Utah museum calls for oral histories, trying to share Utah’s Japanese American history

Oct 1, 2023, 8:46 PM | Updated: Oct 25, 2023, 2:37 am

BRIGHAM CITY — One family is partnering with their local museum to help tell a story we know very little about, and they need your help.

Juno Uyematsu’s brother in California contacted the Brigham City Museum, soliciting their help creating an exhibit. The Uyematsu was one of many Japanese families who made Box Elder County home following World War I”.

“There was a lot of animosity against the Japanese at that time,” Juno said.

Juno Uyematsu speaking about his past experiences to KSL TV,

But Juno never experienced that. Seventy years ago, Juno wrestled for Box Elder High School, where he made connections he still keeps today. He was a three-time State champ and went on to coach.

“It’s in my blood,” Juno said.

A newspaper article on Juno about his time on the wrestling team.

Before his time in Box Elder, Juno grew up in the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming, that incarcerated Japanese Americans. He was young, but Juno remembers playing with other kids”.

“I remember going out looking for lizards and snakes,” Juno said.

A photo of the Uyematsu family in an internment camp.

Others, like Margee-kito Okimura, only have the stories from their parent.

“My mother, to the day she dieddon’t think she ever got over it,” Okimura said.

Margee-kito Okimura speaking about her past experiences.

She was born in a stable stall at the Santa Anita Racecourse, where Japanese American families were sent in 1942 to be processed for internment camps. Okimura said her parents were given canvas bags and told to fill them with hay. 

This was their bedding, so if they wanted a smaller one for their head for a pillow, that’s what they use,” Okimura said.

Her parents were newly married and Okimura said they had to leave all of their wedding gifts and given one suitcase to live out of when assigned an internment camp.

For the first five or so years of her parent’s married life, they lived in three separate camps. First, the racecourse, and then they were assigned to the camps in Jerome, Arkansas. At the end of World War II, they were reassigned to Tule Lake in California, before they moved to Box Elder County.

“We struggled to put nice clothes on our backs,” Okimura said. “I remember my aunts used to trade dresses. They only had a few, so to avoid wearing the same thing every single day, they switched.”

A family photo of Margee-kito Okimura with her family during WWII.

Okimura’s parents both worked in the laundry, while Uyematsu’s family worked in agriculture.

“I remember going out and thinning sugar beets,” Juno said.

These are the stories Uyematsu’s brother hopes to preserve – it’s why he reached out to the Brigham City Museum about creating an exhibit.

He made a bucket list, and the top of his list was to get the story of his family and the family coming to Brigham City,” said Alana Blumenthal, director of the Brigham City Museums.

The Brigham City Museum-Gallery in Brigham City, Utah.

Blumenthal is collecting histories, photographs, and artifacts in hopes of having a permanent exhibit ready by 2025

“One of the things we’re actually hoping to get as part of this is some traditional farming equipment or stories about farming techniques,” Blumenthal said.

A photo of a “Box Elder Japanese American Reunion Recipe book,” dated Oct. 23, 1999.

Uyematsu and Okimura donated family documents and oral histories for the exhibit.

“It’s good that people know what we had to struggle through,” said Uyematsu.

If you’re not sure if what your family has can be contributed, Blumenthal encourages you to reach out and ask.

A sign for Japanese-Americans in San Francisco during WWII.

“Anything,” said Blumenthal, “will help uncover Japanese history in the county.”

The Brigham City Art and History Museum can be reached by email at museum@bcutah.org or by phone call at 435-226-1439.

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Utah museum calls for oral histories, trying to share Utah’s Japanese American history