by Ted Iwata, For the North American Post
Time and circumstance can take fortuitous turns, like short poetry inspired by the Day of Remembrance, a day to remember that Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II and forced into camps.
Day of Remembrance 2019…Tacoma By Ted Iwata
Remember or not remember the burden
of a sneak attack that was the “Day of Infamy.”
Remember or not remember the past
buried with the sweeping dust of Manzanar,
Minidoka…Topaz, Tule Lake… Heart Mountain…
Remember or not remember… the skeletons,
old secrets hidden to times past…
Where are the pieces of bone
scattered with the wind blowing?
I was born at Minidoka
with no remembrance of them…
I was on my way to the Chihuly Museum of Glass in Tacoma to see the traveling exhibition of The Raven and Light by Preston Singletary, a Tlinglit, who may be the premier glass artist from the Northwest. But on my way there, I decided to take a quick look inside the Washington State Museum of History to see what exhibitions were going on. I noticed there was a placard next to the information desk that listed the events for the Day of Remembrance sponsored by the museum and by the two JACLs in Tacoma and Puyallup. The two remaining events on the sign were a discussion about the future museum exhibition of Japanese Americans in the Tacoma area that was still in the planning stage and then a procession to Union Station next door where a train took away the local community of Japanese Americans to Minidoka.
When I walked into the auditorium at the basement of the museum, I sat down near the door since I did know how long I would stay there before I would leave for the Glass Museum. A Japanese American woman was the moderator in a Q&A session with the audience about the earlier event for the Day of Remembrance. As I was listening to the discussion, I was filling out the survey given to the audience about their knowledge and opinions about the World War II incarceration. The first question of the survey was: What were the years of the incarceration? I wrote down quickly the answer of 1943-45. As I was starting to answer the remaining questions, the phrase, “Remember or not remember….”, began to emerge slowly, because just after the war and even long afterwards, there were many Nikkei, including my parents, relatives, and friends, who had little interest in recalling the events and experiences that were part of that history, and this would be like turning the page over for that part of your life and instead starting a new chapter.
After answering a few survey questions, I started to write in a blank answer area for one of the questions I had already skipped. I started writing:
Remember or not remember the burden of a sneak attack that was the ‘Day of Infamy’.
Remember or not remember the past….
Remember or not remember….
The audience then stepped out to the back of the building into a concrete area that was in the shape of a small amphitheater with only one side of narrow, steep steps for seating that reached the street level above. Everyone was gathered in a wide circle on the floor of the theater, where there was more discussion about Tacoma’s history. A second moderator, who was a white middle-aged man, was a local historian. He said he discovered a graphic elementary schoolbook for the Japanese language that was left inside a box. The book appeared to be handmade and crafted with images of children’s objects that were almost in the style of a paper collage. I joined this part of the assembly towards the end of the outdoor discussion, and it did not occur to me until later that the audience had doubled in size with some twenty students that appeared to be from Japan.
Leaving the state museum from the back of the building, the gathered group of participants walked down a diagonal path, which started to the right, down the hillside that dropped two stories to a level area with a concrete sidewalk and a concrete access road. The road ran along the waterfront with large pleasure boats held in moorage on both sides of a nearby dock. The group then turned left on the sidewalk, northward, to the backside of a neighboring building that stood up on the hillside about six stories tall on Pacific Avenue and displayed the iconic shape of a dome on the rooftop of Union Station, completed in 1911. The moderator, who earlier had discovered the long forgotten schoolbook, pointed above the dome building and mentioned the place of a Japanese American community that dwelled farther uphill and farther to the north in a neighborhood that now had fewer residents with scattered vacant lots on the hillside, above the first original, brick buildings of Tacoma that lined the main street of Pacific Avenue. Halfway up a very steep hillside of about eight blocks, farther above the buildings, the local Japanese Buddhist Temple was located on a level street where Bon Odori dances were performed on a late summer weekend.
The moderator said it was important on the Day of Remembrance to be in the same place where those people of the Japanese American community were directed from their homes on the hillside. He then requested that we all have a few minutes of silence to remember the time when the gathering of Japanese Americans would have departed on a train, which most likely would have all its windows covered in darkness, traveling to an unknown destination.
We did not know it immediately, but we were all standing together on the concrete sidewalk and road where the original railroad tracks would have led the people out of Tacoma.
The woman moderator then made a few closing comments to the audience, and she finished, declaring aloud in a protesting cry:
Ted Iwata is a Sansei, Seattle native. He has written for the Post from 2010.