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48-Star American Flag Signing Project

When Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Roberta Hayashi was appointed to the bench in 2014, she joined the Court’s Community Outreach Committee and helped to highlight Fred Korematsu Day events and education in our community. Judge Hayashi’s outreach efforts lead me (at that time a Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney) to be more involved in Korematsu Day events/education, including an introduction with Civil Rights attorney Dale Minami, and was one of the inspirations for this flag signing project.

Korematsu Day events at the Santa Clara County (SCC) Family Justice Center on Jan. 30, 2017. From left to right: Richard Konda (Executive Director of Asian Law Alliance in San Jose); then SCC Deputy District Attorney Johnny Gogo; SCC Superior Court Judge Roberta Hayashi; SCC Deputy District Attorney Jarisse Moore

Wanting to honor other surviving Japanese Americans of the WWII incarceration camps for their sacrifice and to honor their legacy and memory, I obtained a WWI era, 48 star, American flag with the intent of having survivors sign the flag and donate it to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose.

San Jose Congressman Mike Honda’s signature on the flag

Because I have lived in San Jose for 20 years, I knew that Mike Honda, a San Jose Congressman from 2001-2017, lived in San Jose and that he and his family lived in the interment/prison camp at Camp Amache, Colorado.

Additionally, I had come to know Congressman Honda through his community outreach events in San Jose and the Bay Area. I was eventually able to contact him and it was an honor to have Congressman Honda be the first to sign the flag on Sunday, March 21, 2021.

Having worked at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for 20 years, I had eaten many bento box lunches and dinners in San Jose’s Japantown. I had also ordered coffee from Roy’s Coffee Station in Japantown many times over the years and had a hunch that Roy Murotsone (Gila River) was still visiting the coffee station.

Roy and Esther Murotsune signing the flag at Roy’s Coffee Station in San Jose’s Japantown on March 31, 2021.

I reached out to the family and on March 31, 2021, long-time San Jose residents Roy, age 95, and his wife Esther (née Kurasaki, Heart Mountain), age 92, graciously signed the flag at their family owned business “Roy’s Coffee Station” in San Jose’s Japantown.

I would later learn from Roy and Esther’s daughter Carole, that most of the people from Santa Clara valley, including Esther and her family, were interned at Heart Mountain. Carole said her father’s family tried to avoid internment by moving eastward with other Japanese American families and when they couldn’t find work as sharecroppers, they checked themselves into Gila.

I also knew that Secretary Norman Mineta (Heart Mountain) was also from San Jose so I focused my efforts to reach out to him to see if he would be willing to sign the flag. After a few weeks of trying, I was eventually connected with Secretary Mineta and I made arrangements to fly out to Washington, D.C. I had only planned to visit for an hour, not wanting to overstay my welcome, but we ended up having great conversation about Secretary Mineta’s history that we ended talking for about three hours.

I was honored to have him sign the flag on April 27, 2021. I had also brought a small gift to Secretary Mineta from one of the San Jose restaurants and as I was leaving his residence, he gave me one of his old Secretary of Transportation business cards and one of his challenge coins.

(Left) Secretary Mineta signing the flag at his home in Maryland on April 27, 2021. (Right) Secretary Mineta’s old business card along with challenge coin he gave me positioned next to the star that he signed. (Note that Secretary Mineta also wrote “Non Alien” b/c this is the classification he was given at Heart Mountain. Secretary Mineta said, “I’m not a Non-Alien, I’m a U.S. Citizen.”

In early April, I had also reached out to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Holly Fujie about the flag signing project. She helped me connect with some of the judicial officers in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Evan Kitahara (standing on right) with his wife Stephanie (standing on left) and mother Helene Yabuta Kitahara (seated) at the flag signing event at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle, Los Angeles, on May 2. 

My most important judicial colleague connection in Los Angeles with my friend Evan Kitahara who is a Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner. Evan told me that both of his parents (his mother Helene Yabuta Kitahara was at Poston) were in the prison camps and were both still alive.

Additionally, Evan relayed that his family were long-time residents of the Japanese American community in the Sawtelle area and that Evan would help coordinate a signing event at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle. Evan and I planned for Sunday, May 2 as the first group signing event and we had a nice turnout of folks come to sign the flag at the Japanese Institute.

Approximately 30 folks came out to sign including Bacon Sakatani, aka Mr. Heart Mountain, and Georg Iseri (Heart Mountain) which was neat for me because both Bacon and George were mentioned in the new book, The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story Of Football, Incarceration, And Resistance In World War II America, written by author Bradford Pearson.

Thus, in addition to signing the flag, I had Bacon and George (one of the Eagles football players) also sign my copy of The Eagles of Heart Mountain. All who came out appreciated the opportunity to sign the flag.

Bacon Sakatani (left) and George Iseri (left) holding the flag at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle on May 2.

Carole Rast, née Murotsune, from Roy’s Coffee Station in San Jose had also contacted me and offered to have a flag signing at the coffee station over Mother’s Day weekend on Saturday May 8 and Sunday May 9. Carole had shared the dates with the community and it was a huge success. Approximately 70 folks came to sign the flag over those two days and many were moved to see old friends and family come together. Carole wrote a very moving post about the event and how it impacted folks which she shared on her Facebook page.

Facebook post of Carole Rast, the daughter of Roy and Esther Murotsune, over Mother’s Day weekend (May 8-9, 2021)

Based on all of the stories that folks have shared with me over the last several weeks, I now realize that while I may have initially obtained the flag for this project, the flag no longer belongs to me. It now belongs to each of the folks who have signed the flag and I’m now the caretaker of the flag until it is donated to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose.

Flag signing event at Nisei Veterans Hall in downtown Seattle on May 21; from left to right: George and Irene Mano, Jean Fujii Deguchi and Jim Takano.

I traveled to Seattle this past weekend (May 21 and May 22) and with the great help of Stanley Shikuma, President of the Seattle Chapter JACL, we had another great turnout of folks to sign the flag. Approximately 30 survivors came to sign the flag at the Nisei Veterans Hall in downtown Seattle. And I quickly learned that most of the folks from that area were interned at Minidoka.

I am also grateful to Dale Watanabe who connected me with his uncle, WWII Veteran Kimitomo Muromoto, who served with Company I of the 442nd Infantry, initially interned at Tule Lake before eventually being drafted into the U.S. Army. We had a good visit with Kimitomo who signed the flag and shared a photo from July 1945 depicting all of the members of Company I in Florence, Italy.

Dale also introduced me to another WWII Veteran, Shigeto “Shig” Otani, who served with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and was interned at Heart Mountain before also being drafted into the U.S. Army. It was great meeting and talking with Shig as he signed the flag and shared a story about helping liberate the Jewish prisoners at Dachau.

(Left) Kimitomo Muromoto’s signature on flag (Kim Muromoto 442) next to the July 1945 photo of Company I of the 442nd in Florence, Italy (Right) Photo of Shig Otani signing the flag on May 22 in Renton, WA

* * * * *

I will be in Los Angeles on Saturday May 29 at Sequoia Park located at 750 Ridgecrest Street in the City of Monterey Park, CA 91754) from 9 a.m. to noon for folks to sign the flag. I will also travel to Sacramento on June 5 at California Museum and June 6 at Nisei VFW Post 8986 for survivors to sign and to join the “Go For Broke” postal stamp ceremony.

The flag will be donated to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose on Fred Korematsu Day on January 30, 2022.


For survivors interested in signing the flag, please contact Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Johnny Cepeda Gogo at: JGogo@scscourt.org

 

© 2021 Johnny Cepeda Gogo

camps flag signing project Korematsu day survivors