Japanese-American Solidarity Group Opens Seattle Chapter, Preps for February Action

By Carolyn Bick

He wasn’t alive during World War II, but Stanley Shikuma has witnessed firsthand the lasting effects of detention camps. During the war, both sides of his family were locked away in different Japanese internment camps; and though they were eventually reunited, the silent emotional scars the experience left never fully healed.

This is why Shikuma decided to join Tsuru for Solidarity as a steering committee member for the national group, after it convened in the spring of 2019 in Texas to show support for detained migrants and their children, and to protest against President Donald Trump’s contentious and much-litigated Muslim ban, which is still ongoing.

In this first action, the group, a grassroots coalition created to protest against current policies that echo those levelled against Japanese and Japanese-Americans, during WWII, hung more than 30,000 paper cranes –– tsuru –– on the fences of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, to serve as a physical symbol of their support. Shikuma was not part of this first action, but participated in November 2019 in the pilgrimage to Crystal City, Texas, to remember the Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated there during WWII, and to protest the current detention of migrants.

Since then, Tsuru for Solidarity chapters have sprung up around the United States, including in Seattle. Co-chaired by Shikuma, who is also President of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and Tom Ikeda, the founding Executive Director of Densho, the group officially convened in November 2019 to discuss plans for action on both a national and local level. During the two-hour meeting, the group started planning everything from media outreach and fundraising to education materials. They also planned “fold-ins.” Rather than sit-ins, they gather to create origami paper cranes who lend their symbolism and namesake to the group’s efforts. It’s a way to get everyone involved, he said, even kids.

Tsuru number 1
A Tsuru for Solidarity demonstration that took place at the Yubo County Courthouse in California Jan. 11. (Photo courtesy of Tsuru for Solidarity)

“We are hoping to take that around to aid organizations –– temples, churches, maybe some schools –– and explain what this is all about, and why we are folding cranes, and what they can be used for,” Shikuma said. “Hopefully, we’ll get people more involved.”

One of the first actions the group has planned is slated for Feb. 23 at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, in coordination with La Resistencia, Densho, and Seattle JACL.

“The date roughly coincides with Feb. 19, the day President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which essentially authorized the military to round us all up,” Shikuma said. “So, there’s a lot of programming in the community that centers around that date.”  Every year, this Day of Remembrance is important for Japanese Americans to remember, educate others and to stand in solidarity with current oppressed groups.

There is also a national Tsuru For Solidarity protest scheduled for early June in Washington, District of Columbia, in which participants will hang 125,000 paper cranes around the gates of the White House. The 125,000 cranes represent the number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans imprisoned during WWII. The group expects it to be the largest gathering of Nikkei, or Japanese-American immigrants and their descendants, since the war.

Even though he doesn’t have any memories of the Japanese internment camps, because he hadn’t yet been born, Shikuma said the trauma that remains still informs who he is today. He remembered a trip he took in the 1980s with his mother to Tule Lake, California, where she had been detained. When he asked her if she recognized anything, she gave him a funny look.

“‘Well, how would I know? I never saw anything outside the fence,’” Shikuma recalled her saying.

And though she wouldn’t say much else, it was apparent she still bore the stamp of trauma, all those decades later. When Shikuma asked her how long she had been there, she could remember her imprisonment down to the hour. Shikuma said his mother said she and the others arrived at the camp at lunchtime. All the shades were down, so they couldn’t see the camp, until they were across the road from the gate.

“‘Then we went in. I never got outside the fence until I left on a Greyhound bus at 10 p.m. at night. So, that’s why I never saw the camp from outside the fence. But, as I remember, it was one year, one month, and one day,’” Shikuma recalled his mother telling him. “So, this is 40 years later, and she could tell within a four-hour span exactly how long she had been inside the camp. But, if you asked her otherwise, she would say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’ or, ‘Those things happen.’”

Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle based reporter.

Featured image “Tsuru for Solidarity” by Eliot Phillips