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U.S. Rep. Kilmer hears from camp survivors during first visit to Japanese American Memorial
Kazuko “Kay” Nakao was 22 when she, her five siblings and parents were transported off Bainbridge Island to one of the first Japanese American internment camps during World War II.
The daughter of Sonoji Sakai, she is one of the few Bainbridge residents today that has a vivid memory of that time.
“I don’t know why we thought we’d be gone six months,” she told Congressman Derek Kilmer Monday.
Nakao was in fact gone 3½ years.
She was engaged in Manzanar, had to obtain a two-day permit to get married at Twin Falls in Washington and just before returning home had her first child while in camp.
It was pieces of this story that she shared with Kilmer during his visit with survivors this week at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.
Kilmer, a 6th District Democrat, recently brought new legislation through the House Natural Resources Committee to officially recognize the new name in federal law.
The wall was previously titled the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial.
Clarence Moriwaki, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association, thanked Kilmer for sponsoring the bill in Congress to restore the name that was originally intended.
The word “exclusion” was vital, supporters of the change have said, because it underscores that 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes and put in American concentration camps during World War II.
“Words matter,” Moriwaki said.
“We’re all so honored to have Derek here for your first official visit to our site. Thank you for being our champion,” he said.
During Kilmer’s visit to Bainbridge Monday, he walked next to survivors as they pointed to their names on the wall.
Some said that returning to Bainbridge after being in the camp was how coming home should be: easy and full of community acceptance.
Others talked about leaving their homes and losing their land over the course of the interment.
“There are certainly dark parts of our nation’s history, but what’s important is that our nation learns, and that we move forward in a more inclusive way and accept all of our neighbors,” Kilmer said.
“This is a dark part of our history, where people were mistreated,” he added. “And I think it’s very important that we acknowledge that, we recognize that, and we learn from that,” he said.
Nakao remembers all of it.
She recalls the loneliness that filled her when the ferry departed Bainbridge and how the windows on the train to Manzanar had black curtains that she was not allowed to open.
When Nakao returned to Bainbridge with her husband, they were forced to sell his 60-acre strawberry farm, the equipment that went with it, his fully furnished and newly-built home to his work manager.
Despite working for him while in the camp, the manager claimed Nakao’s husband owed him for various expenses — debts the Nakao’s could not legally disprove.
Instead of fighting a battle they knew they would lose, they gave the property to the manager in exchange and ended up on a small piece of land where downtown Winslow is today.
“As I used to tell my mother, ‘I’m never going to marry a farmer,’ and I did marry a farmer,” Nakao said as she recalled the mixed emotions she felt at the loss.
“So when he sold this property, in a way, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be working in the strawberry farm, 60 acres.”
Nakao had grown up on her father’s strawberry farm which was about 15 acres and a lot of work, she said.
Moving onto 60 acres of farmland would have been backbreaking.
After giving up the land, they moved onto a 1½-acre spread with a flower garden.
Nakao still lives there.
Shortly after returning from camp, her father also sold his property — for much different reasons.
He was approached by the school district to sell his farm so they could build Commodore Options School and Ordway Elementary School.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we worked so hard to clear that property, you know, with dynamite, a horse and no bulldozer,” Nakao recalled.
She thought he’d say no.
“But he said, ‘If I were to educate six children in Japan it would cost an arm and a leg, and in America they are getting a free education.’”
With gratitude he sold the property to the school district for the same amount he paid for his horse, a cheap price even at the time.
The district would later honor his family by naming Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School after him.
The Sakais are just one example of the role many of Bainbridge’s interned citizens played in founding the community before and after World War II.
“There’s an old saying that what makes us great is not that we’ve never fallen, but that each time we fall, we get back up,” Kilmer said.
The Bainbridge memorial is an important example of that, he said, because it serves as a reminder of the past injustices the country must never forget.