Looking back, moving forward: 75th anniversary of Japanense American internment is cause to pause, reflect

It was more than a milestone; more than so many painful memories from 75 years ago.

The anniversary of the day that 227 Japanese Americans were forced from their homes on Bainbridge Island — March 30, 1942 — was also a solemn and sad reminder that history, however horrifying, can repeat itself.

For many of the people in the audience at the 75th commemoration of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American exclusion last week, it was a sad history lesson. There were a few in attendance, though, whose memories and experiences were still as vivid as that day in 1942.

Peppered throughout the audience were both World War II veterans and survivors of the internment, as well as other tangible reminders of the past — a suit, a watch, and the very ground that was walked upon by those forced from their homes.

Decades ago, on that same day, in the panicked wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Army trucks appeared at the homes of islanders of Japanese descent to transport them to the Eagledale ferry dock, where the ferry Kehloken waited to take them to Seattle, and from there to prison camps across the country.

Clarence Moriwaki, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, wore on his wrist the watch of Leonard Hayashida as he presided over the day’s historic events.

“[He] was the first Bainbridge Island baby born in Manzanar,” Moriwaki explained, noting the name of one of the internment camps where Japanese Americans were sent. “The son of Fumiko Hayashida, who is the woman you see in the very iconic photograph holding her daughter, Natalie, and she was pregnant with Leonard at that time.”

Moriwaki was given the watch after Hayashida’s death in 2006. And, throughout the ceremony, Moriwaki would glance down and, between speakers, read aloud the time and then explain what was happening at that exact moment 75 years ago.

“It’s 11:03,” he said. “At 11:03, 75 years ago at this moment, is when the ferry Kehloken arrived on the shores of Eagle Harbor to start the first part of a sad journey of 120,000 Japanese Americans taken to concentration camps.”

Clad as he was in the suit his own father, a detainee, wore on the day he was born, Moriwaki invoked the weight of these objects’ history in his words and presence.

Many of the featured speakers took a cautionary tone, addressing the similarities in national discussions about the balancing act between freedom and security, then and now. Nearly every person who stepped up to speak expounded upon the hard lessons learned during the Japanese American exclusion, and their hope that these same lessons will not need to be learned again.

Hard lessons learned

Tiffny Weighall, president of the Bainbridge Island-North Kitsap Interfaith Council, compared the internment to other instances of fear-based violations of personal liberty in American history, citing especially the persecution of Native Americans and Mormons, and said that what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor is far from the isolated misstep some want to portray it as today.

“It is with a heavy heart today that I look to these chapters in our American past, vowing with you to never let it happen again, but knowing that fear is so quickly institutionalized in our country,” she said.

“And while it won’t happen again to those of Mormon beliefs, or those of Japanese descent, we are again approaching the edge — an edge where leaders are allowed to categorize on our behalf and where fears are given room and written into law.”

We must teach the children of today, she said, values “that are not reactionary, but consistent, no matter the day’s headlines.”

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, also pointed out the similarities in the treatment of Japanese Americans in 1942 and Native Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both, Forsman said, were rationalized under the banner of federal policy.

“We understand the impacts of federal policy on our lives,” he said. “Since we signed a treaty in 1855, there have been a number of initiatives the federal government intended to assimilate us into the mainstream and we resisted those as much as we could. We’ve adapted and worked to try to restore our tribal government and our culture and our history.”

Yet another unjustly victimized demographic was represented by Rabbi Paul Moses Strasko, of Congregation Kol Shalom, who spoke with great humor and candor about the importance, and limits, of faith in matters of persecution.

“We want that voice from heaven to be the thing that protects us,” he said. “And I think that both the Jewish community and the Japanese American community have been believing in a similar story, of waiting for that voice from heaven for 75 years, that voice that says, ‘The reality and the horrors and humiliation of our past will prevent that, in and of itself, from anything similar ever happening in the future.’”

However, Strasko said, the uncomfortable reality is that the victimhood of the past conveys no “virtue in the present,” pointing specifically to increasing instances of anti-Semitism around the world, and the recent invocation by several American politicians of the Japanese internment as a positive reaction that could be repeated in modern times.

“We are all capable of excluding someone else,” Strasko said. “It’s really easy to make our lives about remembering the victimhood of the past and not think about how easy it is for me to make somebody else a victim.

“The moment I see someone as an object instead of a subject is the moment that I’ve perpetuated the same standards that excluded Jews, that excluded Japanese Americans, that excluded Mormons, that excluded any other minority group from full participation in our society.

“And, yes,” he added. “That’s the beginning. Exclusion is the beginning of annihilation.”

