“Later on, they took my dad around five o’clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s praying because he didn’t do anything wrong.’ But they took him anyway.”
–– Nobuko Sakai Omoto
Seventy-six years ago, people of a certain ethnicity were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. This happened not in some distant citadel of despotism, but in the “land of the free,” from the shining sea of the Pacific to the diamond desert of the western interior. It happened in the United States of America, and the island I call home is where it all began.
After Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry (the Nikkei), whether or not they were born in America, became objects of suspicion in the eyes of their government. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the exclusion of “any or all persons” from areas deemed sensitive for national defense. Although around 14,000 people of German or Italian ancestry were interned for at least part of the war, those of Japanese descent were the prime targets, reflecting an anti-Asian bigotry with deep roots in American history.
On March 21, after only an hour’s discussion in the Senate and thirty minutes in the House, Congress passed a law authorizing the roundup of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry. Of that great number, the first 227 would be residents of Bainbridge Island, six miles west of Seattle.
These evacuees comprised a significant portion of the island’s relatively small population. Boasting the world’s largest sawmill––a magnet for job-seekers––in the late nineteenth century, Bainbridge attracted immigrant workers and families, many of them from Japan, even after the mill shut down in the 1920s. By the 1940s, both the Issei (“first generation,” born in Japan) and the Nisei (“second generation,” born in the U.S. as American citizens) had become established members of the island community. But when Pearl Harbor stirred up primal fears of the “other,” 227 friends and neighbors were abruptly severed from their community and shipped off to distant internment camps.
Why was Bainbridge targeted first? The high percentage of Nikkei on the island, along with the proximity of military installations and the Boeing aircraft plant, have been cited as probable causes. The fake news of the day accused Japanese-American farmers of aligning their strawberry rows as pointers toward bombing targets. Frank Kitamoto, only two years old when his family was taken, thought the island’s isolation made it a perfect test case:
“We didn’t have the bridge in those days. So it became real easy for the army to isolate us and to kind of use us as a practice run to see how people would react to something like this––if they came in to force us off the island, whether we’d be violent or whether we would cause problems or protest or whatever. And since we went without any of that going on, then I think that kinda set the pace . . . for them to do things.”
The idea of a practice run seems especially chilling to me after reading a recent op-ed piece by Fintan O’Toole, describing Trump’s corrosive attacks on democratic norms as a means of “test marketing” the spread of fascism. “Fascism,” he writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”
On March 24, the Nikkei of Bainbridge were given just 6 days to settle their affairs and pack their things before military trucks would come to take them away to the ferry dock. For those with property, it was especially complicated. Non-citizens couldn’t own property, and Japanese-born were forbidden citizenship by law, so titles had to be in the name of either U.S.-born children or supportive friends. In any case, what would happen to their houses and land while they were gone?
There was a limit of one suitcase per person, not only for clothes and personal items, but also to carry sheets, blanket, utensils and plates! If you had to pack one suitcase without knowing where you were going or how long you’d be away, what would you include? Practical things, or emotional treasures? Matsue Nishimori Watanabe, who was 15 at the time, remembers the pressures of packing so lightly:
“And, of course, in that suitcase you’re trying to put maybe a sheet or so, that you can have for sleeping. And the rest is your clothes and your shoes. And so you’re not taking any toys or anything like that. . . one suitcase for the rest of your life . . . isn’t a lot of space to put things. And that’s the way we traveled, and with a tag on the suitcase and a tag on our body. . . [O]ne of my girlfriends now, she sees the pictures of my sister and us walking down the dock and she could see that they’re dressed up and they have hats on and everything. And she says, ‘Why did you dress up to go to camp?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had no place else to put it except on our body, because you had one suitcase to carry.’”
But there were greater stresses. Many reported a sense of shame at being treated like criminals. What had they done to deserve this? What would their neighbors think of them?
“And for one thing, we were so busy destroying everything that was Japanese. We, my dad says, ‘Get rid of everything,’ so we just burned things, buried things, broke things up, did everything to get rid of all the things that Grandma sent from Hiroshima. . . I hated to get rid of all the stuff that Grandma sent me, but then again, it was too Japanese, and so we just had to destroy them.” (Kay Sakai Nakao, 22)
Perhaps the worst thing was having no idea of where they were being taken, or what would befall them in the days to come.
