by Frank Abe
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first “Day of Remembrance.” Twenty years ago here in Seattle we invented a new Japanese American tradition by organizing a car caravan to the Puyallup Fairgrounds to publicly dramatize the campaign for redress. “Days of Remembrance” are now observed wherever Japanese Americans live, and on February 19th we will gather in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and again at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to remember the camps and our stand for redress. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the year President Reagan signed redress into law.
But before the first “Day of Remembrance,” before redress, the camps were shrouded in myth. Texts didn’t teach them. Our parents spoke of them only in hushed tones or changed the subject when asked. Our leaders called the camps our sacrifice to the war effort.
Edison Uno in San Francisco and then Shosuke Sasaki and Henry Miyatake in Seattle said look, the camps were wrong and it is not unreasonable for us to seek a government apology and some kind of reparation. Resolutions were passed, but not acted upon except by the late Sen. S.I. Hayakawa. He came to the 1978 JACL convention and told the local paper afterwards that the incarceration was perfectly understandable and done for our own safety, and that redress would only rekindle resentments. People were outraged and looked for some way to express it.
Writer Frank Chin came to my door and said, “If we lose redress, you can kiss Japanese American art good-bye.” I believed him. Without some legal and political consensus that the camps were wrong, our history would be no more than opinion and hearsay on talk radio. We’d have to re-argue the simple facts in every novel or play: no documented case of espionage or sabotage, two-thirds of those interned were American citizens, and so on.
Shosuke, Henry and other Seattle Nikkei asked us to help organize an event that had some dignity and purpose. We nailed signs to telephone poles that resembled the old “Instructions To All Persons of Japanese Ancestry” posters. The signs invited people to assemble on Thanksgiving weekend in a vacant lot next to the old Seattle Pilots baseball park, put on replicas of the WCCA family name tags, board National Guard buses for a car caravan out to our hometown concentration camp at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, and stand for redress with their families.
We were stunned when nearly 2,000 people turned out. The line of cars stretched for miles down the highway. Inside the cars parents spoke to their kids about the camps, some of them for the first time.
It was designed as a visual piece of public education for the news media, and something about the staging struck a nerve. We got sympathetic coverage. The story got picked up nationwide by the Associated Press and the Nikkei vernaculars.
And what the Nikkei had feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. That first “Day of Remembrance” was an emotional breakthrough for our community. It made it OK for the Nikkei to say what was in their hearts.
Anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa calls it “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history,” and classifies the ritual event as an “invented tradition” in which practices and symbols that have continuity with the past are reclaimed and reinterpreted to make sense in the present. It was the spark that launched the popular campaign for redress.
Now it’s 1998, a generation later. Some of us were kids then. Now we have kids of our own. Redress has been won. The facts are secure. We’re putting our minds to work digging deeper into the story. In Washington, D.C. we’re about to have our first national event, to bring the integrity of our history back to the place where the law of the land was first broken. In Los Angeles we will honor Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of the landmark1976 book Years of Infamy and the mother of redress who inspired so many with documents she found in the National Archives and quietly mailed to us.
This summer will see the completion of programs funded by redress, by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. Those programs have the potential of taking this ongoing campaign to the next level. We have the ability and the creativity in our community to keep inventing new traditions. Dale Shimasaki wants to see a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the camps.
I recently heard again from Frank Chin. He suggests a Bell of Remembrance designed by Japanese Americans and cast with earth from each of the ten camps in its metal. On the chosen day it’s struck 120,313 times, one strike for every Nikkei internee.
Myself, I imagine families with suitcases and family number tags assembling in each major city. Armed guards herd them onto trains. The trains stop at the ruins of each camp they pass along the way to Washington D.C. Once they arrive, the families move into makeshift barracks built along the reflecting pool and live in them for a week. Like the original Day of Remembrance, it would be another way to reclaim our past and make it our own.