Vashon Remembers the Day of Exile

    Vashon Remembers the Day of Exile

    By Alex Bruell
    Beachcomber newspaper

    A crowd of nearly 100 people visited Ober Park on Vashon Island on May 19 to commemorate the Day of Exile — a time of trauma and betrayal for Vashon’s residents of Japanese ancestry. The commemoration was also a time of healing and looking forward through tributes by artists and authors. It was the beginning of a campaign for a sculpture marking the expulsion at  the park.

    ▲Islander Joe Okimoto, a former World War II incarceree, speaks during the “Day of Exile” event. 

    Ober Park was the site where, on May 16, 1942, U.S. armed soldiers rounded up 111 islanders of Japanese ancestry. They forcibly deported residents off the island and ultimately into incarcerated camps across the western U.S. Told to bring only what they could carry, many wore multiple layers of clothing on a hot May day and then shuttled to a ferry on the north end, Rita Brogan, former Friends of Mukai Board of Directors President, told the crowd.  From there, a sweltering train took them to the Pinedale Assembly Center in the middle of the desert near Fresno, California. Afterwards, the prisoners were taken to more permanent camps.

    ▲Koshin Cain, abbot of the Puget Sound Zen Center, rings bell.

    This incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans was, according to the U.S. Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a decision made because of “race, prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” — not due to legitimate military or security concerns. The detainment shattered the community, and only about a third returned after the war.

    ▲ Rita Brogan holding the first check received for the sculpture campaign.
    Searching for Saito” book by Islander Miya Sukune. All Photos credit: Alex Bruell. ▶︎

    Islander Dr. Joe Okimoto was one of those unconstitutionally uprooted and forced away from home. He read excerpts from the poetry of previous Vashon Poet Laureate Lonny Kaneko, an islander imprisoned in the camps who died in 2017. Vashon High School student Sam Bosanko read from the recollections of Eddie Owada, who had to drop out of school to work at age 15 after the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations arrested his father. Vashon artist and author Miya Sukune read recollections of Tillie Sakai Katsura, a 17-year-old on the day of exile.  (Today, Tillie is 100 years old and the suitcase that her younger sister carried is on display at the Mukai Farm & Garden on Vashon.)  Sukunerecently published a graphic novel titled, Searching for Saito, which chronicles the story of Rinzo Saito, a Japanese immigrant who lived in Seattle from 1912 to 1969. Mary Raybourn read recollections of Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who was preparing to graduate from Vashon High School. Seventy-four years later in 2017 at the age of 92, Gruenewald returned to the school in a wheelchair with a cap and gown to receive her diploma.

    To close the ceremony, island historian Bruce Haulman and abbot of the Puget Sound Zen Center Koshin Cain held a blessing and bell ceremony. They read the surnames of the 30 households who were exiled and imprisoned and struck a bell for each one.

    The ceremony also marked the start of a campaign to install a sculpture at Ober Park commemorating the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were brought there in 1942. The campaign got its first check for $500 right after the ceremony’s close. The sculpture will include an educational component with curriculum for seventh grade students on the island.