Japanese American Exclusion

When the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial was little more than a clearing in a forest on Puget Sound, among its first visitors was a cacophonous murder of crows. On March 30, 2002, about 750 people came to mark the 60th anniversary of the first forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor. By shining a light on this dark piece of American history, the memorial was meant to discourage racially fueled hysteria.

Bainbridge Islanders of Japanese descent were taken primarily to the Minidoka camp in Idaho, now a National Park Service unit that includes the Bainbridge memorial. That day in 2002, their names would be read aloud as part of the dedication of a small granite marker.

The crows arrived swiftly and noisily when Clarence Moriwaki, one of the memorial’s organizers, spoke the first names. The cawing was so uproarious that some people no longer could hear Moriwaki, despite the sound system. Moriwaki worried about the moment of silence scheduled to follow.

But as soon as he uttered the last name, the crows, which the region’s Native peoples consider the spirits of their ancestors, flew off. A hush reclaimed the forest. “It was as if a switch went off,” Moriwaki recalled.

Moriwaki recounted this tale on a chilly evening last December as we waited for a vigil to begin at the memorial. I am Japanese American but have no direct connection with the prison camps; my mother was in Japan during the war. Yet I still feel strongly attached to that history, such a central part of my racial heritage, and have visited the memorial several times.

The place holds a jarring grace, its beauty and serenity seeming incongruous with the history of hatred it records. The centerpiece is a 276-foot story wall, one foot for each Japanese American exiled from Bainbridge Island. It is made of old-growth red cedar, and bordered by wetlands and cherry trees. The names of the exiled are affixed to the wall. It doesn’t scream the intended message: “Nidoto Nai Yoni” — let it not happen again. Not the way a bit of razor wire might.

I confessed my misgivings to Moriwaki, who reacted with unexpected delight. There already was too much ugliness and pain associated with the forced removals, he said. The organizers sought a site for healing, honor and hope as well as history. The Japanese “less-is-more” aesthetic was a testimony to the exiled, who had been burdened by shame. They approached this part of their past according to the Buddhist notion of “Gaman” — enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. This place offered a release.

Below us in the candlelit night, people assembled at the base of the wall to protest recent anti-Muslim rhetoric from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It struck a chord on Bainbridge Island: More Japanese Americans returned there after World War II than to any other place in the U.S. On Bainbridge, they were embraced by neighbors, who looked after their property and possessions, fought against the mass incarceration, and in some cases even made mortgage payments for the imprisoned. The memorial is as much a monument to those relationships as it is a warning against racial hatred. As Moriwaki put it, they “demonstrated the best of what America can be.”

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IF YOU GO
Minidoka National Historic Site
Jerome, Idaho
Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial
Bainbridge Island, Washington
208-933-4100

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NOTE: This piece appeared in a package of recollected atrocities in the West in High Country News.