The very first Japanese Americans to be rounded up and sent to internment camps were those on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Armed soldiers forcibly removed more than 200 islanders of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, citing Japanese American Exclusion Order #1. Many of the people had homes, farms, and pets that had to be abandoned or left in the care of sympathetic neighbors. The internees could only bring what they could carry.
In our long history of immigrants coming to this continent, different groups have received different types of treatment. Bainbridge Island provides a bright spot in a dismal history of outright racism towards people of color. Though the government identified this ethnic group (but not Germans or Italians in America) as a security threat, most of the people of the island chose to see their Japanese neighbors as friends. Islanders remained friendly with the “excluded” population before and after they were sent away, often protecting their property for them throughout the three years they were gone.
There is now a memorial on Bainbridge Island honoring the Japanese members of the community and those who welcomed them back to the island after the war.
The beautiful wooden wall built in 1998 includes the names of every man, woman, and child taken away March 30, 1942. Colorful origami cranes are tied here and there along the 276 foot-long contemplative walkway. It leads down to Eagle Harbor where the Japanese people were herded onto a ferry and then a train to be taken to Manzanar and, later, Minidoka internment camps. My husband’s parents were similarly incarcerated during WWII and I’ve written about my mother-in-law’s experience in a previous post. We could see that this cedar and granite wall was created with love and respect, just as the local editor during the war regularly included stories about the Japanese Americans missing from the island community, using the power of words to maintain human connections.
A strong message of the memorial is to never forget and to never repeat this kind of abuse of civil and constitutional rights against any group. One man who had to move to an internment camp at eight-years-old tells young people about his experiences so they can be aware of this history. The lessons bear repeating so we do not repeat our divisive history. Rather than reacting with fear, we have the choice to lead with open hearts, wisdom, and understanding.
Nidoto Nai Yoni. Let it not happen again.