By DIANNE FUKAMI
For those who are descendants of the almost 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in ten American concentration camps during World War II, as I am, or who were actually imprisoned there, we tend to think that these historic sites and the artifacts found there belong to us.
Indeed, these sites and artifacts are part of our heritage and family history and have a special significance to us in ways that others may not have experienced. But the historical legacy of these camps, particularly as a cautionary lesson of the tragic consequences that happen when racism shouts louder than the Constitution, belongs to all Americans.
My father’s family was imprisoned at the Topaz concentration camp, not far from Delta, Utah. Dad was only 14 years old at the time and I heard plenty of stories about it from my own family and others who were imprisoned there.
When I visited the Topaz site this past summer, I tried to imagine what it was like living in such a desolate place where the winters were cold and windy, and the summers, hot and dry weather extremes my family had never experienced in the Bay Area.
As I walked around the site there were many old rusty nails lying on the cracked ground, a bit of glass from an old cup, the metal skeletons of old tools used and abandoned, the remnants of a child’s toy. I feel a kinship to the land that others without my history may not.
I’m thinking of all this as plans are underway for the future of the Wakasa Monument and the Topaz site where it was discovered. On April 11, 1943, James Hatsuaki Wakasa, one of more than 11,000 Americans incarcerated at Topaz, was shot in the chest and killed by a military sentry as he walked close to the barbed-wire fence. A military trial ruled that Mr. Wakasa’s killing was justified although there was no evidence to support that ruling.
At the time, the government allowed the Topaz prisoners to hold a funeral service for Mr. Wakasa, but ordered a monument in his honor destroyed. In July 2021 the monument, in the form of an unmarked half-ton stone, was found partially buried in plain sight near the edge of the Topaz barbed-wire fence, presumably at the location where Mr. Wakasa was killed.
When it was removed, there was no sign of writings, personal memorabilia, or anything else that might have been buried with it. Except for its extraordinary symbolism, it looks remarkably ordinary.
When camp authorities ordered the monument torn down, it was an attempt to erase from memory the killing and the injustice that it represented. Our community now has an opportunity to remember Mr. Wakasa and to acknowledge those Japanese Americans who had erected the monument in mute protest of the brutal injustice caused by racial demonization.
There are plans to hold a ceremony in April of 2023 at the Topaz Museum and questions about how to display the Wakasa Monument. At first blush, it feels as if any remembrance ceremony should be the exclusive domain of the Topaz descendants and other Japanese Americans whose families were incarcerated during World War II.
But looking at history through such an exclusionary lens ignores and is dismissive of our community allies: the people who are not Japanese Americans who nonetheless, throughout the years, joined our fight to have our story told, and without whose support the Topaz Museum would simply not exist.
I am talking about the people of Delta, Utah and the dozens of volunteer docents who staff the Topaz Museum on a daily basis greeting the 10,000 people who visit annually. As a Topaz descendant, I am grateful to the people who are not Japanese American who serve on the museum’s Board of Directors and volunteer their time because they understand that the powerful lessons in democracy that the museum holds are as much about the country’s future as they are about its past.
I am indebted to Jane Beckwith, a former high school teacher born and raised in Delta, who passionately dedicated countless hours for the past 30+ years to make the museum a reality, and who continues to do so today on an unpaid basis.
Our allies also include the dozens of National Park Service employees who educate the public about a time in our nation’s history when democracy failed, in the hopes that by doing so, such failure is never repeated.
We need to acknowledge the people of all backgrounds including the indigenous people of the Great Basin, who once lived freely on the land we ironically now call the Topaz concentration camp. Their experience and that of our families are reminders of Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
When the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed, leading to redress and reparations for the harm done to Japanese Americans, it was the result of coalition-building and allyship, the countless people both within our community and outside who joined in solidarity to support us.
By embracing that example and by including the input of many voices, the significance of the Wakasa Monument and its role in Japanese American history will rightfully become a part of the tapestry of mainstream American history for current and future generations.
Dianne Fukami is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and retired educator. A descendant of a Topaz family, her most recent work was the film “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story.” She has written and produced many films about the Japanese American experience. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.