By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON, Rafu Shimpo
More than 200 people gathered on a pleasant Thursday morning at the northwest corner of the busy crossroads of Venice and Lincoln boulevards to dedicate a 6.25-ton monument erected to commemorate another April day some 75 years earlier.
On that day, more than 1,000 local denizens, many dressed in their Sunday best and bearing what possessions they could fit in a suitcase, boarded buses to begin an odyssey that would deliver them first to horse stables and then to where most would spend the next several years: a concentration camp on U.S. soil.
Those 1,000 people came from Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu, and were singled out because of their Japanese ancestry, whether legal resident aliens barred by law from naturalization or American-born citizens.
If there was a common refrain in the remarks of the sundry dignitaries present for the dedication of the 9-foot-tall, 12,500-pound black granite reminder of the dangers of government overreach under the guise of national security and the trauma of war hysteria, failure of political leadership and race prejudice, it was: “We must never let this happen again.”
The ceremony was the culmination of 16 years of planning, fundraising, grant-writing, worrying and more by the Venice Japanese American Memorial Monument Committee, led by Phyllis Hayashibara. “I’m relieved it was completed in time,” she said after the ceremony. “Our grant runs out June 1, 2017. We did as many extensions as we could.”
She was referring to the March 2012 qualification for a two-to-one matching grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, in which VJAMM had to raise $25,000 to receive $50,000. During the ceremony, she called out Esther Chaing, owner of Hama Sushi Restaurant, which Hayashibara said over the years collected more than $15,000 for the VJAMM Committee via fundraisers during which a percentage of lunches and dinners sold were earmarked for the monument. (For a list of other major donors, see the Tuesday, April 25 Rafu Shimpo.)
“I am also relieved it was safely transported from Arvin, Calif., to Venice, no problems. It was a very interesting, choreographed dance with the crane operator and the people on the ground.”
The obelisk was installed the previous Saturday.
Hayashibara, however, added that she was apprehensive due to its exposure, not just to the elements but also those not sympathetic to what the monument represents. She emphasized, however, that the committee “wanted it in the public eye so more and more people could see it.”
“I feel that it’s not over yet. We want to collaborate with youth groups and their chaperones on an intermittent basis to help us clean the monument,” said the indefatigable former schoolteacher. “We also want to collaborate with local eateries and have them donate lunch for the students who come and clean it.”
In response to a query, Hayashibara noted that the corner was well-lit at night, but that the committee still wants to apply with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for the installation of a light that shines directly on the monument, with possible discussions to come about a security video camera.
Her concerns about the monument were foreshadowed in remarks by keynote speaker Warren Furutani, who predicted that it would desecrated. Alluding to axe marks and shotgun damage to a metal plaque at the site of the former Manzanar War Relocation Authority Center, the former California assemblyman and co-founder of the Manzanar Committee said, “In a few days, weeks, months — maybe it’ll take years and I know the Venice community will be very vigilant but — this marker will be defaced.
“It will be defaced some way, somehow. And when it gets defaced, I’m telling this community, do not fix it. Don’t wipe it off. Don’t recast the words. Let that defacement be a testament to the kinds of attitudes that still exist in this country that can elect a president like the one we have now, and we need to remember that so we know our work is not done.”
Later, as one of the ceremony’s speakers, VJAMM committee member Suzanne Thompson responded to Furutani’s statement, first acknowledging that the Venice arts community has had an ongoing problem with graffiti on public art and monuments.
“I think there’s value to what Warren said about a testament, but I would like to challenge people to be vigilant in this community, to protect this monument. And, if you see somebody doing something to it, approach them with caution,” Thompson said. “It’s something we all have to care for.”
Another of the speakers was VJAMM committee member Brian Maeda, who introduced the other former incarcerees present at the ceremony who, along with himself, have quotations inscribed on one side of the monument. “We’re different today,” he said of the outpouring of political support for the monument contrasted with 1942. He also marveled at how the concept for the monument, which he called “beautiful,” had evolved from a relatively small marker to the massive stone now in place.
He also noted how his experiences as an infant born at Manzanar contrasted with that of his brother, Arnold Maeda, who also has a quotation on the monument. Noting that he is 19 years younger than Arnold Maeda, Brian Maeda said that his brother, the senior class president of Manzanar High School Class of 1944, only started to open up about his experiences after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Regarding the experiences of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II, he said, “My issues with it were that I didn’t know anything, that they really didn’t teach anything about it in junior high, high school or college. I had to learn about it on my own. They didn’t have Asian American studies at that time at UCLA. I was always ashamed that I had been born in this place. Why this place, out in the middle of nowhere?
“That was a real stigma to me until I went to Japan, and I met my relatives who had been in the same village for 500 years. I realized there’s more to it than where you are born.”
Also quoted on the monument are May Kageyama Kakehashi, Amy Takahashi Ioki, and the late Yoshinori Tomita, who passed away in January at the age of 80.
Other speakers included Jim Smith, Venice Peace and Freedom Party; Ruth Galanter, former member, L.A. City Council; Joel Jacinto, Los Angeles Public Works Department board member; Zev Yaroslavsky, former Los Angeles County supervisor; Rachel Zaiden, senior field deputy for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl; Len Nguyen, senior field deputy for Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin; Kevin McKeown, Santa Monica city councilmember and former mayor; Jeff Burton, National Park Service; Dr. Jimmy Hara; and Dr. Thomas Yoshikawa.
In a larger cultural context, most Americans prefer their
history to be sanitized, ignoring the shameful parts of it. On a trip to Washington D.C. I visited the JANM. It was being used as a skateboard park by local children but they respectfully left when my brother and I visited. It had no defacements, but we were the only visitors around.