A Sleepy Lagoon and A Lake in Tanforan Racetrack Assembly Center

September 13, 2014 by Admin

By Kazuko Iwahashi

A popular song in 1941-42, “Sleepy Lagoon,” was originally written in 1930 as an instrumental work by a British composer, Eric Coates.  In 1940, with permission from Eric Coates, Jack Lawrence added the words. As a child, the rendition I heard flowed from the recording of Harry James’ sweet and lovely, melodious trumpet. Even now when I hear his version of “Sleepy Lagoon,” a funny but special nostalgic feeling comes over me, taking me back to Tanforan  where I first learned of the song . . .

In 1942, Tanforan Racetrack became Tanforan Assembly Center–actually a compound where we Japanese and Japanese Americans were forcibly incarcerated by the US government during wartime.    

At 12 years old, I was taken with my family from our home in Berkeley, transported with them on our very first bus ride across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and transplanted in San Bruno where Tanforan was located.

With hastily renovated horse stalls and quickly constructed tar-papered barracks scattered throughout the race track, I saw a dismal and drab landscape for us who would be living there. Inside the oval of the track, I remember some form of grass; was it lawn or weeds? Water pooled in spots after a rain.

Over a period of months, a lake changed our view. It had to be manmade; it wasn’t there before. A wooden bridge crossed over it. Many Japanese men had made their living as gardeners; all were carpenters of sorts. With their skill and experience, they created a beautiful landscape, planting trees, shrubbery and flowers. As a young girl, I barely noticed the change. I remember vaguely seeing the area while chatting with friends as we walked to the library, which was also located inside the track. The full transformation of the landscape didn’t quite register in my 12- year-old mind. Mine Okubo, in her book Citizen 13660, describes briefly the birth of the lake and the bridge. She writes, “It had been transformed from a mere wet spot in the Tanforan scenery into a miniature aquatic park, complete with bridge, promenade, and islands” (99).

The beginning lyrics “A sleepy lagoon, a tropical moon and two on an island” are not exactly appropriate to the time we were in and place where we were imprisoned. It was not just “two on an island” but 6,000 Japanese rounded up like cattle, impounded on a small plot of land within the greater city of San Bruno. The talk in camp went something like this: someone had dubbed the lake, a “Sleepy Lagoon” because it sounded more romantic than just calling it a “lake.” At the same time, with the song’s popularity, the name caught on quickly among us. The “Sleepy Lagoon” was also called the North Lake; a smaller South Lake existed as well. I was unaware of this distinction until I reached adulthood, when I read and saw the drawing in Mine Okubo’s book: a picture of children and adults sailing boats on this smaller lake (100).

Now, years later, my perspective of the north lake in the center of the track has changed. In my mind, I see a lagoon . . . an island. I imagine a bigger picture, an aerial view of the dirt racetrack on which horses used to gallop and race with their trainers and jockeys. I see now, in the north side of the center of the track, a spot of water of undetermined size, a small bridge over it and foliage on each side of it. This small island, the “ Sleepy Lagoon,” is apart from us incarcerated residents, the general public, and once populated landscape of Tanforan Assembly Center.

 This separation of our community was two-fold. We not only lived within the boundaries of Tanforan, but the grounds, structures , fences and locked gates set us apart from the general population outside. The “security”–armed soldiers–-did not protect us but prevented our escape. We, the “internees, ” as we were called, formed our own human island–surrounded by borders that barred us from our freedom to come and go.

Perhaps we can push aside the irony of our imprisonment and segregation by remembering the beauty we created in this one spot, in the strength of our community and the haunting music and lyrics of “Sleepy Lagoon.”

Oftentimes, a special song carries us back to an unforgettable, nostalgic scene. A wistfulness for something in the past, a tugging of the heart strings, fills our mind and soul when we hear the strains of the familiar melody. The words may not be exactly apropos to the setting and “romance” of Tanforan’s “Sleepy Lagoon.”  Nevertheless, what we visualize from the words is still vivid. The lyrics go in part:

          The fireflies’ gleam reflects in the stream

           They sparkle and shimmer

           A star from on high falls out of the sky

           And slowly grows dimmer

 And they end with “The memory of this moment of love / will haunt me forever.”

The music lingers on. The past and present intermingle. For us, this time and place will not be forgotten–the smooth, soothing notes of the trumpet, the bridge crossing over the lake, the unreachable hills and the sky beyond us.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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