On November 25, 1978, a gathering of more than 2,000 people commemorates the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans at the first Day of Remembrance program, held at the Western Washington Fair grounds in Puyallup. Organized by the Evacuation Redress Committee, the Day of Remembrance remembered the following. On February 19, 1942, three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the military to remove anyone from the Western Defense Command area whose removal the military deemed necessary or desirable. This spurred the removal of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast, including nearly 13,000 persons from Washington state. In the 1980s, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians would determine that the Nikkei incarceration resulted from long-standing prejudices against Japanese immigrants and their families, not any evidence that they posed a risk to the United States.
Recreating and Remembering
The Japanese Americans, most of them American-born, were removed to assembly centers with only one or two weeks advance notice. This forced them to sell their homes and businesses for far less than their value if they were unable to find non-Japanese Americans to safeguard their property in their absence. Most were sent first to assembly centers. Many from Puget Sound area communities, including Seattle and rural areas around Tacoma, were sent to "Camp Harmony," -- a temporary camp located at the Puyallup fairgrounds. In mid-August, 1942, after about 10 weeks at Camp Harmony, a transfer began to the Minidoka Relocation Center, in Idaho, one of 10 permanent incarceration sites. These camps had inadequate facilities and eight were located in desert climates. Camp inmates suffered the double humiliation of substandard conditions and the shame of being incarcerated.
At the time there were no rallies by Nikkei or other Americans to protest the evacuation. Speaking about it years later, one camp inmate, Aki Kurose (1925-1998), said that, "it was not the time to protest" because it was wartime and protesting to protect civil rights would not become common in the United States until the 1960s (Aki Kurose Interview).
Several individuals challenged the constitutionality of the evacuation order and a curfew order that preceded it. Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), Minoru Yasui (1916-1986), Fred Korematsu (1919-2005), and Mitsuye Endo (1920-2006) all took their cases to court challenging various aspects of the anti-Nikkei actions of the government. Endo's case was decided in her favor in 1944, near the end of the war, but Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu would wait decades for vindication.
After Long Silence
For nearly three decades Nikkei rarely spoke about the wartime incarceration. Many felt a great deal of anger and shame about the incarceration and did not even discuss it with their children.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s changed the national attitude toward civil rights abuses. A number of Sansei, second generation Nikkei, joined the civil rights movement. Community leaders who advocated for redress began to emerge locally and nationally.
In 1970 a group of Seattle-area Nikkei developed an exhibit in conjunction with the Museum of History & Industry titled Pride and Shame. The exhibit included artifacts and photos that told the story of Japanese immigration, Nikkei's role in Washington history, and the wartime incarceration. It was the first time the community addressed the matter publicly.
Also during the 1970s, a group of members of the Japanese American Citizens League formed the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee (SERC). They sought financial redress from the federal government for the homes and businesses lost due to incarceration. Not everyone in the Nikkei community supported the redress idea. Some feared that it would provoke an anti-Japanese backlash. Others didn't want to stir up the hurtful memories.
In 1978 SERC, led by Henry Miyatake (b. 1929), Chuck Kato (b. 1932), Ken Nakano (b. 1931), Mike Nakata, Minoru Masuda (1915-1980), and Shosuke Sasaki (1912-2002), wanted to draw attention to the issue and bring the Nikkei community together in support of redress. Frank Chin (b. 1940), writer, playwright, and cofounder of the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, who was in Seattle working on a series of articles for the Seattle Weekly, joined their efforts.
For All of the Community
Chin brought in Frank Abe (b. 1951), Kathy Wong (b. 1952), and others associated with the Asian American Theater Workshop. They and SERC members set about organizing a Day of Remembrance program. A meeting was planned for January 1979 with Nikkei congressional delegates about introducing redress legislation, so they decided to hold the event in November, rather than February 19, 1979, which would have been the 37th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066.
SERC wanted all elements of the Nikkei community to participate in the program so they asked a wide range of organizations to join the effort as sponsors. Thirty churches, veterans' groups, and social organizations co-sponsored the event, as did the national Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
Gaining the support of a large number of community organizations served to send a message to Nikkei who harbored decades-old resentments over the JACL's cooperation with the expulsion and incarceration during World War II. SERC hoped to overcome these divisions and bring the community together to pursue redress from the federal government.
The event was sited at the Puyallup fairgrounds, which had served as the assembly center named Camp Harmony in 1942. Nikkei from around the Puget Sound area, Seattle and Tacoma in particular, were assembled there before being moved to more permanent camps further inland.
At first the Western Washington Fair board did not approve of holding the program on its grounds. After some discussion and presentations by SERC members, the board voted unanimously to allow the event and to waive use fees.
The National Guard agreed to provide several large trucks like those used in 1942 to lead a caravan from Sicks' Stadium (then located at the corner of Rainier Avenue S and S McClellan Street) to Puyallup. Participants also came from the South Sound area, meeting the caravan at the fairgrounds.