“They never told us where we were going, if it’s gonna be hot or if it’s gonna be cold or anything, which sort of — I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt like I was kind of up in the air and I couldn’t come down on earth to get my feet on earth, to really feel sort of secure. I don’t know if that’s the word, right word to use, but you’re just left kinda dangling, wondering.” (Kay Sakai Nakao)
The truckloads of evacuees were dropped at the end of the road I now live on, less than a mile from where I write these words. Escorted by soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets, they lugged their bulging suitcases down to the dock at Eagle Harbor and boarded the ferry Kehloken to Seattle, where they would, under armed supervision, take train and bus to the concentration camps far inland. Some 10,000 people would eventually be crammed into a primitive settlement of one square mile bounded by barbed wire. After the blue water and green forests of Bainbridge, the harsh landscape of the high desert came as a shock. A resident of California’s Manzanar camp summed it up tartly: “The main thing you remembered was the dust, always the dust.”
And how had the Nikkei’s neighbors on Bainbridge responded to “the exclusion”? While some residents shared the widespread racism and wartime belligerence of the country as a whole, a majority of Bainbridge Islanders resisted the anti-Japanese hysteria. The bonds of longtime community were stronger than the sirens of fear.
The day after Pearl Harbor, teachers were careful to remind their nervous classes that the students of Japanese ancestry were Americans too. Neighbors pitched in to help the Nikkei families with last-minute logistics. Generous souls took over management of abandoned farms and businesses until the day their rightful owners returned. And the editors of the local weekly newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, mounted an eloquent and courageous defense of the vulnerable.
Walt and Milly Woodward, a young couple from Seattle, had bought the paper when they moved to the island in 1940. Their first editorial made a powerful commitment: “Always strive to speak the truth, unafraid, whether it be on a national issue or something purely local.” And so they did.
On the day after Pearl Harbor, their front page counseled neighborliness over fear: “There is the danger of a blind, wild hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan. That some of those persons happen to be American citizens…easily could be swept aside by mob hysteria.” Walt and Milly continued the fight for constitutional rights and mutual respect for the duration of the war. The Review was the only newspaper in the United States to do so! The Woodwards also hired evacuated high school students to send dispatches from the camps, so that absent neighbors would not become faceless or forgotten. Their stories of exile were read widely back home.
Because Bainbridge had resisted the extremes of racist hostility and fear infecting much of wartime America, it was easier for its exiles to return without incident when the global conflict drew to a close. As the Woodwards’ daughter Mary has written, “All up and down the Pacific Coast that spring and summer , newly released families returned to vandalized houses and damaged or stolen personal property. Bainbridge families also saw damage, but to a lesser degree. There was vandalism––common whenever a house stands vacant––but it was a result more of petty crime and greed than viciousness.”
Some couldn’t afford to return, and others chose not to, but more than half of the exiles did come back, compared to a much smaller return rate in other places. Bainbridge showed little sign of the nasty anti-Japanese sentiment seen elsewhere. Those who voiced their continuing hostility on Bainbridge found few followers, while there were countless expressions of kindness and goodwill to assist the Nikkei in their resumption of lives interrupted.
“And our neighbors were all willing, happy that we came back. That time we came home it was September . . . it was dry summer, they said, the strawberries are all wilted. The dirt, the soil was just like sand, just really, oh, it was sad. Everything was wilted, I remember. And we had to start all over again, and I still wonder how did we ever, you know, with Mom and Dad, how did we ever get going, I always wonder. But we did.” (Michiko Amatatsu Noritake, 22)
“I was about thirteen when I came back and I was really frightened, but I went up to school and I signed in as “Sally” because I had to be very American and I didn’t want to be known as Shimako anymore. Well then . . . so the first day of school, Shannon Stafford and Ray Lowry, my classmates from Kindergarten, they came up and said, ‘Welcome back.’” (Shimako “Sally” Nishimori Kitano)
On August 6, 2011, the anniversary of Hiroshima, nearly 600 people gathered to dedicate the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial at the exact place where the Nikkei had been removed from the island in 1942. The beautifully designed site is a moving tribute to the dear people of that troubled time, but it also provides a necessary reminder of our perpetual vocation to repair the world by nourishing community and resisting everything which diminishes the human family.
