Tanforan (detention facility)

Note: This is a legacy article that appeared in the Densho Encyclopedia from 2012 to 2020. You can find the current article for this detention facility at: https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Tanforan_(detention_facility)
US Gov Name Tanforan Assembly Center, California
Facility Type Temporary Assembly Center
Administrative Agency Wartime Civil Control Administration
Location San Bruno, California (37.6167 lat, -122.4000 lng)
Date Opened April 28, 1942
Date Closed October 13, 1942
Population Description Held people from the San Francisco Bay area of California.
General Description Located 12 miles south of San Francisco, California.
Peak Population 7,816 (1942-07-25)
Exit Destination Topaz
National Park Service Info
Other Info

The Tanforan Assembly Center was one of seventeen temporary detention camps established by the U.S. Army to hold Japanese Americans forcibly removed from the West Coast until more permanent concentration camps could be constructed. Tanforan was built on the site of the Tanforan horse racing track, and some of the inmates lived in the former horse stalls. Accommodating 7,816 Japanese Americans, it was the second most populous of the " assembly centers ." A shopping center sits on the site today; a small historical marker commemorates its World War II history. [1]

Site Background

Tanforan was a racetrack from September 4, 1899, to July 31, 1964. Tanforan Racetrack has a varied history, encompassing many of the greatest names in racing including thoroughbreds Seabiscuit and Citation and numerous notable owners and trainers. In addition to horse racing, Tanforan also had dog, motorcycle, and automobile racing tracks, but returned to horse racing when legalized betting returned to California in 1932. During World War I, Tanforan was used as a temporary military training center. The Tanforan Racetrack was named after Toribio Tanfaran, the grandson-in-law of Jose Antonio Sanchez, the grantee of Rancho Buri Buri . The Rancho was built in 1889. (There remains a question on the original spelling of Toribio Tanfaran.)

Tanforan Assembly Center

The Tanforan Assembly Center was located at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, in 1942 and was the second largest assembly center out of the seventeen established by the U.S. Army. Tanforan is located south of San Francisco, near the San Francisco International Airport. The Tanforan Assembly Center had about 180 barracks with about half of them built in the racetrack in-field. Out of the 180, twenty-six were converted horse stalls. Originally it was constructed to hold 8,033 inmates, and it held 7,816 persons of Japanese ancestry from April 28 to October 13, 1942.

The horse stalls were located to the east and the railroad station and its tracks were north of the racetrack. Eucalyptus tress surrounded the race track with a barbed wire fence helped to block the view of the barracks. Along the west side of the racetrack, facing east, the bandstand was built at Sneath Lane and El Camino Real in 1923 along the El Camino Real that was also lined with eucalyptus trees. The trees also flanked the main entrance on El Camino Real in front of the wooden fence and the barbed wire fence that blocked off the view of the track.

Prior to Pearl Harbor, a portion of the property was used by the U.S. Navy as a special advance personnel depot for the Western Division Naval Facilities Engineering Command. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. Army took control and began preparing the 118-acre Tanforan Racetrack as an assembly center for persons of Japanese ancestry and other persons to be evicted from the Military Areas 1 and 2 established by Western Defense Command.

On April 1, 1942, San Francisco received its first Civilian Exclusion Order with departure set for April 7. The majority of the inmates came by Greyhound Bus from Japanese American communities around the San Francisco Bay Area. The bus windows were covered with brown paper. Some Japanese American inmates drove their own cars to Tanforan, which were subsequently confiscated by the U.S. Army and later sold by the Federal Reserve Board for whatever price they could get.

Medicine and medical equipment was in short supply and newborn babies spent their first days of life living in cardboard boxes. The latrines were built quickly and were in short demand, only 24 for the entire camp of over 7,000. Besides the inadequate number of working latrines there was very little privacy, which was particularly embarrassing to the Issei women who tried to cover themselves and their daughters with towels and sheets.

During these first days rain fell throughout the last week of April and a heavy rainfall fell on April 30th soaking entering inmates' baggage as the new residents were searched for contraband. During the check-in process, men were also checked for venereal disease. After the completion of the admission process, the inmates were taken to their temporary living quarters which were usually filthy barracks or horse stalls. The inmates were attacked by horse flies and fleas that lived in the stables and by the years of accumulated dried manure and horse urine smells. Single men were sent to the grandstands that had been converted into additional housing for them. Later the Totalizer , the Tanforan newsletter would be located in the Grandstand area, in room 4. [2]

Twenty days after Tanforan opened, artists began cleaning up Mess Hall #14, which soon became the Tanforan Art School. The San Francisco Bay Area had a number of gifted Japanese American artists ( Mine Okubo , Chiura Obata , and George and Hisako Hibi , among others) and other creative people that made the art classes popular. Obata became the head master since he had been an art professor at the University of California prior to incarceration. The Tanforan Art Center officially opened on Monday, May 25th [3] with Chiura Obata as its director with sixteen instructors and 300 students. By the time Tanforan officially closed more than ninety-five classes had been offered before persons started to leave for Topaz camp in Utah. At Topaz, the Tanforan Art School would merge with the Topaz Education Program.

Tanforan also offered adult education classes in the English language. These classes became "Americanization" classes starting on June 18, 1942, with Issei and Kibei enrolling. The enrollment number was 360 students with two-thirds being women, most of them married.

