“Leaving Our Island” Day at Sakai Intermediate School
Photos & Text by David Yamaguchi
The North American Post
On March 1, I caught an early ferry to Bainbridge Island to participate in “Leaving Our Island” Day at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School. The invitation to attend was from NAP contributor Pamela Okano, a longtime participant in the event.
As she explained, they are starting to run a bit low on people who can speak to their sixth graders on the now widely-known deportation of Japanese Americans from Bainbridge under armed guard in March 1942. She liked that I have a Bainbridge connection, through my late Auntie Natsuko (Yamaguchi Chin), who at the time was a newly minted Seattle Nisei nurse who joined the islanders on the train journey to Manzanar (napost.com, Mar. 2022). I agreed to participate because the event fit in with my broader pilgrimage of the possibly 88 places/annual events/organizations that comprise the Puget Sound Nikkei community.
Arriving at the Sakai School, I found it to be an impressive place — neat, new and tidy. The Issei farmer and his wife of its namesake provided a part of their land for the school at nominal cost.
Making my way to the library, where the speakers were gathering, I quickly recognized many familiar faces. There was Karen Matsumoto, whose late father Roy is one of six WWII Nisei soldiers whose stories are profiled in “Bridge to the Sun” (2022), recently reviewed by Pamela (napost.com, Jan. 2023). He was a jungle soldier with the Merrill’s Marauders in Burma (now Myanmar), “the first guerrilla unit in the US Army” according to Karen.
Mary and Joe Abo, NAP Omoide writers, were also present, as was retired teacher Eileen Okada (“Reluctant Islander,” napost.com, 2016).
According to Pamela, 26 panelists in all had been scheduled. Several are book authors. There were only a few minutes to chat before we were quickly divided into pre-organized teams and whisked away to classrooms. I found myself on a panel with Karen, Mary and Pamela, of whom Mary is the only one old enough to have gone through the incarceration.
Within a few minutes, the students streamed in. After brief self-introductions by the panelists, student-led Q&A sessions began in each of two successive classes. As Pamela had explained to me in advance, “The sixth graders have already spent a week or two studying what happened.”
Below, I combine my two sessions to provide a flavor of the class discussions.
Mary Abo was two when Pearl Harbor was bombed. She journeyed with her mother, two brothers and a sister from their home in Juneau, Alaska, to incarceration camps at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, Washington, and Minidoka, Idaho. Her father was held in a separate camp. Mary is a retired teacher who taught junior high in Bremerton, west of Bainbridge Island.
Karen Matsumoto knew nothing of her father’s story until someone showed her a hardbound copy of “Burma Rifles” (1960) and asked her if she was related to the Roy Matsumoto named in the book. It was not until she went home to ask her father that he admitted that he was the Kibei-Nisei linguist/soldier described there. On leaving the army, her father had pledged to keep his Military Intelligence Service (MIS) story silent “for fifty years.” A retired teacher, Karen taught at the Kitsap Suquamish tribal school, on the Olympic Peninsula just north of Bainbridge Island.
Pamela Okano moved to Bainbridge Island when she was four or five. She attended K-12 there before leaving the island. Her brother and some cousins still live there. Pamela is a retired attorney.
Q&A with Students
Student: “Miss Abo—do you have any memories of the time spent in camp?”
Mary: “My mother had to (hand) wash all of our clothes. I remember playing in the soapy water… I remember spitting out watermelon seeds…”
“We ate mostly surplus, such as Vienna sausages.”
“We were prisoners… It is traumatic for the whole family…. I cried all the time…”
A psychologist later told her that it is probably because her mother relayed her feelings to her. Back home in Juneau, kids made fun of Mary.
Student: “Tell us (more) about ‘The Empty Chair’ (a 2014 documentary film).”
Mary: Fifty Japanese Americans were taken from Juneau; 200 in all were taken from Alaska. When she was 70, her former classmates decided that they needed a JA WWII memorial for her brother and led the community in fundraising to place an oversized bronze empty chair for her brother in the high school.
Before her family left, the high school held an assembly to give him his diploma as class valedictorian. They later left his chair intentionally empty, to remind other students of his absence.
Student: “Did you have natural disasters?”
Karen: “The Jerome (Arkansas) camp (where her father was before his military service) was built on a swamp. People got yellow fever, TB…”
Mary: “My mother worried about ticks…”
from top left: Students in one of the sixth-grade classes. Lilly Kodama made everyone laugh when she introduced herself simply by saying, “My claim to fame is that I’m the sister of Frank Kitamoto.” (The late Frank Kitamoto is a widely remembered BIJAC spokesperson.) Patricia Erdmann, retired educator. To her right stands retired Sakai principal Johanna Vander Stoep who returns annually to the school for “Leaving Our Island” Day.