In the Memorial’s peaceful setting beside Puget Sound, a cedar “Story Wall,” designed by local architect Johnpaul Jones, holds the names of all the exiles as well as a series of moving terra cotta panels by Seattle artist Steven Gardner, depicting people and incidents of the exclusion.
It is a place to remember––and to hope. As Sada Omoto, one of the surviving exiles, has said, the Exclusion Memorial wants to “create in you a different sense of being.”This should be a pilgrimage site for every American in this dispiriting time. You will take heart from it.
The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community’s excellent website is also worth a visit for its wealth of fascinating photos, archival films and video oral histories. Most of the interviews quoted in this post may be found there.
Just before Independence Day, I interviewed Clarence Moriwaki, a local activist who has been a driving force behind the Memorial project. I looked him up after hearing his eloquent speech at the recent Bainbridge Island rally to “Keep families together.” Like so many of us, Clarence is troubled by the normalization of racism and hatred at the highest levels of our government as well as in the untamed id of cultural rage. From the stigmatization of Muslims to the unspeakable cruelty at our southern border, America’s shadow side is on full display, while the crazier voices on the right tout the 1940s internment as an applicable model for the war on terror. Singling out people based on race and ancestry remains an illness hard to cure.
“This is frightening to me,” Clarence said. “We spent months thinking about the motto for the Memorial. We went back and forth, and what we decided on was Nidoto Nai Yoni (‘Let it not happen again’). But it is happening again. It’s happening to those children being separated from their families. The motto is not being lived up to. They’re creating concentration camps, and it’s happening in the name of the United States of America.
“What’s different this time is that people are not remaining silent the way they did in 1942. And they’re making comparisons between what is happening to Muslims and immigrants and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It has become part of the American narrative. Sites like ours keep it out there so it isn’t forgotten. And people have notforgotten. The story is timeless––and timely.”
Just days before the evacuation of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team opened the season against its traditional rival. They wanted badly to win, of course, but instead of using only the best players, the coach, “Pop” Miller, made sure that all six Nikkei players not only took the field, but remained in the lineup for the entire game. They got trounced, 15-2, but no one seemed to care about all the errors and fruitless swings of the bat. All that mattered to the Nikkei––and to their teammates who cheered them on––was the joy of a love so much stronger than fear.
Among the many fascinating exclusion artifacts in the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, none is more telling than side by side posters of the high school classes of 1942 and 1943. They make an indelible image of a community bereft by a terrible sense of absence. In the class of 1943, the faces of the Nikkei have all disappeared.
But the students stranded in Manzanar would not miss their graduation. The principal sent copies of all the graduation speeches to the camp, along with diplomas for every exiled senior. Meanwhile, during the commencement ceremony back on the island, in the middle of the stage, there were thirteen empty chairs.
Let it not happen again.
I am very grateful to Clarence Moriwaki and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for their generous assistance in the making of this post. It was a privilege to engage with this unforgettable and challenging story and the enduring legacy of the people who lived it.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the video oral histories on the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) website: (http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=WELCOME) The ages given are of the interviewees at the time of their evacuation. Thanks to Clarence Moriwaki for his generous assistance with these sources.
Fintan O’Toole, “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow,” The Irish Timesonline, June 26, 2018.
Incredibly, Japanese legal resident aliens were not allowed to seek U.S. citizenship until the passage of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952.
Not all spent the war in the camps. Some joined the military and fought in Europe. Some were jailed. Some would be allowed to move outside the exclusion zone for work or school. But no one could return home until war’s end.
Bainbridge Review, December 8, 1941. Cited on the BIJAC website.
Mary Woodward, In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story(Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community / Fenwick Publishing, 2008), 118. This is a beautifully produced and moving account with many striking photographs and illustrations.
My photos of the story wall are used throughout this post. Thanks to Steven Gardner and Johnpaul Jones for their exquisite artistry, and to Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz for their composite image of the wall and the historic photo of the evacuees walking toward the ferry.
From a display panel at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.
Jim Friedrich interview with Clarence Moriwaki, July 2, 2018.