A decade-long effort to honor the almost 8,000 people of Japanese descent were imprisoned at the Tanforan Assembly Center during World War II concluded this month with the unveiling of a memorial plaza in San Bruno. 

The Tanforan Memorial project  is located adjacent to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station which houses an exhibition about the detention center. Almost all of the people interred there were residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and the vast majority were US Citizens.

“Our primary goal was to create a permanent monument to honor those 8,000 Japanese who were imprisoned at Tanforan,” said Steve Okamoto, vice-chairman of the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee (TACMC) who spearheaded the project. “Secondly, we aim to educate those who have never heard of the Tanforan Assembly Center, thereby inspiring a future where such injustice is unthinkable, and will never happen again.”

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the US government moved to detain Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast due to fears they might pose a threat by spying or harboring sympathy for Imperial Japan. Within three months, President Franklin D. signed Executive Order 9066, which created 17 temporary "assembly centers" to house approximately 112,000 people of Japanese descent.

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Photo courtesy Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee

Originally a horse racetrack, Tanforan had been only partially converted for its new use as a detention center by the time it began operations in April 1942. Many inmates were forced to live in former horse stalls. The majority of them would be transferred to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah where they remained until the end of the war.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a statue of two young girls waiting for a bus bound for one of the detention centers. Sculptor Sandra Shaw based her work on a photo taken by Dorothea Lange. The site also features a replica horse stall and a memorial wall. 

Building History

Blach Construction served as general contractor on the project handling the construction of the plaza and various elements included within it. RHAA Landscape Architects donated the design of the memorial plaza. Both cited the importance of the memorial as a key motivation for their work on the project.

Pat Quinn, Director of Client Services for Blach Construction, says the Tanforan Assembly Center Memorial Committee contacted Blach Construction in May 2020 and conveyed that they’d been having difficulty finding a construction partner. 

“Once they shared the impetus for the Memorial, their vision and the fact that it was seven years in the making, we committed very quickly,” he says. “We felt very strongly that this project was an important one and the story needed to be told.”

RHAA Landscape Architects says TACMC reached out to them in 2014, while they were applying for a National Parks Service Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant. TACMC realized they needed a Landscape Architect to help them with the design. 

 “We were more than happy to help, as three of our partners were interned during World War II,” says Jimmy Chan, vice president of RHAA Landscape Architects.

Quinn says the Memorial’s location was the largest obstacle his team faced on the job. “It was an extremely small job site, nestled between the San Bruno BART Station, the San Bruno Police Station, the shopping mall and a few adjacent parking garages, which complicated our ability to use heavy equipment,” he says. 

“The integration of the different art and interpretive elements in a cohesive space, while adhering to BART engineering and operational standards, are what set this project apart for us,” says Chan

The prefabricated horse stall and bronze sculpture required a tremendous amount preplanning. “Due to the constrained size of the site, erecting the horse stall demanded a well-coordinated effort. And at 1,500-pounds, the sculpture required serious forethought from layout to very precise core drilling to hoisting it up and setting it in place.”

While challenges are a reality for every project a company undertakes, the importance of surmounting them and creating a lasting memorial was paramount for the project team, said Blach President Dan Rogers in a statement.

“We are guided by a core desire to enhance and serve our communities through collaboration and quality craftsmanship," he said. "The Tanforan Memorial is an invaluable asset to the Bay Area, serving to venerate our past and shape our future, a future that ensures equity for all.”