Passage of the bill that will eventually establish Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American internment memorial as a National Park Service historic site received a unanimous vote in February in the House of Representatives: 419 to 0. How times have changed, and it took only 66 years. In February 1942, the House unanimously approved — by a voice vote — an executive order that incarcerated more than 120,000 West Coast Issei and Nisei because Japan and America were at war.
What does all of this mean to Clarence Moriwaki, a Sansei who is chairman of the memorial committee? Mostly it provides a sense of relief because he now knows the $6 million project will become a reality, assuming that federal funds will be appropriated for the site at Pritchard Park in Eagledale. But the irony of the vote is not lost on him: “Sixty-six years ago Congress went just the other way around. Nobody dared stand up against it. But it’s a great story because it shows that Americans can learn.”
And perhaps most importantly, it provides government recognition that the memory of these Americans, including 227 Bainbridge Islanders who were the first to be moved from their homes, is worth preserving. Yes, there have been reparations and apologies from several presidents, but a memorial provides a living history and the hope that others can understand the significance of previous events.
The memorial will include a 276-foot-long wall of stone and wood, serpentined along the path traveled by the Bainbridge Islanders as they walked to the Eagle Ferry Dock to begin their journey. Since their story is a linear one, the wall will be broken when it reaches a location symbolic of World War II, and then reconstructed as the war ends and internees return to their beloved island.
Why build the memorial here? It’s appropriate since Bainbridge Island’s Japanese Americans were the first to suffer loss, but the symbolism goes deeper than that. The incarcerations and the aftermath are an American story that is uniquely Bainbridge because of the mending that eventually occurred here.
While the government’s action in 1942 may be understandable — even now — because it was a time of war, many people felt the action was wrong because it was inflicted upon fellow Americans. Few, however, had the courage to voice their convictions. Again, perhaps justifiably so. But some courageous souls spoke up, including the owners of the island’s newspaper. It was an unpopular stance, but it was extremely important for those who had been placed in concentration camps.
So when the war ended, many returned to the island despite having lost everything. After all, it was home and they quietly rebuilt their lives in an atmosphere of understanding and acceptance. It wasn’t easy. Many of their neighbors were families who had also suffered deeply during the war, including some who lost loved ones fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific. But they persevered and grew together as islanders. And the healing continues.
Last Saturday, about 100 people braved cold rain and hail to participate in the second annual Earth Day “weed out” at the eventual site of the memorial. Young and old, mostly white with a few Japanese Americans sprinkled in, they pulled ivy clinging to trees and dug alder sprouts out of the ground. Others did the same last March; many will return to work the soil again next year. And, perhaps some day in 2011, a Nisei born in the Manzanar camp, where most island internees lived during the war, will cut a ribbon to symbolize the opening of the memorial.