Masaru “Mas” Hashimoto, who died in June at age 86, made it his mission to spread the word about what he and thousands of Japanese Americans endured when they were incarcerated in camps during World War II, and fought for inclusion as he taught history at Watsonville High.
As the year draws to a close, Lookout Santa Cruz looks back at prominent people Santa Cruz County lost during the year in “Remembrance 2022.” Our series begins with longtime Watsonville teacher and civil rights activist Mas Hashimoto.
In April 2002, more than 1,000 people gathered in Watsonville for an unprecedented historical reenactment of a shameful episode in American history.
The occasion was the 60th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which resulted in more that 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry taken from their homes and herded into remote incarceration camps for several years during World War II, without due process of law. Several hundred of those Americans were from Santa Cruz County.
In Watsonville on that spring day, replicas of the original government order were posted on downtown telephone poles. Participants in 1940s-vintage dresses and suits — each wearing a numbered, government-issued tag and each carrying a single suitcase — boarded a period Greyhound bus. They were then transported to the Mello Center, which was designed to look like a prison camp with cyclone fencing and large images of guard towers.
The purpose of the reenactment — an elaborate theatrical production called “Liberty Lost: Lessons in Loyalty” — was to make more immediate the sense of violation and injustice felt by the American citizens forcibly removed from their homes and uprooted from their lives on the outrageous presumption that a strawberry picker in the Pajaro Valley had any culpability for the attack on Pearl Harbor or a war more than 2,000 miles across the ocean.
Though many worked to stage the reenactment, it came about through the vision and drive of one man, a longtime Watsonville High School teacher named Masaru “Mas” Hashimoto, who experienced first-hand the federal action against Japanese Americans during World War II.
In the countless talks and presentations that he gave on that chapter in history, Hashimoto was never coy with his audience. “I was a prisoner of war,” he would often begin his talks, “held by my own country. I was 6 years old.”
The Hashimoto doctrine: Keep vigilant against racism and stand up for civil rights for Asian Americans
The Hashimoto doctrine: Keep vigilant against racism and stand up for civil rights for Asian Americans
Through the thriving Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Watsonville’s Mas and...
Hashimoto — who died on June 20, 2022, at the age of 86 — was nisei, an American-born child of Japanese immigrants. He was born in the Hashimoto family home on Union Street in Watsonville. He grew up the seventh and youngest son of a farmworking family and lost his father while Hashimoto was still only a toddler. After Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066, his widowed mother, Nami Hashimoto, was removed, with her sons, to an incarceration camp in Poston, Arizona, more than 500 miles from the Pajaro Valley. Two of the Hashimoto sons served in the U.S. Army’s military intelligence during the war, even while their family was held captive in Poston.
The Hashimoto family spent about three years in Poston, where the temperature regularly reached triple digits, a particular hardship from detainees from the cool Monterey Bay. Six-year-old Masaru was forced to leave behind his beloved dog, Sunny, and, during the first months in captivity, the Hashimotos received letters from a Watsonville friend taking care of Sunny that informed them that the dog was not eating well and that she was afraid the dog might die under her care. Somehow, the Hashimotos arranged for the dog to be sent to Poston via Greyhound bus, and it became the only pet in a camp of 18,000 people.
The family returned to Watsonville — along with Sunny — in August 1945. The home they left behind was weedy, but intact. Nami Hashimoto worked in the Poston camp kitchen for $16 a month in order to earn enough to pay the property taxes to keep the house.
Mas Hashimoto graduated from Watsonville High in 1953, and after earning his degree from San Jose State, he returned to Watsonville High, where he taught American history for 36 years to more than 7,000 students, which includes many of the most prominent citizens to ever come from Watsonville. As one of the few people of color on the faculty, he also advocated for inclusion in arenas such as girls’ sports, and he worked to help disabled students participate in sports programs.
As a teacher and activist, Hashimoto took it on as his life’s mission to educate as many people as he could about the Japanese American experiences in the camps. But he consistently used that story in the context of a larger argument about the struggle for civil rights for all Americans, including ethnic or religious minorities, women, LGBTQ community members and others.
“Even when he retired, he was still a teacher,” said his wife of 51 years, Marcia Hashimoto. After his retirement from Watsonville High in 1996, he traveled widely throughout the Monterey Bay region, speaking to schools, colleges and civic groups on his experiences in Poston, and the legacy of racism in America. Throughout his life, his orientation to the story remained consistent — as a deeply loyal American pushing forcefully against racism and discrimination to bring his country closer to its stated ideals of equality for all.
