By NED NOBUO ISOKAWA, Special to The Rafu
On Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, an expert National Park Service team was in Delta, Utah at the invitation of the Topaz Museum to conduct a condition evaluation of the Wakasa monument and site. This is a report of that evaluation and concurrent ceremonies conducted by the Wakasa Memorial Committee (WMC), as seen through the eyes of a Topaz survivor who was there on behalf of the museum.
As I stood at the Topaz site in the bright sunlight to make my incense and floral offering at the WMC’s ceremony, I thought of my parents, who were probably among the estimated 2,000 prisoners who attended James Hatsuaki Wakasa’s memorial service in 1943.
The ceremony held on Dec. 1 gave me the chance to join my parents in paying respect to Mr. Wakasa, and I am grateful to the WMC for giving me that chance.
Others should have that chance too.
The Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah is planning a commemorative event, open to the general public, to be held in April 2023, marking the 80th anniversary of the killing of Mr. Wakasa by a military sentry.
As it prepares for this event, I urge the museum to include the input of a variety of community voices, including Topaz survivors, Topaz descendants, and other community organizations and groups such as the WMC.
It was a WMC member who discovered the map, drawn by an Issei back in 1943, that led to the physical location of the monument. WMC members and supporters traveled to Topaz to watch the NPS conduct its evaluations, and to stage two separate ceremonies of remembrance – one at the monument itself, currently located on the museum grounds, and the other at the original site of the monument, 16 miles away at the Topaz concentration camp.
The museum welcomed them as guests and hosted a dinner for nine of them the evening before the NPS began its evaluation work.
The next day, Nov. 30, on the museum grounds where the monument is currently located, the museum made a brief welcoming statement and the WMC performed a ceremony and made remarks that invoked the memory of Mr. Wakasa and voiced criticisms of the museum.
That first day of the NPS evaluation included a detailed physical inspection of the monument. To allow for the day-long inspection, the museum temporarily removed the physical structure that protects the monument from the elements.
Throughout both days of the evaluation, events were captured by numerous video and still cameras. The WMC documentary filmmakers conducted interviews of its members and supporters.
The second day was spent at the site where the monument was discovered on the grounds of the Topaz concentration camp. There, the WMC held another ceremony, led by a Buddhist reverend from Salt Lake City, Utah. Members of the press also attended.
The ceremony included music beautifully played on a traditional Japanese woodwind instrument called a sho, and remarks from members of the WMC. Those remarks included a list of demands previously submitted in writing to the museum by the WMC.
Participants, including representatives of the museum, made incense and floral offerings to pay their respects to Mr. Wakasa.
In January 2022, the NPS is expected to issue a report with recommendations to the Topaz Museum on further steps to preserve and protect the monument and its original location.
To me, the solemnity of the WMC ceremonies was marred by its criticisms and demands made of the museum, and disrupted an otherwise contemplative and moving experience.
My sincere hope is that by the 80th anniversary ceremony in 2023, a robust and inclusive process of community input will have taken place, that everyone with input on the preservation and care of the monument and discovery site will have been heard, and that those who attend can pay their proper respects to Mr. Wakasa, unburdened by the current friction.
Mr. Wakasa deserves no less.
Photos by BRUCE AOKI
James Hatsuaki Wakasa was shot to death by a guard at the Topaz, Utah camp in 1943. His fellow incarcerees built a memorial. When the government ordered it destroyed, the builders buried it with a small part exposed.
In 2020, two archaeologists discovered the monument and a 14-member committee — consisting of the Topaz Museum director, board members, an archaeologist, National Park Service representatives, a historian, and members of the Japanese American community — was formed to discuss the care and handling of the memorial.
In July 2021, the Topaz Museum unearthed the monument without consulting the community and without the participation of archaeologists. In addition to possible damage to the monument, the JACL said, its sudden removal “denied our community a ceremony of blessing, remembrance and reflection, a ritual that is very much a part of Japanese American culture.”
The museum board said that when the memorial’s location became public knowledge, they were concerned about vandalism, as Topaz-related signs and monuments had been spray-painted with graffiti and even riddled with bullets. “In our haste to protect the stone, we made a mistake in not notifying Topaz incarcerees, their descendants, and the broader Topaz community of our decision to move the monument quickly.”
The board pledged to “include Topaz stakeholders in finding an appropriate way to display the Wakasa Monument and to honor the Topaz site where Mr. Wakasa was killed.”