‘Proof I was there’: every Japanese American incarcerated in second world war finally named. Source: The Guardian

Posted by


‘Proof I was there’: every Japanese American incarcerated in second world war finally named

Black and white image showing people walking among large cabins

Japanese American detainees walk among the accommodation cabins of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California on 23 March 1942. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty Images

Ireichō, a sacred book of names, lists all 125,284 people of Japanese descent who were held in camps across the US and is on display at an LA museum

Taylor WeikTue 11 Oct 2022 11.00 BST Last modified on Tue 11 Oct 2022 21.23 BST

Kanji Sahara was eight when his family was uprooted from their home in Los Angeles. It was 1942 and the family, along with thousands of other people of Japanese descent, was forcibly sent to live in barracks and horse stables – and eventually, War Relocation Authority camps, where they stayed until the end of the second world war. He would later recall standing behind a fence, watching people across the street go about their day, wondering why life was normal for them but not for him.

<img src="https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/4554feb4c8a17d3b4dee706849342e0523a97101/0_98_4361_2617/master/4361.jpg?width=460&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=ef597a8d24d4a4a7fd02e107822ef7c0" alt="Press conference on new veterans toxic exposure legislation in Washington, US – 26 May 2021

Read more

Sahara is now 88, and last month, he was among hundreds of people who visited the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo for the installation ceremony of a new exhibit dedicated to those who suffered a similar fate.

The highlight of the exhibit is the Ireichō, a sacred book of names, a 25-pound, 1,000-page hand-bound book containing the names of the 125,284 people of Japanese descent – many of them American citizens – who were incarcerated in the United States during the second world war. Eighty years after the camps first opened, it’s the first comprehensive list of its kind.

“It did feel good to see my name in there,” Sahara said. “It was proof that I was there, and that this happened to me.”

The Ireichō project was led by Duncan Ryuken Williams, director of the University of Southern California’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, and creative director Sunyoung Lee. Williams said he spent the past three years working with teams of volunteers across the country to undergo the painstaking process of researching, transcribing and verifying the names of those who were held at the 75 identified incarceration sites, including US army, Department of Justice, and War Relocation Authority camps. These sites opened in 1942 under President Franklin D Roosevelt, following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Survivors and their families use a Japanese stamp to place a mark next to their names in the sacred book.

Survivors and their families use a Japanese stamp to place a mark next to their names in the sacred book. Photograph: Kristen Murakoshi

“The project is about repairing the historical record,” Williams said. “Part of the work of repair is to honor those who were unjustly incarcerated, but it’s also simply to make sure that no one is left out.”

And Williams and his team made sure that no one’s name was left out of the book. “We think we’re close to 99.5% confident,” he said. Volunteers consulted various sources, including Densho, a non-profit that aims to preserve the history of Japanese Americans during the second world war; and other researchers who have done work over the years to collect the names of people at specific incarceration sites. When typos or hard-to-discern letters were spotted in the documents, the volunteers turned to birth certificates and draft cards.

As the first comprehensive list of the more than 125,000 Japanese individuals imprisoned during the second world war, the project also marks the first time it’s been possible to recognize each detainee as individuals, not just as part of the broader Japanese and Japanese American community.

Starting 11 October, visitors to the Japanese American National Museum will be encouraged to use a Japanese hanko, a stamp or seal, to place a mark next to a name in the book as a way to honor that person. Families are also welcomed to find and stamp the names of their loved ones. Williams said his goal is to have every name in the book acknowledged during the year that it’s on display.

black and white image of a family

The Mochida family awaits a bus that will take them to an interment camp in California on 8 May 1942. Photograph: Historical/Corbis/Getty Images

During the installation ceremony on 25 September, Williams said he saw people’s shock over the massiveness of the book, which he expected – he’d envisioned the Ireichō as being “Gutenberg Bible-sized” – but he also noticed something unexpected.

“People’s hands were shaking, so many of them, as they were putting the stamps on the names,” he said. “For many people, this was about honoring a parent, a sibling, a favorite uncle, so you could feel how important it was for them to get the stamp to go to the right place.”

  • Kanji Sahara’s granddaughters were also present, and stamped their late grandmother’s name.

“I grew up learning about my family history and my grandpa was always open about what happened, but seeing this enormous book was a reminder of just how many families have similar stories as mine,” said Kristen Tang, one of Sahara’s granddaughters.

A family standing for a picture in front of a large book

Kanji Sahara, far right, was one of 125,000 people of Japanese descent incarcerated in the US during the second world war. Photograph: Courtesy of Kristen Tang

Williams said he was touched after seeing so many multigenerational families take part in stamping the book together, referring to it as “an opportunity for families to pass on this history, and to make the younger generations feel they’re connected to this history”. Non-Japanese Americans also attended the ceremony, including Indigenous elders from Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where one of the 10 WRA camps was held.

  • “Having non-Japanese American people also be involved, to me, is important,” Williams said. “Because in the end, it’s a broad American public we want to engage.”

The Ireichō is one of three monuments comprising a larger project called Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration, which addresses the erasure of the identities of those incarcerated. The other two are a searchable, digital list of the 125,284 names (Ireizō), and light sculpture monuments (Ireihi), which will be displayed at eight WRA camps starting in 2024. In addition to acknowledging all of the individuals who were incarcerated, Williams also hopes to test the limits of how people view monuments.

“Monuments in the traditional sense gain value from being permanent and static, or stable,” he said. “But with this book, the pages look different after people leave their mark on them. These encounters change the monument. They make the people themselves a part of the monument.”

Sahara, who was initially held at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, then transferred to WRA camps at Jerome and Rohwer, both in Arkansas, says he walked away from stamping the book feeling “gratified”.

“I’m glad we have this,” he said. “With a big book like this, people will have to know what happened. When we know what happened, we can make sure it won’t ever happen again.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s