During the course of the conversations, various intriguing facts about the incarceration were mentioned by the panelists. They are the sorts of comments that linger in the oral histories of families. Most have not made it into history books.
Mary: “Even (Alaskan) families with Native (American) mothers were sent to camp.”
All had been tracked by the US Census.
For funerals in camp, they made paper flowers (to make it as ordinary as possible).
Karen: “Buddhism was not allowed in camp.”
After the war, her father couldn’t get a haircut.
“You’re a Jap,” the barber(s) said.
Her father felt conflicted about his US Army service, for they were killing Japanese soldiers. He also feared meeting a brother on a battlefield.
For Japanese Americans, “It was much like the civil war in this country.”
After his Burma service, Karen’s father worked in Shanghai, where he met a Nisei cousin who had been a student in Japan and was drafted by the Japanese army. By being an army linguist, Roy was also able by chance to save the life of his brother. His unit had fought in Guadalcanal and was accused of war crimes. Roy was able to explain that he had been sick in a hospital at the time so had not participated.
Miraculously, all of Karen’s father’s family survived the war, including three brothers in the Japanese army and two in the US Army.
From top left: Books on display on a library table. A front-hallway before-and-after display of Bainbridge Island fourth-graders who went through the WWII incarceration and returned to Bainbridge together.
Student: “What did you think about the guns being pointed in?”
Pamela: “My parents didn’t do anything (wrong).”
They had married in 1941 and lived in Shelton, yet were not welcome to join a church there after they returned from camp.
Her parents were only in camp for a year. As there were not enough farm workers, “You could get out do farm work, but you couldn’t go home.”
At least it was one measure of freedom. My uncles’ employer’s adult sons and their wives drove back to the Olympic Peninsula to get their cars to give them additional freedom.
“My father was bitter about the incarceration his whole life. He almost threw out his reparations check. He was just furious.”
The three panelists especially shined by wrapping up each hour into concise “take home lessons” for the students.
Mary: “It’s terrible when you think you’re not an American.”
“The people that really carried me were my friends. A friend’s family sent a Christmas box from Juneau including a blue dress and some candy….”
Karen: “I always felt shame and grief about being Japanese.” She felt that “something must be wrong with me.”
“I’m scared to walk around… Seattle by myself…”
“Be a friend to people who are suffering injustice… Be a voice to those that are oppressed.”
Pamela: It is “not likely to happen to us again, but it will happen to other groups.” Accordingly, “it is important to speak up.”
“Speak out when you see injustice… be kind.”
After the classroom sessions, all panelists returned to the library, where the school had box lunches waiting for us. It was a time for the panelists to each briefly introduce themselves to each other. Again, it was a time for learning new historical details.
Kris Hotchkiss, a retired teacher: “In Portland, the animosity against Japanese Americans was so strong.”
“Sakai School has been up (and running) for 20 years… “ (It opened in 2020).
“’Leaving Our Island’ started a few years later…. This is a story that needs to be told. The first year was 2004.”
Karen: “The origin of the idea of the Bainbridge Memorial Wall was not BIJAC (Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community). It was the churches on Bainbridge, the Bainbridge Island Interfaith Council.”
Principal Drew Crandall emphasized the concept of “place-based learning.” Because the history under discussion happened on Bainbridge, “it goes deeper.”
One of Pamela’s early emails had made the same point in a different way.
“A former principal of the school told us that when he speaks to former students who have graduated from high school, the day that the incarcerees and their relatives came to their sixth-grade class is the one thing that really sticks in their memories.”
After the lunch hour, the panelists who had also volunteered to lead afternoon book discussions were again whisked away. As I was left to my own devices, I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the library and front hallway displays featuring Japanese Americans. On the way home, I also revisited the Bainbridge Island JA Memorial there, as a fellow volunteer mentioned that the upper section of a new ramp leading to a dock has recently been completed.
Overall, it is clear that Bainbridge Island, much like nearby Vashon Island, is embracing its JA history as a community. Each island is harnessing its past to teach present-day students timeless lessons about life. As historically agricultural communities where people lived and worked closely together — trading eggs for milk and the like — the populations of both islands got to know their JA neighbors as people first. Had the adjacent mainland acted similarly, instead of remaining partially divided into racially segregated neighborhoods, we would have been the better for it.