Redeeming the past. Forty-four years after Japanese-American internment, a community looks back at a time of shame and courage
Bainbridge Island, Wash. — NEARLY half a century after the event, ``Remember Pearl Harbor'' has acquired unique significance in this Puget Sound community near Seattle. The reason? A recent photographic exhibition documenting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exhibit brought together several hundred people who had never met as a community to deal with the toll the evacuation took on some of its most respected citizens.
The Japanese Americans living here at the time of the attack of Imperial forces on Dec. 7, 1941, were the first of 110,000 to be evacuated from the West Coast by imposition of the now-infamous Executive Order 9066. Given 10 days to pack what they could carry, they walked away from prosperous farms and businesses to spend the next 30 months behind barbed-wire fences. Soldiers herded them onto a boat to Seattle, where they were loaded into trains and transported to a camp on the edge of the Mojave desert in southern California.
But when the order was rescinded in December 1944, these same people, descendants of Japanese immigrants who had arrived on Bainbridge Island in 1883, quietly slipped back into the mainstream of community life, welcomed by caring friends. There wasn't a single ugly incident recorded; few other communities could make that claim.
The peaceful integration was due in large part to a husband-and-wife newspaper publishing team. Even before the evacuation began, Walt and Millie Woodward editorially denounced it as a violation of citizens' rights under the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Throughout the internment, the Woodwards encouraged the people who were sent away to keep in regular contact with their neighbors back home via a weekly column written by internment camp correspondents and published by the Woodwards.
The Woodwards have received numerous honors for a stand that initially cost them subscribers, advertising revenue, and hate mail; the evacuation and internment have been well documented, most recently in the film ``Visible Target,'' widely seen on public television.
Still, the sense of shame carried by these American citizens, who were perceived by the military as potentially disloyal because they were of the same nationality as the enemy, has been difficult to purge.
Unexpected emotions emerged during the exhibition weekend in the glow of the affection these Bainbridge Island neighbors hold for each other. Long-buried feelings surfaced and tears flowed. Young Japanese-Americans heard stories of the internment their parents had never talked about. Other young people were incredulous. This could happen in America?
Art Koura, who served with the much-decorated 442nd regiment (``Go for Broke'') infantry unit of Japanese-American soldiers, shared his recollections. ``I was a few years out of high school, helping the family start a new strawberry farm, and we had just heard the news of Pearl Harbor on the radio. Walt called from the Bainbridge Review and said, `Art, I understand you are active in the Japanese American Citizen's League. You're in trouble. What do you plan to do?' Being a farmer's son, all I could think was that strawberries were a luxury. So I said, `Why don't we ask all the farmers to plow their strawberry fields and plant cabbage and potatoes?'''
The Woodwards took a different tack. Soon, their first editorials appeared, vigorously denouncing the evacuation order. Mr. Woodward recalls that one of the military outposts on the island was at the Bainbridge Review office, because it had a telephone.
``Let me tell you it's a lot of fun to sit in front of your typewriter banging away about what a horrible thing it is to evacuate American citizens, and five feet from you are two soldiers who are going to enforce the order. Freedom of the press? You'd better believe it....''
Paul Ohtaki had an after-school job sweeping up at the Review. Woodward told the high school senior, ``Paul, you're no longer a janitor, because where you're going it won't do us much good. You've been promoted to reporter. I want you to send us ... the gossipy news about you people, every week without fail.... Paul did his stuff and sent articles up, and we published them.''
When Mr. Ohtaki's enthusiasm lagged, Woodward wrote, ``Dear Lazybones: When this mess is all over, you people are going to want to come home. You'll be welcomed with open arms by the vast majority of us, but those who don't or won't understand will not feel that way. They may actually try to stir up trouble. But they will have a heck of a time of it if in the meantime you have been creating the impression that the Japanese are just down there for a short while and that being in the Review every week they still consider the island their home....''
Ohtaki, now a San Francisco businessman, eventually went into military intelligence and was succeeded as camp correspondent by his friend Tony Koura, who also got crusty pep letters from his editor. ``It's an important job you're doing, far more important than just reporting a few weddings....''
By this time, most of the Bainbridge internees had been transferred to Hunt, Idaho. Mr. Koura left for school and handed the reporter's job to his sister, Sachiko. Reluctantly, the shy high school girl carried on as columnist, all the time keeping a scrapbook of the columns, editorials, and letters to the editor - even the few hateful ones - that appeared in the Review. Today, that scrapbook is the only remaining chronicle of the transplanted community trying to live normally in an armed camp.
``I would get a letter of inspiration, and it would make me keep on going,'' Sachiko Koura Nakata said. ``I went out to work as a domestic on a farm near the camp and thought I could get out of it [writing the column]. But he wouldn't let me....''
The ``inspirational letters'' kept coming: ``No, let's not let the column drop.... The Review has stuck its neck out good and proper for you people, not because you are `you people,' but because you are Americans and temporarily have lost the citizens' rights this nation guarantees.... The news from Hunt ... is a torch held high in the name of good American citizenship. Its flame reminds the people of Bainbridge Island ... that some of our citizens are living elsewhere temporarily. It is a torch which has burned steadily since a very bad day in December 1941. Don't let this light go out.''
When the ban was lifted in December 1944, the war still raging, Walt wired: ``NEED FULL YARN EVACUEE REACTION ARMY ORDER....''
Sachiko wired the story precisely as it had been assigned, probably unaware of the dramatic impact of her necessarily hard-edged telegram.
As the Woodwards had predicted, some trouble was stirred up when a few anti-Japanese on the island called a mass meeting, attended by 300 islanders. Here it was suggested that the returning families should be shipped to an island in the middle of the ocean, and it would be a good idea if the Woodwards went with them. A second meeting was called ``to get down to brass tacks.'' Twelve showed up. One of them was Walt Woodward.
Family by family, the Japanese-Americans returned and started their lives anew. The Woodwards, whose early stance was supported by the majority of residents, reintegrated them into island news stories without further separate reference.
For 45 years, the internees buried the experience, most of them refusing even to discuss it with the children they took with them. A new generation hardly knows that it happened.
Not bitterness, but a demonstrated love for their country inspired this unusual observance of the ``date which will live in infamy.'' As one of the Japanese American community leaders put it, ``Kodomo no Tameni ... `for the sake of our children.' If we don't know where we have been, how can we know where we are going?''