Tanforan was surrounded with a barbed wire fence with armed military police on guard. The inmates were warned to stay away from the fence. They could receive visitors in the grandstand for two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. The guests could not enter the grounds or mess halls, and all outsiders had to have a pass and have their parcels inspected. Over 1,000 visitors came between May 14-24 to visit with their former neighbors and friends. Among the visitors was "Roy" a Doberman Pinscher dog, who visited the Mifune family of B9. Roy had been their dog in Berkeley and a friend who was caring for the dog brought him for a visit. [4]

San Mateo High School students had been permitted to take their books and other necessary equipment to the Tanforan when they were removed, and the students mailed in their homework back to their instructors. Principal W. T. VanVoris visiting the camp on May 30th with six faculty members to give a special final examination to students wishing to graduate or get credits. In June, San Mateo and Burlingame High Schools awarded graduating Nisei students their high school diplomas. Eight high school seniors graduated in an exercise which W.T. VanVoris, principal of San Mateo High School termed the "most unique" he had ever seen. [5] Also a part of this graduation celebration were two graduating Nisei seniors from Burlingame High School. There were about fifty spectators who witnessed this special event and a San Mateo PTA committee headed by Mrs. H. Kaplan gave white gardenias to the women graduates and red carnations to the men. [6] Mothers of the graduates and seventeen other San Mateo students who received credits for their courses, were also given flowers. Later, Principal A. Argo and seven faculty members of Sequoia High School came on June 13th and presented diplomas and awards to nine Nisei students.

Sports programs included basketball, baseball, softball, boxing, tennis, football, tennis, horse shoes, sumō , table tennis, and badminton. There was also a six-hole golf course in the lawn in center of the track. Mah jong and board games were also offered. Sumo wrestling and Japanese board games like go were approved by the administration since they preferred the Kibei and Issei men play them rather than gamble. Talent shows and dances were another form of entertainment that were popular but that created social problems with Issei mothers complaining about their daughters staying out too late.

Tanforan Assembly Center closed on October 13, 1942. While held there, Tanforan residents were able to grow victory gardens and plant flower gardens [7] , and like any community they had social problems such as burglaries, larcenies, gambling, a case of a girl being molested, and an escape and attempted suicide of a Eureasian boy. In the end, "most of the cases [had] been [re]solved," according to Tanforan's chief of police.

Most who were incarcerated at Tanforan were later sent to "Central Utah Relocation Center" (better known as " Topaz ") in Utah. The trip from Tanforan to Topaz would take two nights and one day by train. The first group (214 former Tanforan residents) arrived at Topaz on September 11, 1942 with the general transfer starting Sept. 15th. Groups of 500 persons left by nearby railroad trains. A few others went to Gila River and some went to Poston , both located in Arizona.

Present Day Status

By 1950 much of the military construction west of Tanforan was removed although thirteen original acres is still used by the U.S. Marines Reserves. The racetrack burned down on July 31, 1964. In the late 1960s it became the Shops at Tanforan Mall. At the southwest entrance of the mall there is a large statue of the famous racing horse Seabiscuit and two other historical markers that includes a brief description of Tanforan Assembly Center. In 2007, a Garden of Remembrance was planted in honor of the Tanforan inmates.

Authored by Lewis Kawahara

For More Information

Burton, Jeffery F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites . Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999, 2000. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. The Tanforan section of 2000 version accessible online at http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anthropology74/ce16m.htm .

Finney, Ernest J. Words of My Roaring . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Hamamoto, Darrell Y., ed. Blossoms in the Desert: Topaz High School Class of 1945 . San Francisco: Topaz High School Class of 1945, 2003.

Kikuchi, Charles. The Kikuchi Diary: Chronicle from an American Concentration Camp . Edited with introduction by John Modell. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Illini Books ed., 1993.

National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and Visual Communications. Speak Out For Justice: The Los Angeles Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians . Video. National Coalition for Redress/Reparations and Visual Communications, 1988.

Okubo, Mine. Citizen 13660 . 1946. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.

Second Running. " Historic Tanforan ."

Taylor, Sandra C. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Uchida, Yoshiko, and Joanna Yardley. The Bracelet . New York: Philomel Books, 1993.

Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps . New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976. Updated ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Yamada, Gayle K., and Diane Fukami. Building a Community: The Story of Japanese Americans in San Mateo County . Edited by Diane Yen-Mei Wong. San Mateo, Calif.: AACP, Inc., 2003.


  1. The author would like to thank the San Mateo County Historical Society and its librarian Carol Peterson (visited on June 5, 2011) and the San Francisco Public Library's San Francisco History Center (visited on March 28, 2012).
  2. Tanforan Totalizer , May 30, 1942, 4.
  3. Tanforan Totalizer , May 30, 1942, 2.
  4. Tanforan Totalizer , July 11, 1942, 5.
  5. Tanforan Totalizer , June 20, 1942, 4.
  6. The San Mateo High School students: May Kato, Yoneo Kawakita, George Komaru, Mary Marubayashi, Toshiko Miyachi, and Yasuko Nosaka. The Burlingame High School Students: Hatsuye and Kiyoshi Aoyagi.
  7. Tanforan Totalizer , May 15, 1942, 2.

Last updated June 22, 2020, 6:38 p.m..