I call Bainbridge Island, WA home. History books record our early link with exploration when George Vancouver spent several days anchored off the south end of the island, in 1792. Then in 1841, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes came along surveying the island and naming us for William Bainbridge, commander of the U.S.S. Constitution in the War of 1812. The first generation Japanese immigrants came in 1883 and while some worked in the logging and shipbuilding industry, many toiled in the islands’ strawberry fields. It was from Bainbridge that our Japanese-American residents were the first to be sent to internment camps during World War II. The story that follows recognizes this sorrowful date in our island and U.S. history. It appeared in the New York Times.
Published: August 5, 2011
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — Frank Kitamoto was only 2 when he and his family — and more than 270 others of Japanese ancestry — were forcibly removed from this forested island and sent to an internment camp after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in World War II. Mr. Kitamoto, now 72, said he spent many of his younger years in a severe identity crisis, ashamed of his Japanese heritage and wishing he were white. Other young men went so far as to have plastic surgery to disguise their Japanese features. Some committed suicide.
“As a kid, I thought this was the land of equality and freedom, and so this couldn’t be happening because of discrimination,” Mr. Kitamoto, who became a dentist, said the other day in his office, where one wall is covered with photos from that era. “So I thought it was because there was something wrong with me, that I was a bad person.”
On Saturday, Mr. Kitamoto — along with hundreds of others, including former prisoners, their families, Bainbridge residents and tourists — will reflect on that period, when American citizens were exiled from their homes and incarcerated, without due process, by the United States government because of their ethnicity. At a small inlet harbor, among wetlands and old cedar trees, they will dedicate a memorial wall that commemorates what the government later acknowledged was one of the most shameful episodes in its history. The wall’s purpose is emblazoned on it in bronze lettering: “Nidoto Nai Yoni — Let It Not Happen Again.”
For some, this may be the last such gathering. Fumiko Hayashida, Mr. Kitamoto’s aunt, who was about 31 when she was rounded up by soldiers, is now either 99 or 100 (the records were not clear) — the oldest surviving prisoner from Bainbridge.
A famous photograph of her by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was one that has come to symbolize the internment. The camera caught her on March 30, 1942, clutching her daughter, Natalie, then 13 months old. A stylish hat was perched, incongruously, on her head, and identification tags hung from their coats. They were labeled as if they were baggage, ready for shipment.
Bainbridge was home to the very first group of Japanese-Americans to be removed and was one of the few communities to welcome them back when the war was over. Of 277 forced off the island, 150 people returned. About 90 survive today, and 20 still live here.
In the hysteria that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many officials in the government saw Japanese-Americans as potential saboteurs and collaborators against the United States. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order excluding them from living near military installations. The wall here is called the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. It contains the names of all 277 Japanese-Americans on the island — two-thirds of them American citizens — who were excluded from the island for the next three years.
The aroma of fresh-cut cedar lingers in the air at the serpentine wall. It occupies an eight-acre plot near an out-of-the-way ferry landing, where American soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets gathered up the island’s bewildered Japanese-Americans, who had just six days to prepare; they could take only what they could carry and did not know where they were going.
Soldiers led them over a bridge and onto a ferry to Seattle, where they boarded a train for a three-day journey, with the shades drawn as they went through towns. Finally, buses delivered them to the Manzanar relocation camp in the California desert. About a year later, many, including Mr. Kitamoto’s family, sought transfer to the Minidoka relocation camp in south central Idaho to be with other prisoners from the Seattle area. They stayed there for the duration of the war.
One of Mr. Kitamoto’s sisters, Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, then 7 and now 76, recalled the howling wind and dust storms at the camps, but in retrospect, she was mostly amazed that the government “could have pulled this off,” she said, sitting in the sun on the wood porch of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, where she volunteers.
Even after the war, she said, the prejudice did not vanish. She recalled that salesclerks in stores in Seattle would refuse to wait on her family, and so they had to order everything from the Sears Roebuck catalog. She said she “tried to prove I was American” by telling people she ate mashed potatoes for dinner; in fact she went down to the beach and gathered seaweed.
“Now,” she said with a chuckle, “they serve sushi on the ferry from Seattle.”
All in all, the government incarcerated 120,000 Japanese-Americans in 10 major camps and scores of smaller detention centers, most of them in the West. Decades after the war, as part of a redress movement, some survivors who had not wanted to draw attention to their heritage began to speak about their experiences.
The movement culminated in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan apologized for the nation; letters and $20,000 were eventually sent to each survivor. (Congress appropriated $37 million for restitution, though the total income and property lost was estimated to be as high as $2 billion, in 1983 dollars.)
Since then, various oral history projects, seminars and monuments, mostly in the West, have emerged. A new interpretive center is to open later this month at the site of the former Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
In addition to the memorial wall here, which several private and public groups have been planning for more than a decade, the historical museum is showing a collection of photographs by Ansel Adams of the inmates at Manzanar. Another exhibit at the museum traces the history of Americans of Japanese ancestry on the island from 1883.
What is distinctive about Bainbridge Island is that it was the embarkation point for the first wave of people who would be exiled. The government used the island’s small population as a test case, to see whether it could carry out a mass relocation. The Bainbridge Island experiment became the model for evacuations up and down the West Coast.
Bainbridge was also unusual because the Japanese-Americans had lived for decades as part of the fabric of the island. They first came in the 1880s, working, along with Italians and Hawaiians, in the timber mills and then farming the strawberry fields. Their children went to school together.
Among the islanders were Walt Woodward and his wife, Millie, a white couple who ran the local newspaper, The Bainbridge Review, and who were among the few editorial voices to speak out against the exclusion. During the exile the Woodwards published news from their incarcerated correspondents, announcing weddings, births and deaths and detailing camp conditions. The paper began to receive national recognition after the war, and in 1994 David Guterson’s book “Snow Falling on Cedars,” with a character inspired by Mr. Woodward, brought their story into the general public. Bainbridge was one of the few communities that would welcome back the prisoners and help them pick up their lives.
Mr. Kitamoto said he viewed the memorial as much an honor to those who eased their return as it was to those who were exiled.
He said he came to realize that he could not move on with his life unless he became forgiving, but he said the discrimination against Muslims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had reignited his fears.
“What is happening to the Muslims is very similar to what happened to us,” he said. “That will continue until we decide not to let fear dictate our response to events.”
His aunt, Mrs. Hayashida, petite and spry, seems to harbor little resentment at this stage. “We looked like the enemy,” she explained, sitting in her homey living room in Seattle, where she now lives. “And I trusted the government to take care of us. At least the family was all together. I was confused, but I just followed the rules.”
Her daughter, Natalie Hayashida Ong, who is 70 and lives in Texas, said that the famous photograph had become a defining event for her mother since the redress movement began. “She was nobody, but she represented everybody,” Ms. Ong said.
John Paul Jones, a noted architect who lives here and designed the wall, said he was trying to capture the emotion of lives that had been flowing along smoothly and were all of a sudden interrupted by exile, a shock that is represented by an abrupt break in the wall.
“I’m American Indian, and I understand being sent away from your homeland,” Mr. Jones said. “I consider the wall a place to honor them for what they lost.”
Source: The New York Times; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/06/us/06internment.html