Fear is eternal

In addition to the military veterans and internment survivors, the event saw a roster of prestigious dignitaries in attendance.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee underscored the corrosive nature of fear in a democracy. The governor drew parallels between the rationale behind the Japanese exclusion and current political sentiment.

It was, he said, painfully apparent to anyone familiar with the occurrences on Bainbridge Island.

“We know that the power of fear is eternal,” Inslee said. “It just keeps coming back around. We were always, in every decade again, in a struggle between the power of fear and the hope of courage and compassion and community. It is the current struggle between those forces we are engaged in, in our nation today.”

While Inslee spoke of the fear that led to the imprisonment of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans, he also took the time to laud the courage of those who would defend the targets of such misplaced fear. He quickly noted Washington state’s recent court battle against President Trump’s executive order that banned visitors and immigrants from Muslim countries.

“You look at these fir trees and these cedar trees and the beautiful quiet and serenity of Bainbridge Island, but the one thing that’s become clear to me in the last few weeks — since we had to go to court to protect the Constitution — that is for all the physical beauty of Washington, the real beauty is invisible,” he said. “It is a sense of community and a welcoming attitude and a courage that is willing to stand up against fear in the state of Washington.”

Referencing Moriwaki’s suit, Inslee took the moment to highlight the significance of his own attire; a similar fashion statement.

“By the way, Clarence,” he said, “I like you wearing that suit, it looks good on you. I’m wearing the suit that I wore when I signed the executive order that is going to prevent discrimination against people based on immigration status.”

The moment earned a stirring round of applause along with hearty cheers.

The trip to the memorial was a bit of a homecoming for Inslee, though the next speaker came from much farther afield.

Kenichiro Sasae, the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S., said he was grateful for the chance to be involved in such a historic commemoration. He also garnered much applause, both for his heartfelt speech and good natured ribbing of Inslee, at whose urging he first visited the memorial on Bainbridge.

He praised the governor for his support of the island memorial, and the Japanese community, then joked, “To be honest, governor, I didn’t know you were working so hard.”

Sasae said he was very proud of the Japanese Americans who had endured so much and contributed so greatly to both America and Washington state.

“I realized after coming here why the governor suggested [for] me to come with him and share the moment with all of you,” he said. “I’m really thankful to you, governor, and also to the people here.”

Bainbridge Mayor Val Tolefson gave a short but very poignant speech describing the “baseless and racist” treatment of Japanese Americans in 1942.

While relating the events of the past to current political issues surrounding immigration, race and religion, Tolefson called out to the audience to remember the past and stand united against the prejudices of today.

“Today, race and religion-based anti-immigrant rhetoric from some politicians and others has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear throughout our country,” he said. “We who live here on Bainbridge Island are particularly called to speak to this issue. We have lived with the scars of the Japanese American exclusion for many years, and we haven’t forgotten and we insist that this history not repeat itself.”

Local roots

Mary Woodward, an author and former president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, talked about the obligation that all Americans have to live up to the memorial’s prime lesson, and be sure to let it not happen again.

“Because you’re here, whether or not you are from Bainbridge, you are an islander today, we are all islanders,” said Woodward, the daughter of Walt and Milly Woodward, the former editors of the Bainbridge Island Review who famously stood alone on the West Coast in opposition to the internment of Japanese Americans.

“As islanders, we own this story,” she said. “This is our story, it is so woven into the community.”

A charged silence came over the crowd as excitement built for the most anticipated speaker of the day.

Kay Sakai Nakao was 22 years old at the time of the exclusion. She grew up on Bainbridge and her hometown roots run deep — nearly a century deep.

“I was born in Seattle and raised on Bainbridge Island,” she said. “Except for the 3 1/2 years living in an American concentration camp, I’ve lived my whole life on Bainbridge Island.

“Good old Bainbridge Island. If a person can live 97 years on Bainbridge Island, it must be good.”

Recounting her experience in near-photographic detail, Nakao gave a vivid, personal and at times even humorous account of her family’s evacuation, which placed all who heard it next to her on that trip to Manzanar.

“I remember feeling sad as the island got smaller and smaller,” she said. “We didn’t know where we were going, how long we would be gone, or even if we ever would come back and it was a very sad feeling.

“When we got to Seattle, I remember looking up and seeing hundreds of people staring at us; watching all of us as we walked and boarded the train. My husband [later] said it was the most humiliating experience of his life, that he felt like a second-class citizen. He was right,” she said.

Farther from home, Nakao recalled, things did not improve for the displaced islanders.

“We rode for hours and as the air was getting hotter and drier, in the distance I saw some makeshift buildings with more under construction,” she said. “I could see the heat waves, it was just shimmering. I’m not used to seeing heat waves on Bainbridge Island.”

