Each year when returning home to Bainbridge Island, a 30-minute ferry ride from Seattle, I skip the Space Needle and revisit the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial—the precise place where, on March 30, 1942, the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans began. (The island’s south end overlooks a security-sensitive narrow passage into a massive naval shipyard.) The memorial site has poignancy for me because my father was present that day, saying tearful goodbyes to his neighbors, whose property he insured and protected during their absence. And it has extra poignancy in 2017—the internment’s 75th anniversary, and a time when similar fears are feeding targeted travel bans and increasing hate crimes.
At the heart of the Memorial, a 276-foot-long wall represents the 276 interned islanders—most of whom were given six days’ notice to appear at the dock with one suitcase.
Wood sculptures depict various individuals and families and highlight their stories—such as of the six soon-to-depart high school baseball players being thrust by their coach into the starting lineup of a game . . . only to lose 15 to 2. But no matter, the message was heard: These were valued teammates.
The same spirit of inclusion was recounted by Nobuko Sakai Omoto, as she sat on her camp bunk and cried, knowing that “Back home at graduation they had thirteen empty chairs on the stage.”
The islanders’ mostly supportive attitudes were rooted, first, in knowing their neighbors, but were also reinforced by local newspaper owners Walt and Millie Woodward. They editorialized: “Where, in the face of their fine record since December 7 [Pearl Harbor Day], in the face of their rights of citizenship, in the face of their own relatives being drafted and enlisting in our Army, in the face of American decency, is there any excuse for this high-handed, much-too-short evacuation order?” Throughout the war, the Woodwards, alone among West Coast newspaper editors, voiced sustained opposition to the internment, and published news stories of internees from the camps.
After enduring some vitriol, the Woodwards were later honored for their journalistic courage and immortalized in the 1990s book and movie, Snow Falling on Cedars. At the memorial’s March 30, 2004 groundbreaking, former internee and Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community president Frank Kitamoto declared that “this memorial is also for Walt and Millie Woodward, for Ken Myers, for Genevieve Williams . . .and the many others who supported us.”
At this Spring’s March 30, 2017 commemoration of that fateful day, the theme, once again, was the memorial’s “timeless and timely message . . . Nidoto Nai Yoni—Let It Not Happen Again.”