MERCED — Remembering a negative past but optimistic about societal lessons learned, dozens of Japanese-Americans who experienced life in internment camps came together Saturday night for the annual Day of Remembrance Banquet.
The event, put on by the Livingston-Merced Japanese American Citizens League, was held at the Pavilion Building at the Merced County Fairgrounds. About 275 guests attended with the purpose of keeping the public aware of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were unjustly placed in internment camps during World War II.
The Merced County Fairgrounds' location is historically significant because it was home to one of 21 assembly centers where Japanese-Americans were sent soon after the Pearl Harbor attack.
The center in Merced housed 4,669 people. The internees arrived in Merced in May 1942, staying at the assembly center for three months before being sent to one of the 10 internment camps, in Amache, Colo., where most of them stayed until the end of the war.
Despite the wrongs committed by the U.S. government back then, however, many attendees felt that as the public becomes more aware of the internees' stories, the chances of history repeating itself decrease.
"We just don't want people to forget," said Bob Taniguchi, Livingston-Merced Japanese American Citizens League chapter board member. "What I'm happy about is this has turned into mostly a community thing. It used to be, pretty much, a Japanese-American thing."
The theme for this year's banquet was baseball, because many internees played the sport in the camp at the Merced fairgrounds. "Baseball is one of the really wonderful activities that helped people cope," according to Taniguchi. "Even though they were here only three months, they played baseball here at the Merced County Fairgrounds at the assembly center."
Author and California State University, Stanislaus, history professor Samuel O. Regalado was the dinner's keynote speaker. He spoke about his recently published book, "Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues."
"Nikkei Baseball" covers baseball in the Japanese-American culture from the Megi period -- from 1860, when Japan was trying to reorganize, to now -- to (Major League ball players) Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo," Taniguchi said.
Robert Ohki, 93, of Livingston was interned at the Merced assembly center and played baseball. "Before we left home, our manager told us to be sure to take your baseball equipment -- gloves, ball, bat -- and bring them to this place in Merced," Ohki said.
Back then, internees were only allowed to bring one bag -- and their baseball accessories were among some of the only possessions they brought along. According to Ohki, there were about six baseball teams. His coach asked the camp administrators if they could use the baseball diamond near the grandstand, and they were allowed to play as an organized league in the camp. "That gave us something to do here," he said.
Founded in the late 1920s, the Japanese American Citizens League was formed to preserve and protect the rights of immigrants and Japanese Americans. About 100 families are a part of the organization.
Chris Winterfeldt can be reached at email@example.com.