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Memorial wall immortalizes Bainbridge Japanese American population's struggles

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, island resident and Japanese immigrant Tad Sakuma went to visit friends in Seattle. On board the ferry, he heard murmurs of an attack on the United States, but he went about the rest of his day and visited his friends, unaware of what was to come.

Three months later, after Japan’s attack on the U.S. base in Pearl Harbor, Sakuma, and more than 200 other Bainbridge residents of Japanese descent, were unceremoniously transported to the Eagledale ferry dock and eventually confined in relocation camps scattered about several western states.

Tuesday marked the 68th anniversary of the day the first islanders were interned. To commemorate the hardships endured by Bainbridge’s Japanese-American population, a memorial wall, 10 years in the making, was dedicated to the survivors and those who didn’t make it back.

The 276-foot wall represents one foot for each of the Bainbridge residents who were interned.

“This is kind of a vindication that they were true American citizens,” said Gary Sakuma, Tad Sakuma’s son.

Tad Sakuma came to Washington at the age of 11, when his parents emigrated from Japan. After graduating from high school, he moved to Bainbridge to look for work. He found a job working for a family on the island. He drove them around, watched the children and did everything he was asked.

“I was kind of a housekeeper, too,” he said.

More than 60 years have passed since Tad Sakuma, 97, was among the 227 Bainbridge residents who on March 30 became the first Japanese descendants, most of whom were American citizens by birth, forced from their homes because of their proximity to U.S. naval bases.

They had six days to pack up their lives and begin anew, stripped of their rights as Americans. Overall, more than 120,000 Japanese were taken to these camps under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

Sakuma was initially relocated to Manazanar, a camp in California, and then spent the rest of his interment in Minidoka Relocation Camp in Hunt, Idaho.

Tad Sakuma married a woman he knew from Bainbridge in a camp, and their son, Gary, was born at Minidoka.

Tuesday’s dedication was emotional for both Tad Sakuma and Gary Sakuma, who doesn’t remember much about the camps other than the fact they were cold.

Tad Sakuma didn’t initially like the idea of the memorial, but over time he warmed to the concept.

“It is a part of history, but it’s not something too pleasant,” he said. “I wasn’t enthused about having it built. ...But I suppose it is good to have something where everyone knows what happened; not just on Bainbridge Island, but the whole West Coast.”

The wall, which is only a portion of a larger scale memorial still under construction, is part of a national memorial established in Idaho. The Minidoka National Historic Site was put on the list of national historic places in 1979. In May 2008, Bainbridge’s memorial was designated as a satellite unit to the Minidoka memorial.

With the wall completed Tuesday, citizens and relatives of those interned explored the grounds of the site. In time, the names of all 276 people removed from the island will be placed on the wall. For now, people adorned the winding wooden wall with cranes representing honor and peace for those taken.

“It’s a very emotional thing to be here where my mother and family were escorted off the island,” said Olivia Stroufe, a resident of Seattle who was born on Bainbridge. Her mother survived internment.

The dedication is only the beginning of the plans for the memorial. Two major phases are left to be completed. The next step is construction of a 150-foot pier above the water, which will represent the 150 residents who returned to Bainbridge from the camps. The final phase is a 4,000-square-foot interpretive and learning center.

Construction of the pier and center are still some time out, depending on funding, said Frank Kitamoto, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community executive board. The remaining stages of the project will cost an estimated $6 million to complete. Thus far, the nonprofit group, and others working on the memorial, have raised more than $3 million from grants, city contributions and individual donations. Throughout the duration of the project, the city has approved $163,000 for the project, Kitamoto said.

Gary Sakuma hopes the completed memorial will educate people about the injustices of the past. Perhaps, with a greater understanding of history, people will choose not to repeat it, he said.

The memorial is called Nidoto Nai Yoni, a Japanese phrase that is found printed throughout the grounds. It sums up the hope that this period of American history doesn’t recur.

Nidoto Nai Yoni means, “Let it never happen again.”

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