A group of Ontario business people is trying to win financing for a Japanese-American Cultural Center as a memorial to those held in internment camps during World War II.
The proposed $9 million center on the campus of Treasure Valley Community College would include a 1,200-seat auditorium, a conference facility and a museum. The museum would feature the Smithsonian exhibit titled "A More Perfect Union - Japanese-Americans and the U.S. Constitution.""We need to educate Americans about this injustice so it won't and must not happen again to any American - Japanese, black, Indian, Korean, Chinese or whoever," said George Iseri, a local businessman who was held in one of the internment camps.
"We are Americans. Everyone should have equal rights," he said. "If we don't educate, it could very well happen again."
During the war, Idaho and eastern Oregon were in the "free zone," where Japanese-Americans could live without fear of internment. There was a camp in Idaho, but it housed some of the approximately 100,000 people picked up in restricted zones of other states along the West Coast.
As a result of the area's status, Ontario's Japanese population swelled to 5,000. Many of those of Japanese ancestry moved away after the war, but the surrounding area of 70,000 people still includes about 2,000 Japanese-Americans. Supporters contend that makes it an appropriate location for the proposed cultural center.
However, some of the town's residents oppose the idea.
"I'd be twice as happy if they just dropped it," said Agart Oft, a World War II veteran. "What's done is done. The Japanese didn't see what we had to go through.
"I was overseas for three years and seven months; I never had a furlough, and when I came back there was nothing left of my farm."
Dellin Erickson, a spokesman for a handful of World War II veterans and a veteran himself, said the project stirs unwanted war memories and threatens to divide the community.
"We're not anti-Japanese in any way," he said. "We just don't think it's a good idea. It will revive all the hatred that existed during and after World War II, because of what Japan did. It should be forgotten.
"War hurts a lot of people; it wasn't just the Japanese that got hurt."
But Ontario businessman John Kirby, who has teamed with newspaper publisher Francis McLean to push the project, said, "I think that, with a few exceptions, the community is basically behind it."
Oft and Erickson are among a handful of townspeople, most unwilling to be quoted, who believe the venture is being pushed primarily to pump money into town wallets rather than to pump history into minds.
"That's not our primary objective," Kirby said. "We don't want to use them. They've been used enough already. We want to show the historical perspective, and we want to do it here. But I would be lying if I didn't say it would have some effect on the economy."
Still, most veterans and Japanese-Americans have stayed largely on the sidelines.
Both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled Veterans of America have remained neutral. The response has been much the same in the Japanese-American community.
Randy Harano, president of the Snake River chapter of the Japanese-American Citizens League, said, "It's kind of the way the Japanese are. They've gone through the experience. The people I've talked to are receptive. I've only heard a few negative comments. But we don't want to create animosity in the white community."
But the biggest problem facing supporters may be finding financial support.
Originally, supporters had hoped to use money from the education section of the "Redress bill." The bill, now having its differences worked out in a House-Senate conference committee, provides an apology and financial reimbursement to Japanese-Americans who were relocated.
However, funding under the bill would not become available until 1990 or 1991 and supporters want to get a center in place by Feb. 19, 1992 - the 50th anniversary of the signing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066, permitting internment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. Army.