Suppose you had one day to decide everything you would need to pack for a journey to an unknown destination for an undetermined length of time that could be months or even years.
Now suppose you have to cull down your possessions to only what will fit in one small, carry-on sized suitcase. What would you pack?
It’s a question Judy Sakaki likes to ask students as a metaphorical exercise in sifting out what is most essential in life, whether actual objects or less tangible things like personal character traits.
But the Sonoma State University President also uses it as a history lesson, an example of what 110,000 people went through in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to be “relocated” to internment camps for the duration of World War II.
The term “internment camps” is slowly being recognized for what the camps really were — walled prisons surrounded by barbed wire patrolled by armed guards.
Sakaki has a visual for this lesson: a century-old suitcase covered with travel stickers that belonged to her grandfather. He packed his worldly goods in this bag when he set off from Japan for a new life in America a century ago. And when he received the order that he and his entire family would be rounded up within a day and sent off somewhere, he packed everything he could in that brittle leather bag.
That old suitcase and dozens of other articles and bits of ephemera have been gathered from boxes stored in Sakaki’s garage and put on display in the University Library Gallery. Together, they tell the back-story of the first Japanese-American woman in the country to head up a four-year college. It all begins with her roots as the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants; all four of her grandparents came from Japan in the early part of the 20th century.
The exhibit, “I am because...” has been assembled to coincide with Sakaki’s investiture as president at 2 p.m. April 20. Although Sakaki has been on the job since last July, the formal ceremony is a high ritual in academia, officially vesting her with the responsibilities associated with serving as SSU’s seventh president.
There will be other events that day, starting with a mini-conference open to the public dealing with issues of sustainability, diversity and community engagement from 9 a.m. to noon. There will also be a reception in the courtyard at The Green Music Center after the ceremonies, with a free evening concert in Weill Hall by Hiroshima, a band that integrates traditional Japanese instruments into their fusion sound.
“I think we bring who we are and who we’ve become to everything we do,” the 63-year-old Sakaki said of the influence her Japanese culture has had on so many aspects of her life. “The vision I bring to my role as president of Sonoma State is shaped by my life experiences and my values.
“This is a part of me.”
She frequently tells her family’s story as both a cautionary tale, to let people know what can happen to anyone who is different, like immigrants. She also does it as a way of inspiring students, particularly those who are immigrants or first- or second-generation Americans, to know that they too, can dream big.
“It’s a little bit like ‘This is Your Life,’ ” Sakaki said of the exhibit, which includes everything from family artifacts to her childhood toys to the robes and regalia she wore when she received her doctorate from U.C. Berkeley in 1991. Sakaki is referring to the old 1950s TV show in which unsuspecting celebrities were lured to a location, where they are then surprised by visits from people who had played significant roles in their lives.
One wall is devoted to her important mentors. For Sakaki, they include Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and U.S. homeland security chief and now University of California president. Sakaki worked under Napolitano while serving as vice president for student affairs before accepting the job at SSU. She asked another mentor, Michael Drake, an African-American medical doctor and president of Ohio State University, to give the keynote address at her investiture.
Sakaki at first envisioned only a modest little display case filled with objects representing her family’s life in the internment camps marking this year’s 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. But she was persuaded by Dana Ogo Shew, SSU’s oral historian, who last spring mounted an exhibit of arts and crafts created by prisoners in Colorado’s Amache internment camp.
She encouraged Sakaki to expand the exhibit to tell the story of Sakaki’s rise from a little girl growing up in Oakland with limited dreams, of becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college, and of progressing through her various roles in academic administration while raising two young sons as a single mother.
“I didn’t know if I wanted all that attention. But she said, ‘Just go home and look for things.’ So I went out into my garage and it’s just filled with boxes.”
One box high up caught her eye. The words “When you were little” were written in her mother’s handwriting on the outside. Inside was a blonde Cinderella doll redressed in a kimono that her mother had made.
That and several Japanese dolls in the exhibit, speak to Sakaki’s experience growing up in Oakland after World War II at a time when there were few role models and low expectations for young girls, particularly girls of color. Included in one exhibit case is her pay stub from J.J. Newberry, where as a teenager she earned $1.65 an hour sweeping up popcorn and performing other menial tasks.
