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Three Years Old and Interned in an American Concentration Camp

School children at Minidoka Relocation Center. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Portland Japanese Garden Board of Trustees Vice President, Dr. Calvin Tanabe, Shares His Story

Among the many cultural gifts from Japan is the concept of gaman. Though its translation and definition have shifted depending on its messenger, Dr. Mira Shimabukuro’s studies have led her to define gaman as “strength, endurance, self-discipline, an awareness of others, and the ability to keep the future in sight.” A living embodiment of gaman can be found in Dr. Calvin Tanabe, a philanthropist and retired neurosurgeon who has served on Portland Japanese Garden’s Board of Trustees since 2014. The native Portlander’s generosity of spirit and devotion to others has made an indelible impact on his community and the Garden in particular.

That Tanabe has done so much for so many is made all the more remarkable considering the crime committed against him and his family when he was only 3 years old. In 1942, Tanabe and his parents were rounded up by the government along with other Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants living in Oregon. They were forced into Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, one of ten American concentration camps constructed during World War II. It is his first memory. Tanabe sat down with Garden staff to share his story.

Dr. Calvin Tanabe at a Golden Crane Recognition Society event in 2022. Photo by Nina Johnson.

Tanabe was born in Portland in 1938. His mother had been born in Portland herself before moving to Japan. His father moved to Oregon at the age of 14. After they wed, the Tanabes journeyed across Oregon, bouncing from job to job as transient farmers. As they worked the land, they started to search for a corner of it to call their own. They eventually settled on about 25 acres of farmland where Portland International Airport is today.

“My parents were in the process of buying their farm, they were making payments on it,” remembers Tanabe. They would take their truck, stocked with the vegetables they grew over to the east side of Portland to sell at produce stands. Already in possession of a horse, truck, and tractor, the Tanabes bought a 1941 Chevrolet car. Things were looking up. The idea of the American dream of honest work leading to prosperity could be realized. And then, calamity.

“My parents were in the process of buying their farm, they were making payments on it.”

Dr. Calvin Tanabe

After the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, a vitriolic racism toward those of Japanese descent dating back decades struck a fever pitch. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066 on February 19, 1942 in which he authorized the government to “prescribe military areas” from which people could be excluded. The document did not mention Japanese immigrants nor American citizens of Japanese descent, but it was quickly used as cudgel against them. It paved the way for the U.S. Military to declare the entirety of the Pacific Coast as a military area and to mandate the removal of Issei (first generation immigrants from Japan), Nisei (second generation), and other groups.

The consolidation of governmental power was too great for the Tanabes and other families. They had no recourse as their elected and appointed leaders conjured spurious rationales that used Pearl Harbor to capitalize on festering bigotry toward their culture and ethnicity. In 1980, the U.S. Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Interment of Civilians, a group of nine individuals appointed to study this bleak moment in American history. Their 1992 report noted that Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, the military leader tasked with overseeing this mass incarceration, justified his actions with outright racism, even going as far to say that the lack of evidence of Japanese and Japanese-American espionage on American soil was somehow an “indication” they were organizing for such actions. Their livelihood destroyed through the banality of boilerplate language in public proclamations, the Tanabes were rounded up like hostile actors along with 120,000 others across the United States. They were forced from their farm and first sent to facilities in what today is known as the Portland Expo Center.

“I remember a little bit of what the government called the ‘Assembly Center,’ which was a livestock pavilion,” recalls Tanabe. “And they put up these canvas partitions, rounded us up and put us all in there. All the families had numbers. Ours was 16133. I remember they made me wear my family number because I was little and would wander off. That way, someone could help me back, because it was just a maze of partitions; canvas partitions everywhere.”

After three months of captivity in a livestock facility, the Tanabes were sent to Minidoka. They were ushered onto a train to get there. At the time, Tanabe, still in retention of his childhood innocence, was excited to take a train ride. “I don’t know if they told us where we were going or if I was just too small to really know,” he says. “But that’s where my memory really starts, that concentration camp in Idaho.”

Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, one of ten American concentration camps constructed during World War II. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Minidoka Center was built on undeveloped federal land in south-central Idaho, a desolate void of kicked up dust and sagebrush. The Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit organization that honors and preserves the history of the incarceration experience, shared the memories of one of the concentration camp’s incarcerees: “We were simply and utterly disgusted with… the camp… we found no running hot water, no sewer system, a hot, dry, dusty climate. For how long would we have to endure these conditions?”

The 14,000 people sequestered here suffered freezing winters that touched -21˚F and boiling summers that climbed into triple digits in shoddily built shelters. Far from the antiseptic and bright hospital wings he would learn in later in his life, Tanabe endured a malignant facsimile of a proper childhood education in Minidoka, walking from the barracks to his first-grade classroom in this dismal stretch of Idaho. Despite the cruelty of their conditions, Tanabe and the other “residents” of Minidoka persevered for three years, setting up community how they could, even building gardens where it was possible. Gaman.

Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, one of ten American concentration camps constructed during World War II. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

On June 7, 1945, a few months before World War II concluded, Tanabe and his family were permitted to leave Minidoka. The return to Oregon was not one easily made. In February of that year, Oregon State House representatives issued a joint memorial in a failed attempt to prevent Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans returning home from their concentration camps. The racist attitudes of many Oregon residents had not diminished, as innocent American families like the Tanabes were conflated with the wartime actions of a foreign nation. Unable to return to Portland, they instead worked on an orchard in Ontario, Oregon, a small city about one hour away from Boise. “It was a crummy little building for transient workers,” Tanabe recalls. “That’s where we lived and so did several other Japanese families.”

While many other families in Ontario left for Portland as soon as they could, the Tanabes remained and worked their newly arrived Eastern Oregon land. Calvin would attend high school here, excelling in his coursework and earning acceptance to medical school at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). When his father had a stroke during his first year of medical school, Tanabe turned his studies to the brain. He would become fascinated with it. Tanabe would subsequently take residences at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of California, San Francisco, before returning to OHSU. Here he would meet his wife, Dr. Mayho Tanabe, an OHSU anesthesia resident and graduate of the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo.

Dr. Mayho Tanabe and Dr. Calvin Tanabe at an event celebrating the retirement of Head Gardener Michael Kondo. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

After both Calvin and Mayho finished their residencies in 1970, Calvin once faced tumult in the shape of the Vietnam War. No longer able to defer conscription, Tanabe entered into the U.S. Army, the same armed forces that had overseen his family’s expulsion from Portland not even 30 years prior. In an odd twist of fate, the military wound up arranging Tanabe’s first visit to Japan – a brief layover on his flight to Vietnam. Serving for two years as a major, Tanabe was stationed in Da Nang, tending to wounded soldiers before being sent to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. When Tanabe returned to Portland in 1972, he taught and practiced neurosurgery. In 1981, he would establish what would become one of the largest neurosurgery practices in the Pacific Northwest. He would often work out of St. Vincent’s Hospital, the same place his mother had been born.

Portland Japanese Garden first gained momentum as a concept in the late 1950s, was established as an organization in 1963, and opened to the public in 1967. Tanabe, back in Portland full-time in the 1970s, had a career that demanded long hours and intense focus. He was aware of the Garden and visited on occasion but did not become more seriously involved until 2013, when the organization was celebrating its 50th anniversary. “There was a pediatric surgeon on the Board of Trustees, Jack Campbell. He invited me to the gala, that was the first Garden event I ever went to. The next thing I knew, I was having lunch with Jack and [Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom]. Steve is a pretty persuasive guy. One thing led to another and eventually I was on the Board.”

Dr. Mayho Tanabe and Dr. Calvin Tanabe at Portland Japanese Garden’s 50th Anniversary Gala in 2013. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Tanabe went from interested party to one of the Garden’s most generous donors and sagest advisors in quick order. “I’m getting pretty old,” Tanabe shared. “It’s time for me to give back to society and my community.” One can find the names of Tanabe and his wife in two spaces in Portland Japanese Garden: the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Welcome Center, where guests and members check in before proceeding up the hill, and the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery, an exhibition space in the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center. “We do most things together,” Tanabe says of his wife, Mayho. “Our philosophy is, if we’re going to contribute something, we might as well do it while we’re alive.”