Frank Chin conceived of the caravan to Puyallup. Chin's sense of drama, as a playwright, led him to suggest first that Nikkei assemble in Pioneer Square with their bags packed for the journey to the fairgrounds and, once inside the grounds, refuse to leave. According to Frank Abe, "He [Chin] said if they try to kick us out we'll chain ourselves to the fairgrounds fences and get arrested. And Henry Miyatake and Shosuke Sasaki said, 'Oh God, Frank, you're nuts! No one's gonna go. It's Thanksgiving [weekend]! People want to be with their families" (Frank Abe email). The SERC organizers were not radical activists; they were engineers, a statistician, and others not prone to dramatics.
The other organizers convinced Chin that a family-oriented event would be more effective. They decided to have a potluck, organized by Aki Kurose and Emi Somekawa (b. 1918), to signal to participants that the day would be a family event. This would ease concerns about the tone of event and encourage people to participate. On the event poster, however, they made sure to include the word "redress" to link the event to the legislative campaign for redress. According to Abe, "Without that, it would have been just a commemoration" ("Remembering Redress").
Saying What Was In Their Hearts
The day-long program began at Sicks' Stadium in Seattle. From there a caravan, led by National Guard trucks like those used in the original removal, formed and wound its way south on Interstate 5 to Puyallup. At the fairgrounds, exhibits of internment camp artifacts and photos, dance performances, and speeches addressed the often unspoken (prior to the 1970s) history of the wartime era for Japanese Americans. The event is organized by the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee as part of their effort to bring the Japanese American community together to address the consequences of the wartime incarceration, including pursuing financial reparations from the federal government.
The day's program also included odori (traditional Japanese dance) performances and exhibits of artifacts and photos from the assembly and relocation centers.
SERC scheduled speakers for the program who would share their camp experiences. They did not talk about the redress issue specifically, instead allowing people to have a day to consider what had happened and how it had affected their lives.
The speakers included Nikkei from around the country. Pat Morita (1932-2005), an actor, poked fun at the hardships they had endured. Lawson Inada (b. 1938), a poet, read a poem titled, "Something Grand." Monica Sone (b. 1919), an author, read a passage from her book, Nisei Daughter, and Shosuke Sasaki read from his diary about the day he left for Camp Harmony. Other speakers included Washington State Supreme Court Justice James Dolliver, University of Washington psychiatry professor Dr. Minoru Masuda, University of Washington law professor Charles Z. Smith, and Seattle mayor Charles Royer.
The organizers had no idea how many people would participate. According to Henry Miyatake, the sign-in sheets for 2,200 people filled before they left Sicks' Stadium. The caravan stretched nearly four miles on the freeway. Other participants also came to the fairgrounds separate from the caravan.
The most immediate effect of the first Day of Remembrance was that people began talking more openly about their wartime experiences. Many who had been incarcerated talked about their experiences with their children and grandchildren for the first time that day. Frank Abe recalled the event two decades later and commented, "That first 'Day of Remembrance' was an emotional break-through for our community. It made it ok for the Nikkei to say what was in their hearts" (Abe).
The Puyallup Day of Remembrance led to other cities hosting their own events. In 1979, other West Coast cities, such as Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles planned programs. Abe, Chin, and Wong went to Portland to help organize its event, held at the Portland Expo Center, which had been used as an assembly center. In Los Angeles, the gas crisis of 1979 led to a cancellation of a planned event because no one wanted to drive in a caravan with gas so expensive and scarce.
Yasuko Takezawa calls the first Puyallup Day of Remembrance, "the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history" (Takezawa, 196). Annual Day of Remembrance events continue today in Nikkei communities across the nation, usually on or around February 19th.
The anti-Japanese backlash that some feared never materialized. Local television news programs covered the event favorably, as did the area's major newspapers. No protesters picketed the event.
The Campaign for Redress
The Day of Remembrance also drew the community together in support of seeking financial redress from the federal government. The process was long, but ultimately successful. Following the findings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. This bill authorized a $20,000 payment to each Japanese American incarcerated in the camps and a presidential apology. It also established an education fund that supported efforts to educate Americans about the wartime incarceration to help ensure it would not happen again.
In 1983 a memorial sculpture by George Tsutakawa and a historical marker were placed at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. The bronze sculpture depicts human forms with hands intertwined and is intended to depict peace amongst all people. Tsutakawa described his design process in an interview that year:
"I made many, many sketches, and some of them were very definitely reminiscent of the hardship. But I felt that by repeatedly reminding people of the injustice and the hardship, and the loss to the Japanese people, it was not going to improve anything; you'll just remind them of the bad feeling, hard feelings. And instead of doing that I decided it should be a more friendly gesture of all the people gathered and in harmony" (George Tsutakawa interview).
The first Day of Remembrance in 1978 was a major step forward in addressing the effects of wartime incarceration for Nikkei. It also marked a step forward toward another of the event organizers' goals, as expressed by Henry Miyatake: "Our primary aim is to keep it from being repeated" (Lewis).