November 21, 2018
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the very first Day of Remembrance. It was invented here in Seattle, at a pivotal moment when the campaign for Japanese American redress threatened to crash and burn before it ever got off the ground.
After the war and throughout the 1950s and 60s, the history of Japanese American incarceration was owned by those who could yell the loudest. To call them concentration camps was to start an argument. On hot-talk radio of the 70s, fact succumbed to opinion. An Anaheim war widow, Lillian Baker, even founded “Americans for Historical Accuracy” to claim that Japanese Americans were voluntary guests in camp, where we were fed and educated and free to leave once we proved our loyalty.
But also by the 1970s, the Nisei were more secure in their families and careers. Their children, Sansei like me, were grown and out of college. And in Seattle, Nisei like Henry Miyatake, a Boeing engineer, and Issei like Shosuke Sasaki, a retired securities analyst, agreed that after 30 years it was time to make a simple statement: the camps were wrong, and the government needed to apologize in some meaningful way.
They formed the Evacuation Redress Committee inside the Seattle Chapter of JACL. Shosuke was the intellectual of the group, and he wrote a carefully reasoned and articulate manifesto, titled “An Appeal for Action”:
Passive submission or self-abasement when confronted by government tyranny or injustice was alien to the beliefs held by the founders of this nation…Over half of the white population of (the Pacific Northwest) believe to this day that the World War II treatment of the Japanese Americans was justified and that there was truth in the charges against us of espionage and sabotage.
In an interview for Densho, we asked Shosuke to read the next line:
Seattle JACL sent cassette tapes of Shosuke reading his appeal to all chapters, urging them to play it at their meetings. At the 1978 JACL National Convention in Salt Lake City, Seattle joined with other chapters to pass a resolution calling for individual redress of $25,000 – not for property losses but for violations of Constitutional rights.
Blowback came quickly from the Sayonara banquet speaker, S.I. Hayakawa, the junior senator from California and a retired semanticist notorious for his hardline stand against student protests while acting president of San Francisco State College.
Interviewed by a reporter, Hayakawa called the idea of redress “ridiculous.” “The relocation was perfectly understandable,” he said, “to put the Japanese in relocation camps at the time was as much for the safety of the Japanese.” He dismissed the call for redress as “merely the rekindling of resentment and racism that no longer exists.”
The Wall Street Journal quickly joined the attack with “Guilt Mongering,” an editorial accusing Japanese Americans of being “inspired by the example of other self-appointed ethnic spokesmen snapping at compensation for ancient wrongs under the guise of ‘human rights,’” and condemning “a broader society in which collective guilt for past sins has become a commodity to be traded, mongered and exploited.”
You could feel the air leaking out of the redress balloon. Into this mix stepped Frank Chin, a playwright from California who was writing a story on the redress resolution. “I thought Japanese America had recovered its conscience and was at last making a stand for Japanese American integrity and reclaiming its history,” he wrote. “I thought it was bold.” But he also saw that JACL, having raised the issue in public, didn’t know how to answer its critics.
To help out, Frank recruited a posse. I got my start working with him several years before with the Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco. He came to my door and gravely announced, “Japanese Americans are making their move, but they’re losing the issue. You lose redress, you lose Japanese American history. You lose your history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” I dropped everything to help launch a campaign.
The article Frank Chin published in the Seattle Weekly, “How Shall Injustice Be Served?” set the tone for a furious six weeks of community organizing, event planning, and media outreach. He wrote:
The camps have the mystery of a religious experience to the Japanese Americans. Something of them died there. They don’t know what. They haven’t looked at the body. They can barely endure going through the papers. They haven’t buried it, and they don’t know how to case and frame the camps out back in history. For all intents and purposes, the Nikkei still live in camp, not in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Salt Lake, San Diego, or even Milwaukee. The Nikkei are out on parole, not out of camp.
“The Event that Burst Open the Tomb of Japanese American History”
Frank proposed a strategy of street theater to engage the imagination of the public. Our circle was focused around David Ishii’s bookstore at First and Washington, so his first idea was that on Thanksgiving Day 1978, all the Japanese Americans in Seattle should assemble in Pioneer Square with bags packed, ready to recreate the expulsion from Seattle to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, where we would get inside, chain ourselves to the fences, and refuse to leave.
Henry and Shosuke went nuts. “Oh God, Frank, no one’s gonna go … Thanksgiving! People want to be with their families.”
Ultimately, protest was not necessary because Henry approached the fairground governors and they welcomed us inside. We also moved the event to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and it would be a family event with a talent show and potluck. Frank wrote new text for a poster that read like a wedding invitation. It was dignified and welcoming, not threatening.
The poster was also calibrated to signal that this was not just a commemoration:
“Remember the concentration camps
stand for redress with your family.”
These two lines were key. They asserted the power of our history by calling things by their real name, and they included the word “redress.” Still, not everyone in town was ready for it. Henry took the poster to Imperial Lanes, the now-demolished Nisei bowling alley, and he reported the manager refused to allow it: “I don’t want that redress thing in my bowling alley. I have a lot of white customers here.”
Artist and teacher Frank Fujii designed the now-iconic ichi-ni-san logo that continues in use to this day. As he put it, the three generations of Japanese America are bound by a circle, and the figures entwined with the barbed wire of the American concentration camps. “When the truth of the Japanese American experience in the camps is restored to American history,” he would say, “the wire will come off the symbol … someday.”
At the time, Seattle and Bellevue had three daily newspapers and a number of suburban dailies and weeklies. We blanketed those papers with feature stories connecting them with the Nisei in their communities recounting their personal stories of eviction and incarceration. Each article was branded with Frank Fujii’s provocative logo to connect the stories of individuals into a wider narrative that gradually brought the media to our side. We submitted Shosuke’s “Appeal for Action” to The Seattle Times, which ran an edited version of it as an op-ed on the Sunday before the event.
Yet for all the advance work, we didn’t know if anyone would show up.
On the morning of Saturday, November 25, 1978, we were stunned when we arrived at the old Seattle Pilots ballpark on Rainier and McClellan and found a line of waiting cars. Our volunteers were swamped registering people and issuing yellow replicas of the WCCA family number tags. We asked people to use their old family numbers; if they didn’t remember or were never in camp, they could use the last five digits of their telephone number. Ben Nakagawa arranged for the use of some National Guard trucks and buses. Someone put posters on the sides, and the military vehicles led a caravan of cars with headlights lit that stretched for miles down Interstate-5 to Puyallup, as the buses did down old Highway 99 in 1942.
And inside the cars, something remarkable happened. The memory of leaving Seattle with other Japanese triggered something inside the Nisei. Inside hundreds of cars, parents opened up to their kids and told them about what happened to them during the war, many of them for the first time.
The Nisei were ready for this to happen. And what people feared most, never came to pass. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. No “rekindling of old resentments and racism.” In the space of three months, we went from The Wall Street Journal accusing us of “Guilt Mongering” to an editorial cartoon in the Bellevue Journal-American urging “$3 Billion a small price to pay.” Anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa calls it “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.”
“We would publish an Open Letter to Hayakawa”
The story went out on the wire services. S.I. Hayakawa dismissed the Days of Remembrance as a JACL front, led by Sansei radicals who never spent a day in camp. Japanese Americans were again outraged and wanted some way to denounce him. Frank Chin came up with a new strategy: We would publish an Open Letter to Hayakawa, have it signed by the Issei and Nisei, and publish it as a paid advertisement in The Washington Post, where it would be seen by members of Congress.
At the same time, the JACL in Portland wanted its own Day of Remembrance too, so we spent another six weeks staging a similar event there. This was the first Day of Remembrance to be hooked to the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 on February 19. The event entailed a short pilgrimage to dedicate a plaque at the Expo Center, site of the wartime Portland Assembly Center.
Twelve-hundred came out, a significant showing from the smaller Oregon community. In Portland, we offered attendees the chance to donate $5 apiece to add their names to the open letter. Written in Chin’s unmistakable prose, the text confronted the Senator and the public with a stinging indictment and an unapologetic argument for redress:
… You, Senator Hayakawa, were not there with us on the West Coast, where the Issei established the Nikkei as working, productive members of the American nation that denied us access to naturalized United States citizenship. You were not with us in the camps …
They were concentration camps. Barbed wire, electrified fences, dogs, armed soldiers, machine gun towers made them concentration camps.
Everything you say justifies the mob hysteria of 1942 … We regret that you choose now to make your reputation characterizing yourself as our “public enemy no. l.” You call yourself that as if the title brings you glory. In our eyes it does not. And on the concentration camps and our concern for redress, you do not speak for Japanese America … We firmly believe American law can heal itself. We look to you as one of the physicians and are saddened by your mouthing of the clichés of an ancient mob.
Though not written in a tone that would come naturally to any Nisei, the words gave voice to what every angry Nisei wanted to scream to Hayakawa’s face. Checks in amounts from $5 to $100 poured into David’s bookstore, and in less than three months Karen Seriguchi raised $10,000, enough for a three-quarter page ad in the Post. The ad appeared on May 9, 1979, and we held simultaneous news conferences in Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to leverage the ad into news stories that showed Japanese Americans from across the nation finding their voice and speaking as one.
The Days of Remembrance and the Open Letter to Hayakawa reclaimed our history from the half-truths of the deniers and revisionists and demonstrated popular support for the idea of redress. They provided momentum for the campaign that moved on to other forums in other places. Within ten years of Thanksgiving 1978, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Days of Remembrance are still observed nationwide, wherever Japanese Americans live.
Frank Abe is co-editor of JOHN OKADA: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press). He is co-writer of a graphic novel for the Wing Luke Asian Museum dramatizing the resistance to Japanese American incarceration, and co-editor of an anthology of the literature of Japanese American incarceration, both forthcoming in 2020. He wrote and directed Conscience and the Constitution, a PBS documentary on the largest organized resistance to incarceration. He has shaped communications for King County for 25 years, and was a long-time senior reporter for KIRO Newsradio. He blogs at Resisters.com and can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
[Blog header: People gather at Seattle’s Sicks Stadium for the first Day of Remembrance event on November 25, 1978. Photo by John Harada, courtesy of the Frank Abe Collection.]