“He had every reason to hate the American flag,” said Cabrillo College historian Sandy Lydon, a close friend for many years. “But he loved it. He believed in it. It was in his heart.”
Lydon compares Hashimoto to American civil rights icon and former congressman John Lewis, whose formative experience in the violent Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965 led to a lifetime of advocating for “good trouble.” (In 2021, UC Santa Cruz officially named College Ten after Lewis. As a historian and writer, Lydon is a central figure in the renaming process of Cabrillo College.)
“He was water working on stone,” said Lydon of Hashimoto. “I loved John Lewis. I learned about him early, and you talk about power. Wow. Well, in his own quiet, understated way, Mas moved mountains. He would go anywhere any time to talk to anybody, and he was carrying around an oxygen bottle for a while there. But he kept doing it.”
A life path that took her from Iowa to West Africa to the halls of Congress to the civil rights-era Deep South to UC...
A reenactment of the wartime roundup of Japanese American citizens had never been attempted before Hashimoto and the Watsonville-Santa Cruz chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League did it. And no one has done it since.
The reenactment was 18 months in the planning stages and involved engagement with a variety of local and state government agencies. Lydon said it was only Hashimoto’s determination and his deep connections in Watsonville that brought it about.
It was during the planning of the reenactment that the 9/11 attacks took place, followed by a wave of xenophobic sentiment against Muslims in America that resembled the hysteria directed against the Japanese during World War II. Certainly, 9/11 gave a chilling new relevance to the reenactment, but it also gave pause to many of those who had supported the idea initially, apprehensive that, given the politically charged atmosphere after 9/11, it would fuel divisive, maybe even violent confrontations.
In the face of all that, Hashimoto pushed on. (He was widely known for his email salutation “Onward!” which, in one word, captured his tireless activism.) Mas and Marcia Hashimoto provided the leadership and the logistical support. Lydon, as the event’s emcee, provided the historical context. UCSC theater producer Don Williams was brought in to “direct” the production, which included more than 150 volunteers. The budget for the event reached $35,000.
The event took place at noon on April 27, 2002. The “actors” in vintage dress walked down Beach Street carrying their meager luggage toward the Veterans Memorial Building. They were forced onto the bus, barked at by military personnel. Many families were forced to sell their homes. Children had to leave behind their beloved pets. Observers and participants at the reenactment report that some in the audience, which included many survivors of the ordeal, were weeping.
“Mas was absolutely the driving force [behind the reenactment],” said Amy Newell, who took Hashimoto’s history class at Watsonville High in 1965 and, years later, became a close friend of Mas and Marcia. Newell also participated as a behind-the-scenes volunteer in the reenactment. “There was a huge turnout from the community. The area all around the high school and the vets hall was just jammed with people who came to experience it. And it was very powerful. I mean, it’s one thing to read about it. But it’s something else to see people showing up, only allowed the one suitcase, and then getting on the bus as it drives away. It was really amazing.”
Historians, writers, teachers and activists often struggle with the challenge of telling the story of American history with honesty and integrity without falling into a spiral of guilt and blame. Hashimoto addressed that central challenge as well, but did so by pointing fingers in a different direction. Instead of the emotionally satisfying but often counterproductive method of excoriating government officials or condemning racists, Hashimoto regularly found those outside the Japanese American community who stood with the victims of the forced removal, voicing their outrage at the time, lending their support by looking after the homes of those in the camps. He would often single out individuals who supported the detainees at the time, such as Watsonville’s city attorney, John McCarthy, the city’s police chief, Matt Graves, and others who often had their homes vandalized because of that vocal support.
The ordeal of Japanese Americans during World War II was buried for decades after the conflict. The episode was not included in history textbooks, and generations of Americans — of Asian descent and otherwise — grew up ignorant of the story. It wasn’t until the publication of “Farewell to Manzanar,” written by Santa Cruz’s James D. Houston and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, that the story began to emerge in the mainstream. Schools and universities began to tell the story in fuller detail. Celebrities who were in the internment camps as children, such as “Star Trek’’ icon George Takei, began to talk about their experiences. For Mas Hashimoto, it was all moving in the right direction. But he was never ready to stop telling the story.
“We were both telling the story in our classrooms, out in the community,” said Sandy Lydon. “And every once in a while, I’d say to Mas, ‘Can we move on? Do you think everybody knows it now?’ And he would say, ‘No, we’re going to have to tell this thing until we drop.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”