by Amanda Ong
Memories of a Japanese American community before internment are strewn in bits and pieces across Seattle: the panels in Pike Place Market commemorating the original Japanese American farmers, fruit trees in South Park that had once been orchards planted by Japanese Americans, KOBO in CID at the former Higo 10 Cents Store of Japantown, or the bonsai at the Pacific Bonsai Museum donated from neighbors who took care of the trees for Japanese families who never returned.
Eighty years ago today on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the compulsory removal of Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. It was two months after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the racist, anti-Japanese hysteria that followed caused one of the worst affronts to human rights committed in the last century in the U.S. Seattle was home to the third-largest Japanese American community on the West Coast at the time.
The Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island were the first to be taken from their homes in the country. “Their constitutional rights were disregarded, their livelihoods were torn,” said Val Tollefson, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association, in an interview with the Emerald. “[Their removal is] more important as a larger American story because it is about human rights, about the disregard of human rights because of racial animus.”
The memorial association hosts an annual “work party” each Feb. 19 to clean up the memorial. This year, they’re also hosting an 80th Anniversary event on March 30. The event will include speakers, a memorial walk to the ferry along the same route the Japanese American community once took to leave their homes, and a reading of the names of each of the approximately 300 individuals who were forced off the island that day. The program will also be streamed on their Facebook page.
Tollefson got involved in the memorial through his friend and former college dorm-mate Dr. Frank Kitamoto. Kitamoto was from Bainbridge and was incarcerated after Executive Order 9066 when he was 2 years old. He later became a dentist and began a practice on the island. Kitamoto eventually put forth the idea of the memorial with a few other Japanese Americans from Bainbridge, hoping for society to learn from the experience.
Japanese Americans came to Seattle and Bainbridge in the 1880s, largely as laborers. On Bainbridge, many were strawberry farmers. In Seattle, many settled in the CID, the first iteration of which was near Yesler’s Mill on the waterfront. However, this Chinatown was soon driven out by white people in 1886. A new Chinatown was established in Pioneer Square until land values rose and they were again forced to leave. Around the turn of the century, what’s today known as Japantown settled along King Street.
Housing ordinances and redlining historically kept Asian Americans within the bounds of the neighborhood. Only citizens could own property at the time. And though U.S.-born Asian Americans could be citizens, immigrants could not naturalize as citizens until the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952.
The Remembrance Trail
With the forces that shaped Japantown in mind, the National Parks Service, the Japanese American Culture and Community Center of Washington, Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) Foundation, and the Wing Luke Museum created a Japanese American Remembrance Trail Map in 2017. Developed through oral histories and research on Nihonmachi (Japantown), the map plots sites from early settlement in the late 19th century through the World War II era to the present.
To honor the anniversary, the Wing Luke is hosting guided tours of the trail. They will also be hosting an event in support of the upcoming graphic novel by artist Kiku Hughes and writer Ken Mochizuki, Those Who Helped Us: Assisting Japanese Americans During the War.
Maya Hayashi, education specialist at the Wing Luke Museum, told the Emerald that walking the Remembrance Trail is a good way to mark this anniversary. “We think … the most real way to capture history is through people’s voices and people’s experiences and memories. So with that idea, how do we capture what Japantown is, was, and will be?” she said.
Hayashi is a fourth-generation (Yonsei) Japanese American, who had family members incarcerated during World War II. Her great-grandfather was incarcerated shortly after Pearl Harbor because of his ties to organizing. Hayashi’s grandfather was born in Los Angeles in 1925 and went to Compton High School.
The effect on her family is still present today. All of Hayashi’s uncles are named after U.S. presidents in an act of patriotism. Hayashi didn’t realize until years later after learning more about incarceration that one of her family’s weekly meals was a product of foods created out of the incarceration camp rations — hot dogs and teriyaki sauce over rice.
“Japanese American history is always contextualized within World War II, but that was one way that I realized the moment of incarceration still is pretty deep within the Japanese American community, even with me being a Yonsei,” Hayashi said.
The Japanese American Remembrance Trail does well to place buildings and spaces around CID today to tell stories similar to Hayashi’s. A vibrant, prewar Japantown arises from the tour. From Maneki, the oldest sushi bar in Seattle, which was once a beautiful pagoda serviced with tatami rooms and kimono-clad women, to barber shops, kaiseki restaurants, banks, hat stores, a women’s beautification salon, the former Main Street School, the former Cherryland Florist, and the N.P. Hotel which hosted famous Japanese performers and baseball teams. The trail paints a picture of what existed back in 1914, says Hayashi. “A bustling neighborhood that had a lot of grocery stores, restaurants … you could essentially live and breathe and stay in Japantown and have everything you wanted in the neighborhood.”
The trail also features sites that reflect the abrupt disruption of life in the neighborhood during the war. Nihonmachi Alley features art by Amy Nikaitani reflecting on Japantown Businesses. KOBO, the art gallery and shop in the former Higo 10 Cents Store, which was run by the same family for 75 years, houses some items from Higo and an exhibit about the family’s experience.
Hayashi urges that right now, we have the opportunity to learn from elders who lived through the atrocities of incarceration and the impact Japanese Americans have made on our city. The Remembrance Trail is one way to do that. “It’s so easy for us as Seattleites to just go through the city … without knowing the things that made them, that created them, and that shaped them,” Hayashi said. “It’s really easy to forget the people and forget the history of a neighborhood, or forget [their] contributions. I think the tour does a fantastic job in making sure those voices don’t get lost.”
The Legacy of Internment
Similar legacies can be found on Bainbridge Island. The Town and Country Market grocery store was started by a Japanese American family and is still owned by their descendants. A nursery on the island that was owned by a Japanese American family and fell into disrepair during the war was restarted by one of their sons, and is now a vibrant part of the community. The local newspaper, The Bainbridge Review, had at least one member of the incarcerated community of Bainbridge Japanese Americans act as a correspondent throughout the war, keeping the community up to date on life in the camps.
After World War II, many Japanese Americans did not return to Seattle as they had difficulty establishing themselves again or felt disillusioned. “For those who had plans [for the future], and then to know that everything, your citizenship, your status, your future, gets put on the line, just like that … there was kind of this betrayal of sorts,” Hayashi said. On Bainbridge, approximately 300 Japanese Americans lived on the island before the war, and 150 returned. By 2011, about 20 survivors still lived on the Island.
The motto of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is Nidoto Nai Yoni, or “Let It Not Happen Again.” When we remember incarceration, we also carry with us a responsibility to honor this. “In our country these days, we’re reminded again and again of how easy it is for groups of people because of their race, or because of their ethnicity, to be discriminated against,” Tollefson said. “This is a constant teaching tool.”
Hayashi agrees. “Memory and site-specific placemaking have such an important role in making sure that the lived histories of Japanese Americans before, during, and after WWII aren’t forgotten,” she said. “So that we can learn from history’s past mistakes in an effort not to make them again.”
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: A wall painted to read, “Never Again Is Now,” during the third annual “Hai! Japantown” summer festival in Seattle, Washington, on Aug. 17, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
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