The Irei Names Monument Project was originally inspired by the Manzanar Ireitō, or “Soul Consoling Tower,”  a monument that was built during the war by the camp incarcerees, to honor those who would never return home from camp.  An iconic symbol of the camps that still stands today, the Manzanar Ireitō was the first of several war-period monuments that focus on the community’s need for consolation that continues to this day. Dedication of the Manzanar Ireitō on Aug. 14, 1943, at the camp cemetery. (Courtesy of Shinjo Nagatomi Collection, Manzanar National Historic Site)

With the support of a $3.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture is creating Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration, a multi-faceted project to address the erasure of the identities of individuals of Japanese ancestry who experienced wartime incarceration.

The national monument will display the first comprehensive listing of the names of approximately 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, who were unjustly imprisoned in U.S. Army, Department of Justice, and War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.

The project expands and re-envisions what a monument is through three distinct, but interlinking elements: a sacred book of names as monument (慰霊帳 Ireichō), a website as monument (慰霊蔵 Ireizō), and light sculptures as monument (慰霊碑 Ireihi).

The first monument, the sacred book of names, will be exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo starting in September 2022.

“We are drawing on Japanese Buddhist and Japanese American cultural traditions of honoring ancestors not simply through building monuments of remembrance, but monuments to repair the racial karma of America,” said Duncan Ryuken Williams, the project founder and director of the Ito Center, based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

The monuments will be installed around the nation in partnership with various Japanese American stakeholders including JANM, Densho, the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium, and a number of former concentration camp museums and visitors’ centers including Amache, Jerome, Heart Mountain, Manzanar, Minidoka, Rohwer, and Tule Lake.

The principal award supporting the project comes from the Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project initiative, which was launched in 2020 with a quarter-billion-dollar commitment to transform the nation’s commemorative landscape by supporting public projects that more completely represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories. A supplemental grant from the U.S. National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant program will support public engagement with the online version of the monument.

Ireichō: The Book of Names

For the first time, an accurate and comprehensive list of every person of Japanese ancestry incarcerated in the World War II camps will be compiled in a book called the Ireichō. The idea of a book as a monument is inspired by the Japanese tradition of Kakochō (過去帳 literally, “The Book of the Past”), a book of names typically placed on a Buddhist temple altar and brought out for memorial services when the names of those to be remembered are chanted. It is through this ritual act that a community is made whole — the present recollecting the past, the past made present.

Following a ceremonial installation on Saturday, Sept. 24, at JANM, the Ireichō monument will be on display at the museum for a year. The public is invited to view and acknowledge the names in the Ireichō until all 125,000 names are recognized.

“With the installation of the Ireicho in September 2022 and the installation of the Ireihi in 2025, the museum honors these acts of repair to the historical record and creates a space of belonging for future generations,” said Ann Burroughs, president and CEO of JANM.

Ireizō: The Online Archive

The Ireizō is an interactive, searchable website monument that will be hosted by the USC Shinso Ito Center in partnership with Densho, a Japanese American educational resource that specializes in digital archives and oral histories. It will link to materials in Densho’s vast digital holdings, serving as an online archive of all of the people listed in the sacred book — showing aspects of their lives that extend far beyond their names.

“This will be an incredible research tool for historians, educators, genealogists, and anyone interested in studying the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans,” said Tom Ikeda, founding executive director of Densho. “Beyond its historical value, what’s really powerful about this project is the way it expands our understanding of the human impact of the incarceration on those who lived through it. Each of those 125,000+ Japanese Americans were individual people with their own hopes and dreams and unique lives before, during and after World War II. By learning their names, we can ensure they are not forgotten, which is why we’re excited to work with the Ireizō team to connect this invaluable research to Densho’s digital archives.”

Ireihi: The Light Sculpture

The Ireihi is a dynamic reflection of the public’s engagement with the book and website monument. Uniting traditional Japanese cultural notions of memorial monuments with cutting-edge technology, engineered by a creative team of artists and designers, the Ireihi will feature the names of all those who experienced wartime incarceration, emanating from the installation in a light show.

Multiple sculptures will be on long-term display at eight former WRA confinement sites beginning in 2024.

“This powerful monument will enable us to transition from displaying the full list of incarcerees from all the camps, to specifically those incarcerated at Amache, to those that served in the Armed Forces, or were born in captivity,” said Mitch Homma, president of the Amache Alliance.

Marlene Shigekawa, president of the Poston Community Alliance, says the monument will “tremendously enhance our existing memorial plaza, including the Poston Memorial Monument and our anticipated interpretive center. Viewing the names of those incarcerated at the Poston site, like those at the Vietnam Memorial, will be moving for all visitors. The Poston Japanese American and Native American communities have worked together for 20 years to preserve Poston’s history believing in the sanctity of the land on which Poston was built. The Irei Names Monument would amplify this sacred spirit that already exists between our two communities.”

Barbara Takei, the chief financial officer of the Tule Lake Committee, notes that the monument’s accurate listing of names “offers a meaningful way to remember the 27,000 individuals imprisoned at Tule Lake, especially those who resisted their unjust incarceration and endured lifetimes of stigma and erasure.”

Beyond the WRA sites committed to a long-term display of the Ireihi, the monument will be on view as a traveling exhibit at other former confinement site museums and visitor centers across the nation. In 2025, JANM will unveil an Ireihi sculpture that replicates the dimensions of the Manzanar Ireitō as part of the relaunch of its core permanent exhibit.

About the Name

The name of the project — Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American

Incarceration — was inspired by the Ireitō 慰霊塔, a monument built by incarcerees at the Manzanar concentration camp in California’s Inyo County after their first year of imprisonment to remember individuals, who died behind barbed wire, for memorialization then and in the future.

The Ireitō was formally dedicated by the Rev. Shinjo Nagatomi, whose calligraphy I-REI-TO (Consoling Spirits Tower) reflects his belief that the chanting of sacred scriptures in front of the monument, and reciting the names of the departed, brings comfort to their spirits and to those left behind.

An iconic symbol of the camps that still stands today, the Manzanar Ireitō was the first of several wartime Japanese American incarceration monuments that focused on the community’s need for consolation and healing that continues to the present.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.