It was a moment of wonderment quickly extinguished by harsh reality.

“I nudged my seat-mate and I said, ‘Thank god I don’t live in a place like that,’” she said. “Well, suddenly the bus turned right in there, and my heart sank down to my toes.”

Detailing the living conditions inside the camp, Nakao said that after her arrival she was handed two empty bags and instructed to fill each of them with straw: “‘That is your mattress and pillow,’” the guards told her.

“The barracks were terrible; Army cots, one light bulb, one oil stove — a real small one — and that was it,” she said. “There was absolutely no privacy.”

Ironically, even among the internees, cultures clashed.

Nakao watched as other Japanese Americans were shuttled in from California. Noting the darker, tanned complexions of the new arrivals from Los Angeles, Nakao said, “They weren’t anemic-looking like us.

“A lot of the Bainbridge parents didn’t approve of the influence these young people from the city [were] having on our country bumpkins,” she laughed. “As the Bainbridge Review put it, ‘You shouldn’t mix Washington apples with California lemons,’”

Despite the differences between the Washingtonians and Californians, Nakao said both groups suffered equally in the camps and that the same suffering should never befall another group again.

“The war was hard on everyone and I don’t want what happened to us to happen to anybody else ever again, nidoto nai yoni — let it not happen again,” she said.

Looking back, ahead

The finale of the commemoration included a somber reading of the names of those who were forced from their homes.

Ken Matsudaira, son of Hisa Matsudaira, a prominent figure in the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, was one of the readers. He said that the support for, and interest in, the commemoration was very heartening and proved an awareness by many of the corollaries between the political atmosphere of that era and today.

“I think what would be awesome to see would be some more thinking around the internment,” he said. “It’s being seen, or it’s been portrayed, as something that happened just because of wartime hysteria, but it was really the culmination of decades worth of anti-Asian and anti-Japanese legislation. I mean, my grandparents were not allowed to become citizens [and] immigration was barred for Japan and China for decades prior [to Executive Order 9066].”

Explaining the incarceration away as an offshoot of war’s necessary evils, Matsudaira said, makes the Japanese internment “more dismissible.”

“If we don’t look at the historical context of the legislation, the xenophobia, the racism, that made the environment for 9066 possible, then we’re ignoring everything that’s happening today,” he said.

Speaking at the memorial was not a new experience for Matsudaira, who also read the names of those incarcerated at the original dedication ceremony.

“It’s awesome to see how the memorial has gained, it’s completed and it’s going to be expanding,” he said. “It’s good that it’s become part of the national dialogue again, and that the importance of what we’re doing here, as far as trying to make sure it never happens again, it’s good that it’s in play,” Matsudaira said.

“It was great to see so many folks from the island come out,” he added.

As Matsudaira read the names of those taken from their homes in 1942, one man in the audience stood out.

With his head lowered in solemn remembrance, Alwyn Chikamoto sat listening to the names, only raising his head momentarily to wipe his eyes.

Chikamoto, originally from Hawaii, said he was so impressed after hearing the stories about Bainbridge’s residents defending their neighbors during the internment, that he and some friends decided to buy the Best Western Hotel on Bainbridge.

“Why I really fell in love with Bainbridge was the fact that the heroes are Bainbridge Islanders,” he said. “The Japanese were just the victims, but the heroes are Woodward and all the folks that supported their neighbors and defended their neighbors.

“We think that Bainbridge Island is the true aloha state,” he added. “People are really welcoming, they’re honest, they defend their neighbors. When I came here I found that the true aloha spirit is on Bainbridge Island.”

After the excitement lulled, and the crowd dispersed, the historical significance of the day began to truly sink in for the commemoration’s prime organizer.

“It was a pretty magical day, I thought,” Moriwaki said later. “I’m glad all the folks came out and spoke with a lot of passion and hope.”

On the diversity of the speakers at the event, and the fact that current events are mirroring the conditions which led to past persecutions, Moriwaki said, “It’s a timeless and timely story.

“All [those] groups have had their moments of exclusion and extermination,” he said. “It’s a common theme, sadly, in our American history, we always kind of look to see who’s the latest on the bottom of the totem pole.”

Moriwaki said he’d also invited a representative from the Islamic Center of Kitsap County, who was unable to attend.

The commemoration holds additional historic weight behind being a mere milestone, Moriwaki said, as ceremonies like this will not be possible forever.

“It’s a race against time,” he said. “It’s not that far off where we’ll have these commemoration ceremonies and we’ll have no survivors, no witnesses, there.”

For now, though, the Bainbridge memorial, and the shared stories of those who lived through such tumultuous times, safely stand as reminders of the painful lessons of the past — and as a warning to those of the future.