Seattle group played a pivotal role in healing national wound
The incarceration of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast during World War II is one of the darkest chapters in our national history.
In early 1942, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American communities in Washington, Oregon, and California were systematically dismantled by the federal government by order of President Roosevelt. Their residents, the majority of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their Constitutional rights, solely because of their race, and shipped away virtually overnight.
But in the aftermath, decades after the war had ended, a loosely affiliated group of Seattle residents played a pivotal role in helping to partially heal the national wound of internment, culminating in the signing of the Civil Liberties Act by President Ronald Reagan in early August 1988.
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“Seattle is still inhabited by the spirits or the ghosts of these events,” said Frank Abe, a former journalist and a longtime activist in the Japanese-American community. Before Abe was born, his father was held during the war at Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.
Abe says that local places like the Puyallup Fairgrounds in Pierce County, where Puget Sound area Japanese-Americans were taken temporarily before being relocated to inland internment camps, still resonate with echoes of the area’s dark past.
“Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Puyallup Fairgrounds go about their enjoyment every September, and a few of them realize that the parking lots and the racetrack were the site of barracks that housed thousands of souls in hastily constructed tarpaper barracks,” Abe said.
The grassroots movement to seek a formal apology and reparations from the government, or “redress,” began somewhat organically in Seattle around 1970.
Roughly 25 years after World War II had ended, a Boeing engineer named Henry Miyatake launched what became the redress movement. The camps and the incarceration had rarely been spoken of since the war, but a workplace incident at Boeing in the wake of the cancellation of the SST program spurred Miyatake to take action.
Tom Ikeda knows Miyatake’s story well. Ikeda is a retired tech executive who founded a project called Densho, to collect, preserve and share oral histories and artifacts to tell the story of Japanese-American incarceration. He recorded an oral history of Miyatake in 1999; Miyatake passed away in 2014.
Ikeda says Henry Miyatake didn’t lose his job at Boeing in the SST bust, but his bosses cut his pay and expected him to do the same work as before.
“Henry actually felt that that was really unfair, and he said so,” Ikeda said. “And his manager at that point said, ‘Well I know you’re a Japanese-American, and during the war Japanese-Americans really didn’t really stand up for their rights . . . so we know that you’re going to stay [and accept the pay cut].’”
Ikeda says this episode inspired Miyatake to begin what became a long campaign to right the wrong of World War II incarceration of Japanese-Americans.
Frank Abe says Miyatake began by meeting with friends and colleagues, and looking at the challenge of redress as a problem for which a solution could be engineered.
“[They] got together and said look, the camps were wrong, and it’s not unreasonable to seek a government apology and some kind of reparation,” Abe said.
The effort also gathered momentum, almost inadvertently, through the organization of a Japanese history exhibit at the old MOHAI in Montlake in 1970 that was ultimately entitled “Pride and Shame.” It was one the first museum exhibits, if not the first, to address World War II treatment of West Coast Japanese-Americans.
“Pride and Shame” was organized by civic leader Tomio Moriguchi and the Seattle chapter Japanese-American Citizens League, and in the process, it evolved from a simple, celebratory display of culture to something a little more complex. The exhibit literally put on public display a subject that had been hidden away for decades and spurred conversations in the local Japanese-American community.
Abe, who says he was a “young hothead” in the 1970s, says the Seattle chapter of the JACL was viewed then as something of maverick compared to chapters in other cities. While other chapters and some Japanese-American elected officials were reluctant to pursue redress, Seattle organizers were eager and willing to move forward.
Abe’s contribution to the effort included putting together the first “Day of Remembrance.” On Thanksgiving weekend 1978, 2,000 people and a convoy of vehicles gathered at the old Sicks Stadium on Rainier Avenue and drove en masse to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, carrying Japanese-American incarceration survivors and their families.
The event attracted local and national media attention, and Abe and the other organizers were invited to create similar events in Oregon and California.
Through preparation for the first Day of Remembrance, the Seattle organizers had connected with future Washington governor Mike Lowry, who was then running for Congress. Lowry was elected that fall, and he became a strong ally of the group. He soon introduced the first federal legislation seeking formal redress.
Eventually, after nearly a decade of negotiations and creation of study commission, an alternate redress bill was introduced by US Representative Tom Foley of Spokane in 1987. It was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan on August 10, 1988.
It took another five years, but in 1993, each person who’d been incarcerated during World War II received a check for $20,000 and a letter of apology signed by President Clinton.
Though the actual monetary losses of Japanese-Americans are nearly incalculable and were far greater than $20,000 per person, it wasn’t about the money, says Frank Abe.
“What was more important was the apology, for the government to say it was sorry, and it was wrong to do that,” Abe said. “Redress was also about history. It was a chance to reverse three decades of just not talking about it, and it was a chance to bring awareness of the shared history and help bring out the Nisei generation that had suppressed its anger and rage at the injustice for 30 years.”
Tom Ikeda shares Frank Abe’s view about the significance of the apology, and about the historical power of redress.
For Ikeda, the importance of the work of Densho to keep telling these stories to new generations is clearly also something very personal. It’s plainly visible in an old family photo from the 1940s that he didn’t see until he was an adult.
“My mom showed me this photograph that I had never seen. It was a photograph of my grandparents—her parents—at Minidoka [internment camp] in this dusty field. And in the background, you see all these people sitting, but there my grandmother is, accepting the American flag because [her son, Staff Sergeant Francis “Bako” Kinoshita] was killed in action fighting in Europe,” Ikeda said.
The cruel irony of Ikeda’s grandfather and grandmother becoming “Gold Star” parents while being incarcerated by the same government that their late son was serving is not lost on Tom Ikeda; nor are the similarities to the recent experiences (and media coverage) of the Khan family.
Along with the stories and artifacts preserved by Ikeda and the donor-supported Densho, the National Park Service has also protected and interpreted sites of several internment camps and related places around the West. There’s also a monument at the Puyallup Fairgrounds.
While the notion of learning lessons from history in order to never repeat past mistakes can sometimes feel trite, Frank Abe sees parallels in the current election cycle that give him real pause and make the triteness evaporate.
“The watch-cry of the redress campaign was we were doing this to make sure that it never happens to anyone else, this should never happen again,” Abe said. “And for a long time, it felt like it ever happening again would be a remote possibility.”
But Abe says that for him, the past several months of the presidential campaign have changed all that.
“Sadly, now we’re finding that you scratch the surface of America and that racism and fear and bigotry is just under the surface,” Abe said.
“Not here in Seattle, not here in most of Washington, but in half of America there is the fear of ‘the other’ that remains, and we have candidates for president talking about deporting 11 million people based on their religious faith,” he said. “We’re back to where we were in 1942.”
“Regardless of the outcome of the election, that genie is out of the bottle,” Abe said. “And we’re gonna have to deal with it.”