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Drumming for History: The Annual Minidoka Pilgrimage Day of Remembrance Taiko Fundraiser

Photo courtesy of Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee

By Tamiko Nimura

Around the country, Japanese American Days of Remembrance are commemorated with keynote speakers, with candlelighting, with marches, and even (this year) with bystander training for allies with Densho.

At Seattle University, thanks to the efforts of a few Seattle-based volunteers, an auditorium resonates each year to the sounds of taiko drumming. Proceeds of the concert go towards scholarships for the Minidoka Pilgrimage. Several taiko groups, including RTG (Regional Taiko Group), Seattle Kokon Taiko, and Seattle University’s youth group Hidaka Taiko, participate regularly. Other community groups use booths and feature exhibits to help attendees learn about the history of Japanese American incarceration as well as its former and current ties to the Seattle area.

Seattle activist and taiko player Stan Shikuma has participated in the fundraiser for many years. He explains, “I am drawn to the Day of Remembrance Taiko Fundraiser year after year for two reasons: communal memory and taiko community. February 19 was started as a Day of Remembrance in Seattle so that we would never forget the injustice and devastating impact of EO 9066 on the Japanese American community and the abrogation of our civil rights. It is essential that we all remember so that it will never happen again, but unfortunately Never Again Is Now! The DOR Taiko Fundraiser is also the only time of the year when we get so many local taiko groups together to play at one time in one space on one stage. It’s a great way to meet and bond together as a community of taiko players in support of a great cause. Stronger Together is literally embodied on the stage and creates a great sense of unity among the many groups.”

Student scholarship recipients for the Minidoka Pilgrimage are asked to help with work activities before and during the pilgrimage, and are encouraged to participate in the planning of future pilgrimages. They are also asked to create a project of their choice relating to the work and content of the pilgrimage, such as videos or slide shows or educational posters.

I was able to speak with organizer Dale Watanabe, head of the International Programs office at Seattle University and longtime member of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee, about the history of the taiko event.

Photo courtesy of Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee

Tamiko Nimura (TN): What’s the “origin story” of this fundraiser? How long has the fundraiser happened, and did it ever happen in different forms? And why and how has it landed at Seattle University?

Dale Watanabe (DW): Back in 2009 our Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee (MPPC) discussed ways that we could raise money to help support a new scholarship idea to allow anyone who was incarcerated and over 80 years of age to be able to attend the our annual pilgrimage. Initially, this fundraiser was also to help raise funds for our partner organization, the Friends of Minidoka, but now it is strictly a scholarship fundraiser. It landed at Seattle University because we needed an auditorium space, and with the social justice mission of the University, I was able to get the support of the University and partner on this event.

We started by working with the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality in the SU Law School, and now with the Division of Student Development and the International Student Center (where I work). Our first fundraiser was in February of 2010. Traditionally it always falls on the Sunday of President’s Day weekend as that is usually the closest date to February 19th, which is our target date. Immediately following our first year, SU conferred honorary degrees at the June 2011 commencement to Nisei students who were forced to leave the University in 1943. The announcement of this recognition was at our fundraiser in 2011. From that point on, the relationship between the two organizations was solidified and continues to this day. At least one Seattle University student attends the pilgrimage under one of the youth scholarships every year.

TN: Who usually attends the fundraiser, since it’s a recurring event?

DW: It is a mix of all generations and walks of life. Primarily, we always assume that it will be people who have attended the pilgrimage or have connections to the Japanese American community, but it has often stretched beyond that connection as well. A handful of Seattle University faculty, staff, and students also attend due to it being on campus. Since the creation of our taiko group, Hidaka Taiko, there are also a number of international and domestic students as part of that club who not only perform at the show, but also serve as volunteers behind the scenes for the event.

TN: Where do the proceeds go, and why there?

DW: Originally, it was split between our parent organization, The Friends of Minidoka, and us. However, now the funds go directly to the scholarships for youth and elders to attend the annual pilgrimage. We have been offering elder scholarships to anyone who is 80 years and above who were incarcerated (in any of the camps, not just Minidoka) for 7 years now.

TN: What can first-time attendees expect from the event? (That’s a LOT of taiko!)

DW: It is a lot of taiko and we are fortunate that there are so many groups in the Seattle area. We have worked very closely with the Seattle-based Regional Taiko Group (RTG) and Stan Shikuma to ensure that groups have equal opportunity to participate in this great event. Over the years we have also worked on including a variety of speakers who have addressed issues such as the parallels between the Muslim, undocumented, and Japanese American experiences. We have also included keynotes from noted local Japanese American writers, poets, and community advocates such as Larry Matsuda, Yosh Nakagawa, and the Rev. Brooks Andrews.

TN: What do you hope attendees can take away from the event?

DW: We hope attendees will take with them a greater appreciation of how relevant the concentration camp experience on American soil is today and how easily it can be repeated. Of course, we also hope that attendees will learn about the great work of the MPPC and the Minidoka National Historic Site and plan to join us for one of the annual pilgrimages!

Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay writer, originally from Northern California and now living in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared or will appear in The San Francisco Chronicle, Kartika Review, The Seattle Star, Seattlest.com, the International Examiner (Seattle), and The Rafu Shimpo. She blogs at Kikugirl.net, and is working on a book project that responds to her father’s unpublished manuscript about his Tule Lake incarceration during World War II.

*This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at <www.discovernikkei.org>, which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.