Informed her experience
Although her parents were loath to speak about the trauma of being incarcerated during World War II, their experience, even the silence, informed Sakaki’s experience. Both of her parents, all four grandparents and various other relatives, were pulled from their Bay Area homes and businesses and sent first to the old Tanforan racetrack, where they were forced to live in horse stalls before being relocated to the desolate Topaz camp in Utah.
She recalls her father, the late Hitoshige “Ted” Sakaki, in later years sharing the story of how he was forced to sell his car — which he had saved up for throughout high school — for only $25 to the first taker. He had been given only a day to dispose of anything he couldn’t take with him. Her mother, Masako, was broken-hearted at having to give away her dog.
“It was very difficult for my father to talk about it,” she said. Some of her relatives, including both parents — who didn’t get together until after the war when they were united by a matchmaker — got released from the camps early by going east instead of west. Her mother wound up in Minneapolis and her father in New York.
“It broke up my family,” Sakaki said.
Her family saved a remarkable number of things from their years behind barbed wire. Sakaki found among her parents’ things, a homemade record player that her father had built in the camp as well as a small hand-made Buddhist shrine they kept in their quarters in the barracks.
She found in a pile of scrap wood the sign her father had made identifying their spot in the barracks — a piece of wood cared with 662-B Sakaki in English and Japanese. It is included in the exhibit along with a collection of intricate jewelry her mother had made out of things they scavenged from the ground, like cantaloupe seeds. She made little buttons out of peach seeds and shells, included in the exhibit.
They made things out of necessity, not just to ease their barren surroundings, but to occupy themselves during long days with nothing to do.
“My dad wouldn’t say it, but he was a handy person. He could make anything,” Sakaki said of her father, who later ran a truck repair shop when she was growing up.
Family photos, ephemera — including ID badges and travel papers, and objects from the camp, tell the story of the Sakakis and the Hirotas (her mother Masako’s family), and their journey to America and integration into American life. Both grandfathers first went to Hawaii to the sugar cane fields. Both grandmothers were basically mail-order “picture brides.” One of her grandmother’s kimonos is displayed on a wall.
Sakaki said her mother did occupy herself working as a nurse’s aid, and later told stories of how she would often have to treat the burns of children who were scalded because they couldn’t control the temperature of the water in the camp.
The Sakakis would work their way up, opening a gift shop in Oakland. The Hirotas had a dry cleaning business. Both lost almost everything when they were forced to leave it all behind. When they returned they set about methodically rebuilding the businesses and their lives.
During the war the Sakakis were relocated from Topaz to Tule Lake Segregation Center near the California/Oregon border, a maximum-security camp where dissenters were sent — including people like her grandfather, Nihachiro Sakaki, who refused to give up his Japanese citizenship.
“As I understand it you had to sign a loyalty oath that you would be willing to give up your citizenship. If you think of my grandfather, he wanted to keep his name. For him to give up his citizenship in Japan was a big deal. It’s interesting because I later found a document that my father was willing to give up his citizenship because he was the oldest son, so they could stay together as a family.”
Still in family
To maintain his ancestral home Nihachiro Sakaki had left two of his children back in Japan. The old Sakaki farm in Japan is still in the family, and Sakaki has visited her relatives there.
Other items show the educator’s trajectory: like a picture of her with her grandfather on her first graduation day from Cal State Hayward (now East Bay) in 1975 and copies of her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. There are also pictures of her with her two boys at the Obon Festival, her son’s Taiko drums, a collection of academic trophies and awards and a picture of Sakaki with one of her mother’s elderly friends.
The friend was receiving an honorary degree from the University of California granted to former internees who were forced to leave school when they were sent to the camps against their will. Sakaki faced early opposition to pushing through the initiative, which she says is one of her proudest career moments.
The new SSU president is hoping that anyone who views the exhibit will come away with an appreciation for their own history and a belief that “anything is possible.”
“We have a responsibility to future generations to do that lifting as you climb, to reach back and help other people,” she said.
“I hope people will come away with a strong sensitivity and appreciation for each other’s different paths, and a realization that we we can all come together to do some great things.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.