It was very early in Tanabe’s life that he experienced the cruelty of racism toward those of Asian descent and while much is still left to be done to banish this hatred from our future, he believes the Garden has been a contributor to making Portland a more hospitable city. “Portland has been a very difficult place for anyone other than white people to live,” Tanabe shared. “Even to this day, for a reasonably large city, it may be the whitest city in America. I think every Japanese American person who lived through [World War II] was not very well appreciated. It was a tough time. Things are a lot better [now]…the Garden has gone a long way to creating these better feelings.”

Dr. Calvin Tanabe participating in one of Portland Japanese Garden’s pine pruning workshops. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Looking ahead to the future, Tanabe hopes for the Garden to be maintained at the same level of world-class standards it has been. “It’s much, much more than [just a garden],” Tanabe noted. “It’s a place of tranquility and peace. It’s a way for diverse people to enjoy the same thing. There are a lot of people who visit who are from out of town—you hear a lot of different languages being spoken in the Garden.” Tanabe is also excited about the prospect of Japan Institute, as he works with other Trustees to make sure that it launches in a manner that will set up it up for sustainable success. “I love the principle of it,” he said of the Garden’s sibling organization. “I hope years down the road we are known as a place of peace and culture all over the world.”

“I hope years down the road we are known as a place of peace and culture all over the world.”

Dr. Calvin Tanabe

Tanabe’s life has been one hallmarked by “strength, endurance, self-discipline, an awareness of others, and the ability to keep the future in sight.” Despite an inauspicious beginning to his life, Tanabe has not succumbed to fury. He says it’s his perspective that the people who express the most anger on these concentration camps are not the ones who lived in them.

“I find that it’s the next generation of Japanese Americans, who’ve never experienced internment – who are the most outraged,” Tanabe reflects. “It doesn’t surprise me in that they didn’t experience the psychological trauma. You know, even though you look healthy like I did, when you grow up in those circumstances, somehow you just learned to shut up. I have noticed, and of course there are exceptions, but other people in my age group—they are reticent to speak up in big groups. I don’t know if that fits our circumstances or if it’s part of our culture. But, no one has made a big deal of what was not constitutionally correct.”

Tanabe shared that he, of course, does feel anger over these crimes committed by the American government, his government, and feels the “saddest thing of all” is that the official apology offered in the form of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 didn’t lead to changes that would make it unconstitutional to imprison this nation’s citizens without pressing charges.

“They get away with this, the best I can tell, by saying that it was done ‘because of military necessity,’ which means to me that in the future if there’s ‘military necessity,’ they can imprison a group of people again,” Tanabe warned. “I think it’s a good example for Americans to think about how fragile a democracy can be and how vigilant you have to be to protect the rights of all of its citizens.”

Dr. Calvin Tanabe, Vice President of Portland Japanese Garden’s Board of Trustees (l) and Board President Drake Snodgrass (r) stand with His Excellency, Ambassador of Japan to the United States Koji Tomita during the ambassador’s visit in 2022. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Language Matters

There is no universal agreement on what we call the camps or the process that created them — ‘incarceration,’ ‘internment,’ and ‘concentration’ are a few of the terms that were interchangeably used. While some might find ‘concentration’ misleading because these were not extermination camps, the term predates the Holocaust and is by definition a place where large numbers of people are detained or confined under armed guard. We believe that awareness of the historical import of these words, as well as care in using them, is an important way to respect the collective memory of the victims and grants us greater power to confront injustice and cultivate peace.

“A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned, not because of the crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Despite the difference, all had one thing in common: that people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.” – Joint Statement by Japanese-American National Museum and the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors at the 1994 exhibition, America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience.