Bud Gankhuyag

Racial Forgetting In The Era Of Mass Culture: The Shops At Tanforan, Japanese Internment And White American Territoriality

Bud Gankhuyag
Racial Forgetting In The Era Of Mass Culture: The Shops At Tanforan, Japanese Internment And White American Territoriality

75 thousand families scattered all around the United States is not going to upset anybody. - Franklin D. Roosevelt1

30 miles south of San Francisco along U.S. Interstate 380 stands a massive sign advertising “The Shops at Tanforan Mall” that invades the view of drivers’ windshields. A graceful silhouette of a racehorse in mid-stride runs below the words, signaling that this shopping mall was once the site of a famed racetrack of the same name. However, hidden from this design and from public view, is the more infamous legacy of the racetrack being used as an assembly center for Japanese internees during World War II.

This peculiar history of the land stands in striking contrast to the sterile, corporate-curated mall found in suburbs built on top of it, as well as on top of indigenous land. Because the mall imposes the totality of its existence, both physically and culturally, it is what happens inside its walls, not so much the building or the land on which it sits, that people remember and consider significant.

Developers repurposed the land in such a way that what was previously there may leave only traces or echoes; history becomes an afterthought to the daily ritual of consumerism.

What does the history of internment mean in the context of collective memory and consumerist cultural production? What happens in a space where history has literally been buried? Racial forgetting, the unseen manufacturing of a racial makeup and attitude, the non-existence of what once existed, pervades the shopping mall today, where a trace of the history of internment is not in clear view but must be deliberately sought.  

After President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law on February 19, 1942, over 100,000 Japanese people were shoved into hastily made assembly centers, where they would stay until the government finished constructing internment camps.  

Tanforan Racetrack was one such place. A prominent venue in the horse-racing world where Seabiscuit raced, the horse stalls could quickly be repurposed into temporary homes for the interned. In his memoir, Yoshiko Uchida remembers that “The stall was about ten by twenty feet and empty except for three folded Army cots lying on the floor. Dust, dirt, and wood shavings covered the linoleum that had been laid over manure-covered boards, the smell of horses hung in the air, and the whitened corpses of many insects still clung to the hastily white-washed walls.”

Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660 provides a graphic memoir with a dry, morbid humor that captures both the destitution and resilience of the internees. She and her family were later transferred to Tule Lake, but at Tanforan, they felt “close to freedom and yet far from it. The San Bruno streetcar line bordered the camp on the east and the main state highway on the south. Streams of cars passed by all day. Guard towers and barbed wire surrounded the entire center. Guards were on duty night and day.”

Being forced into horse stalls is evidently dehumanizing enough, but the more subtle detail lay in the fact that government officials created this situation precisely by deeming Japanese as un-American, foreign and dangerous. In other words, racehorses had certain rights over the Japanese.  

Unlike the horses that could be considered a source of national pride and prowess, the Japanese were foreign threats that, according to an official at Tanforan, “when given an inch of consideration, a Japanese will soon take a yard of authority" 4. These racial politics were profoundly tethered to land politics at a time when global powers waged violent war over territorial gains and international supremacy.

Even though all Japanese, citizen and non-citizen alike, were labeled foreign threats, they were more physically restrained to the land than ever before, literally forcibly restricted from leaving the camp premises. Their existence at Tanforan, while waiting for their next deployment, was a daily reproduction of nationalist anxiety over territoriality, the subsequent military duress, and the perpetual scapegoating and foreignization of the Japanese. 

When the war is over

And after we are gone

Who will visit

This lonely grave in the wild

Where my friend is buried?

Are there graves in Tanforan? If there are, they rest in the same ground (or on top) of the indigenous Ohlone people. What happens to a space where anguish was felt and lives lost? When the psychic energy of sorrow dissipates into the air, where does it go? Does the land itself change? Not physically, least, yet to a society driven by real estate, capital interests and profit, the preservation of the racetrack may have been the most redeeming aspect of Japanese internment.

After war ended in August 1945, while those released found their homes and businesses destroyed and rendered unrecognizable, the Tanforan Racetrack resumed its racing business, as patrons and enthusiast enjoyed its facilities for nearly two more decades, until a fire destroyed the grounds in 1964.

The Shops At Tanforan Mall

The Shops At Tanforan Mall

The construction of the Tanforan Mall took advantage of increasing highway construction and suburbanization; the highly profitable project of the Tanforan Shopping Center motivated it's quick development. 

Like all shopping malls, The Shops at Tanforan postures itself as the mantle of the town by serving as a purportedly utilitarian spaces where anyone can find something for themselves, and thus everyone can find communion. Here, consumerism acts as a stand-in for public participation and civic service.  

As with any culture, the culture of shopping malls would not exist if there were not participants to daily reproduce its ethos. For shoppers at Tanforan, their participation and production of mall culture is the successor to the carceral camp of the Japanese in the history of the land, whether or not they acknowledge it.  

Yet considering the utilitarian facade of the mall, its outwardly inviting consumerist modus operandi, consumer culture is the mall’s implicit answer to racism; no matter what color or creed we are, the mall tells us, we all have the right to shop.

The engulfing logic of American settler colonialism and racism leads to this whitewashed conclusion. A commemorative garden stands near the mall’s entrance, a memorial organizers bitterly fought for, but shoppers may walk in this garden and learn this brief history, only to go inside to shop.

White American territorialism stays intact, the Japanese devalued, and the Ohlone people erased. The obliteration of the ethnic and indigenous past is ultimately a lie, however. Memory of internment and the enduring survival of the indigenous exist as living contradictions to the project that sought to eliminate them. Despite murder, genocide, incarceration, and erasure, they are still here.