Japanese-American Exclusion Commemoration is a Reminder of What can Happen on our Idyllic Island

Japanese Memorial Commemoration Memorial 2022“Let it Not Happen Again.” That was the resounding theme uttered by speaker after speaker today (March 30th) at a solemn ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the forceful removal of 276 Japanese-Americans from Bainbridge Island on this same date in 1942.

Gov. Inslee at Commemoration CeremonyThe event was held at the Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial, now a National Park located at 4195 Eagle Harbor Dr. NE, and drew a throng of more than 250 onlookers, plus internment camp survivors, television cameras and media from afar, as well as a host of dignitaries, including Gov. Jay Inslee, his wife, Trudi, and Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

“Today is about (the) survivors and seeking empathy and a willingness to heal,” said Clarence Moriwaki, a Bainbridge Island City Council member and the former president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Community (www.bijac.org). He praised the forethought of Japanese-American elders like Don Nakata, Junko Harui and Dr. Frank Kitamoto – now all deceased – who kept the flames alive to create a memorial and to insure that people not forget what happened on this same ground eight decades ago.

Moriwaki then read a proclamation from the City Council decrying the Japanese-American exclusion, and reiterating the plea of ‘let it not happen again.’ “We have lived with the scars of the Japanese-American exclusion for many years,” he said, “and we have not forgotten, and insist this history not repeat itself.”

However, Gov. Inslee, himself a Bainbridge Island resident, noted that even today the lessons of yesteryear are yet to be learned or understood, citing the on-going “violence against Asian people (in the United States and elsewhere around the world)…and the assault (by Russia) on the Ukrainian people…The power of fear is with us, even after the memorial was established.”

Inslee noted the efforts made by members of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Community to get funding for the memorial. At a hearing in the House of Representatives in Congress more than two decades ago, “you could hear a pin drop,” when Fumiko Hayashida made an impassioned plea, he recalled.

The Governor also praised the work of Walt and Millie Woodward, who back in the early 1940s were the young publishers of the Bainbridge Review. The newspaper was the only one in the country to editorialize against Japanese-American exclusion laws. Their story is part of island author David Guterson’s award-winning novel “Snow Falling on Cedars,” a No. 1 best seller that was made into a movie.

Later in the program, a group of Woodward Middle School students – Daniel Camacho, Dolly Courtway, Averie DeGuzman, and Leo Matcho – honored Walt and Millie’s reporting and talked about “what allies do,” bringing it front and center in today’s world by noting that, “speaking up against bullies is the legacy the Woodward’s left behind.”

Frances Kitamoto Ikegami at Commemoration CeremonyBefore the students stood up, diminutive camp survivor Frances Kitamoto Ikegami spoke about how she and her family’s time in Minidoka and Manzanar,  and the help they received from non-interned Bainbridge Islanders.

She was only five-year-old when she was sent to the internment camp, so she doesn’t remember much about that fateful day 80 years ago, but she does recall when her father was allowed to return to the island to check on the family farm, which was being taken care of by a loyal family friend.

“My father was worried about how he would be treated…(but) people on the ferry welcomed him,” she said. “We were so lucky.” Kitamoto said her Dad later opened a jewelry store in Seattle, and was “one of the first commuters,” while her Mom was the true “farmer” in the family.

Back in the early 1940s, Kitamoto said Bainbridge was a much different place than it is today, with a population of just 3,000 people. “It was a community of all sorts of different immigrants and nationalities” – farmers, fishermen, and businessmen, she said. “It was already integrated … (and) was (a) very special (place).”

Japanese Commemoration Ceremony 2022Like Gov. Inslee, Kitamoto heaped praise on the Woodward’s for their efforts to keep the internees’ stories alive. She remembered that Walt recruited Paul Tsutomu Ohtaki, then 17, to be a “reporter” at one of the camps. Ohtaki would send letters to Woodward detailing slices of life of interned Bainbridge Islanders, noting things as simple as someone hurting their leg to bigger news, such as marriages or young men joining the U.S. Army.

Ohtaki kept track of all the news stories and tidbits the Woodward’s wrote about during the three year internment period and assembled them into a scrapbook-like tome called “It Was the Right Thing to Do.” Kitamoto also recognized the work of the Woodward’s’ daughter, Mary, who wrote the highly-acclaimed book, “In Defense of Our Neighbors.”

Next up was Val Tollefson, a former Bainbridge Island Mayor and City Council member and the current president of the Memorial Association. He was involved in preserving the land that was set aside to build the memorial site, next to Pritchard Park, and spoke briefly of the work that has been done over the past 20 years to create the remembrance, such as the kiosk, walkways, the story wall, the gates and parking lot. Up next is the creation and installation of art work to be placed on the “departure deck” – that led to a ferry back in the day – and in the future, when enough money is raised, a Visitor Center.

Tollefson said his organization and the local Japanese-American communities are working with groups around the country to “preserve” other internment sites – some of which are being pressured by development.

Finally, along the story wall, Ken Matsudaira, Director of Community & Cultural Programs at the BI Museum of Art, read aloud all of the 276 names of the Bainbridge Islanders of Japanese-American decent who were interned in 1942. People were invited to place Origami wreaths by the names as they were being read, and walk with him.



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