More than a dozen people whose childhoods were upended by state-sanctioned racism gathered between the flowering trees and the cedar story wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial on Tuesday.
Most were infants and children when the Army trucks brought them and the rest of the island’s Japanese American community to be forcibly removed to concentration camps on that same day 79 years ago. They were the first of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent wrested from their homes in Washington, Oregon and California during World War II.
These law-abiding civilians, including thousands of U.S. citizens, were unjustly incarcerated for years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, based on the unwarranted fear that their parentage made them a threat to national security. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing their forced removal and incarceration, on Feb. 19, 1942.
This year’s commemoration of that shameful violation of human rights and constitutional protection is further weighted by recent attacks against Asian Americans around the country. Looking out over Eagle Harbor, the survivors listened as Clarence Moriwaki, president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, repeated the memorial’s slogan: Nidoto nai yoni — let it not happen again.
“It’s aspirational,” said Moriwaki. “It’s inspirational. But apparently, it’s not enough.”
Not enough to prevent the shocking violence against Asians reflected in national headlines: The Atlanta-area murders. The grandmother assaulted on a San Francisco street corner. The New York woman brutally beaten while she was on her way to church. Not enough to prevent the incidents that haven’t made the news: In Seattle, police recorded 14 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020, up from six just two years earlier, The Seattle Times recently reported. How many more victims didn’t even bother to call police?
“Our community knows what that feeling is — to have the whole country turn its backs on you,” Moriwaki said in an interview. Seventy-nine years ago, not a single member of Congress stood to question the incarceration of Japanese American men and women, grandparents, babies and children. There were no rallies. No mass protests.
On Bainbridge, islanders took care of farms and kept an eye on properties during their neighbors’ unjust incarceration. The local paper, the Bainbridge Review, called for an end to the abhorrent action. But that didn’t happen everywhere. Thousands of people lost land, homes, property and businesses. Today, people of all races, ages and walks of life are speaking out against racist violence. But we must do more.
“We will not tolerate intolerance,” Moriwaki said on Tuesday. Origami paper cranes fluttered near the etched names of the 276 Japanese and Japanese American islanders who lived on the island at the time of removal. But this place is not only about remembering. It is about healing and hope.
A National Park Service ranger handed out copies of a new Junior Ranger booklet about the memorial. “The words we use to describe things matter,” reads a note inside the cover. Some people use euphemisms to minimize what happened, the note explains. Instead, this book uses the harsh, but accurate words: forced removal. Incarceration. Concentration camp.
Nidoto nai yoni — not a lament, but a call to action.
Let it not happen again.