Near the end of summer, two of the smaller Clares and I found ourselves wandering around Bainbridge Island, WA.
Bainbridge Island is both a city and an island, resting in Puget Sound across from Seattle and only connected to Kitsap Peninsula (an offshoot of the larger Olympic Peninsula) by a two-lane bridge. It’s filled with winding roads through lush evergreen forests and past gleaming beaches, and is the sort of place where you have to be careful if you order a doughnut, as you might get some sort of wheat-free, sugar-free, fat-free imposter.
On March 30, 1942, it was also where the first Japanese Americans were forced from their homes into internment camps.
After Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and other Allied and American locations on December 7th and 8th, 1941, emotions against Japan ran high. Perhaps the nature of the attacks exacerbated the situation- launched before war had been declared, while negotiations with Japanese representatives were still going on in Washington D.C.
In any case, suspicion fell on people of Japanese descent living in the United States. Were they truly loyal to the United States, or were there still lingering loyalties to their ancestral home?
Bainbridge Island’s Japanese population had deep roots, the first immigrants having come to work in the local sawmills and farms in the 1880s. By the 1940s, the population had swelled to a modest 276 Japanese American residents, two-thirds of whom were officially American citizens.
This status made no difference when, on March 24, 1942 the order came down that Bainbridge’s Japanese Americans would be required to leave their homes, destination unknown. Farms, homes and possessions would have to be stored or sold.
One resident, Kazuko Sakai Nakao recalled the scramble to prepare.
I couldn’t fit everything into my suitcase so I had 3 layers of clothes on. No one told us we’d be going to the desert.
Fumiko Nishanka Hayashida- pictured at the beginning of this post with her thirteen month old daughter- had the essentials in mind, and travelled with a suitcase full of diapers.
Initially, the most of the internees were sent to the Manzanar camp in California. (Blogger Curt Mekemson had a chance to visit Manzanar and recently posted an excellent article on it. Here is the link.) Later, some were transferred to Minidoka, Idaho, to be closer to others from the Seattle area.
At the end of the war about 150 chose to return to Bainbridge. Some found vandalism and prejudice waiting for them, but most found friends and neighbors waiting with open arms and helping hands.
The Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial was opened in 2011 as a National Historic Site. Its theme is very fitting: “Let it not happen again.”
The memorial was constructed near Eagle Harbor- by the dock that the internees departed from. The roads on Bainbridge are winding, and I was grateful to find the sign that indicated we’d come to the right place.
The memorial consists of two outdoor levels. On the upper level, a small shelter exhibits informational signs explaining the history of the Japanese on Bainbridge, and giving an overview of the sorrow of the internment and the eventual return home.
A nicely tended walkway passes through greenery to the lower level.
Visitors follow a cedar “story wall” to the right, travelling the same path that the internees took to the ferry that carried them away.
Decorated with paper cranes, the wall lists the 276 names of the Japanese American residents of the island at the time of the internment.
It also includes some beautiful relief sculptures.
The short path ends overlooking the harbor, peaceful and blue, with one of the big Seattle ferries parked across the way.
Passing the harbor, the walk continues, just as the story does.
As years separated our country from the fears and prejudices of wartime, the United States government acknowledged the injustice of the internment of its citizens. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, formally apologizing and paying reparations to over 100,000 Japanese Americans.
While the formal acknowledgement of the violation of constitutional rights was an important addition to the site, the stories from this memorial that stuck with me were the stories of every-day individuals and how they reacted to the internment of their neighbors-
-the story of the class of 1942, 13 of whom graduated in an internment camp. They weren’t forgotten in their home- 13 empty chairs stood on the Bainbridge Island highschool stage.
-the story of Hjalmer Anderson, who kept Bainbridge Gardens from being confiscated by paying back taxes for its interned owners.
-or the story of the Koura family farm. Sold to their neighbors for a dollar when they were sent away, their neighbors tended it and sold it back to them on their return for the same price.
While the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial stands as a testament to injustice, it also stands as a testament to people who endured hardship with dignity, and to people who reached out with kindness and neighborliness.
If Bainbridge Island is a bit out-of-the-way for you to visit, the memorial has an excellent website with images, audio recordings, and information.
As always, many thanks for visiting.
Also many thanks to all of you who have offered kind words, thoughts and prayers for my family and I- I am thankful for you.