’s parents were incarcerated at Poston and his father volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. His mother is currently involved with helping string the tags.
The tags, still in the making, have traveled to high schools, colleges, and art galleries across the country: from Tennessee to Tule Lake, from Madison to Manzanar. The process of making the tags began with a phone call from Maruyama to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to verify the exact dimensions of the tag from their collection.
“These tags are no longer made in this size so I had 120,000 tags custom made to replicate the exact size of the original,” she said. “I then created rubber stamps of the print that was on the tag.” All of the names on the tags are authentic, drawn from the online National Archives and Records Administration (add.archives.gov). Jean Saito, a Shin Nisei graduate student at San Diego State University and recent volunteer for the “Tag Project,” is currently involved in crosschecking the names on the tags with the electronic database.
“The whole project really intrigued me,” Saito said. “[I’m] making sure we don’t miss anybody’s names, just double-checking.”
Sansei volunteer Tami Joplin first encountered the “Tag Project” at an exhibit at the Escondido Center for the Arts. “I must have looked like a crazy person examining the work after that, since I started going all around it, over and over, reading all the tags to see if I could find my mom’s name, or my grandmother’s, or my aunt’s or any of my uncles ... ,” said Joplin. Joplin brought her mother, Connie (Yahiro) Striklen, a week later to see the tags; what she saw moved her and inspired her to sign up to volunteer. “Sometimes my mom and I would work on the tags at my house, and we would laugh, talk, and discuss the names of the people on the tags,” she said. “Even saying each name in our heads was a way of honoring those who were in the camps.”
To make a tag, a volunteer ties a string to the end of the tag, makes a print from the recreated stamp, writes in the name of the former internee, makes another stamp of the ID number assigned to each internee, and finally writes in the camp name. The tags are then scrunched up, dyed with coffee, and dried with some old-fashioned San Diego sunshine to achieve the aged look. The tags are then bundled into groups of 48 and weaved into strands.
Because the camps are so large, Maruyama can only work on one camp at a time. Thus far, the tags for all of those interned in Gila River, Poston, Manzanar, Rohwer, Minidoka, and Tule Lake have been completed; currently, Maruyama is working on Heart Mountain and Amache.
At the various events and schools the tags are taken to, Maruyama says that the size and dimensions of the tags has sometimes been “overwhelming.”
“ … Suddenly the number of Japanese Americans who were removed from their homes in 1942 [has] some physicality to it: the visual weight and sheer numbers of tags was shocking to some,” she said.
Since initiating the project, Maruyama has experienced a seemingly exponential growth of volunteers ranging from people in their 90s down to “8-year-olds who were ‘tag runners’, taking tags from station to station” at volunteer events.
Many young volunteers immerse themselves in the “Tag Project” as a means of respecting their family’s history. “The project is one way that I am honoring and recognizing my grandparents, my grandparent’s friends, my friend’s grandparents and parents,” wrote volunteer Kaity Sakurai, a senior at San Diego State University, in an e-mail. Sakurai’s grandparents were incarcerated in Crystal City, Texas. “We cannot forget all the hard work and sacrifices that our ancestors have done to get us, Yonsei, decent lives.”
In addition to bringing generations and communities closer together, the “Tag Project” has helped to open up dialogue about the incarceration. “Initiating the conversation was not directly one of the goals of the project, but certainly it has created an environment of young people working alongside older JA internees and hearing their stories,” reflected Maruyama.
“I wanted to learn more about what happened … I just love to listen to their stories,” said Saito.
In addition to relating stories of the past, the “Tag Project” has helped some to draw comparisons between the JA incarceration and the present. According to Maruyama, some viewers of the massive amounts of tags draw “parallels to 9/11 and the persecution of Muslim Americans, or even the recent controversy with the Arizona immigration laws.” According to Maruyama, the tags will make their complete debut in 2012 at the new SDSU Downtown Gallery. They are currently based at the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego.
Following the SDSU Gallery unveiling, one of the camps’ tags will make its way to Boston alongside a work project of Maruyama’s called “E.O. 9066”, a woodworking series started when she was awarded an artist-in-residency position at the State University of New York at Purchase. Following Boston, all of the tags will head south to Charlotte, N.C. to be shown at Queen College. Maruyama then hopes to take the project to two more venues on the West Coast. After the tour, she is looking to send each group of tags to their respective camp interpretative centers. Because not all of the camps have centers, Maruyama hopes that camps such as Tule Lake can use the tags in performances or displays during their pilgrimages.