Revisiting the Roots of Day of Remembrance
Japanese Americans across the United States will be observing Day of Remembrance (DOR) this month to mark the signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942 which forcibly incarcerated more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into U.S. concentration camps during World War II.
Now a tradition, DOR traces its roots 22 years ago in Seattle where volunteers organized the event on the site of the former Puyallup Assembly Center, one of 11 hastily built temporary quarters to house the Nikkei population removed from the West Coast.
Masterminding this inaugural event was a man, who, among some circles is vilified while among others is affectionately embraced. He is pioneer playwright Frank Chin, the same Frank Chin whom the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee credits for resurrecting the Nisei resisters issue in 1980.
"Frank Chin was the brains behind the whole thing (DOR), but everyone else was taking credit for it," said Paul Tsuneishi, former PSW governor.
Then-National JACL President Clifford Uyeda concurred. "Frank Chin was in control," recalled Uyeda. "He sort of organized the whole thing."
Henry Miyatake, an active JACLer at the time, said, "If it wasnt for Frank Chin, there would not have been a Day of Remembrance. He did a terrific job in revitalizing the spirit of the Japanese Americans."
Miyatake, in the early 1970s, was considered a "radical nut" by some JACLers for pursuing redress. By the late 1970s, Miyatake said the redress movement had reached an impasse and his personal life had taken a turn for the worse with a succession of tragedies including the death of his son.
"Mentally, I was not focused on redress," said Miyatake. "But along comes Frank Chin, and he insisted he interview me for background on redress."
What followed, according to Miyatake, were three articles by Chin in the Seattle Weekly, which exposed the internal battles within the Nikkei community on the issue of redress.
"When Frank wrote those three articles, there was a lot of interest," said Miyatake. "But he also alienated people, though it was all true, it was based on facts."
After the publication of the articles, Chin again contacted Miyatake. "Frank felt redress was losing momentum and needed something to revitalize it and needed to get more support other than just from the Pacific Northwest area," recalled Miyatake.
That spark would be the Day of Remembrance.
According to Chin, the idea for DOR developed after a conversation with Ene Riisna, a producer friend of his at ABCs 20/20.
"She asked me to see if I had a story for her," recalled Chin. "I said, Yeah, redress. She hadnt heard about it, and she said she had two available dates. One was Thanksgiving and the other was something like April." Chin told Riisna to reserve the Thanksgiving date.
With only a few weeks to spare, Chin quickly enlisted the help of his friends to stage a media event large enough to capture public interest in redress. Among those involved early on included Miyatake, Shosuke Sasaki, Frank Abe, Kathy Wong, Karen Seriguchi, Ken Nakano and Ron Mamiya.
"It was just a blitzkrieg of activity," said Abe, who had quit his job at the time to devote full time to DOR.
The groups command post became Mamiyas law office on 7th and Jackson where they held their strategic planning meetings, according to Abe. To be as inclusive as possible, the group outreached to all organizations such as the kenjin kai, the churches, the schools and community organizations including the JACL.
To ensure widespread media coverage, the group created a media kit and contacted both mainstream and ethnic media outlets. The efforts paid off with several articles published before and after DOR and TV stations consistently running public service announcements.
Who actually came up with the term, "Day of Remembrance" is up for debate. Chin thought it was either Miyatake or Sasaki, but Miyatake is fairly certain that it was Mayumi Tsutakawa, daughter of famed sculpturist George Tsutakawa.
Whichever the case, the phrase stuck and was used in the poster to publicize the event. Inclusion of the word, "redress," in the poster, however, initially met with opposition from JACL, according to Chin.
"I insisted that redress be mentioned because we were going to have politicians there speaking, and we had to give them the subject to lead them," said Chin. "I didnt care what the politicians said, but if the word was in the poster, it would guide them to speak on the subject."
It fell upon former Puyallup Assembly Center internees, Miyatake and Sasaki, to get permission to hold the event at Puyallup, then renamed the Western Washington Fairground (WWG). Because the land was privately owned, Miyatake said they had to receive permission from the WWG board.
Getting permission was no easy task since board members voiced fears that resurrecting the fairgrounds World War II past would bring bad publicity, especially when the local American Legion was opposing the event, said Miyatake. Thus, initially, three board members opposed permission, three supported it, with one board member and the director undecided.
With the help of Emi Somekawa, who had worked at the fairground and knew the board members personally, Miyatake and Sasaki approached each board member privately. Miyatake, Sasaki and Roger Shimomura also made a formal presentation before the entire board.
After three meetings, the board finally gave their approval.
November 25, 1978 dawned a crisp, clear day in Washington. Seattle residents were to meet in the parking lot of Sicks Stadium and caravan to Puyallup, while those from other cities such as Tacoma were to head directly to Puyallup for the DOR event.
Chin arrived shortly before the appointed noon time and noticed a full parking lot. His immediate thought was that the arena was holding another event.
"I thought, Oh, theres a RV show going on," said Chin. "But then I looked around and everybody was Japanese!"
An estimated 2,200 people had turned out to Sicks Stadium. From there, the state patrol and local police escorted a caravan of more than 250 cars that stretched 4 miles down Interstate 5 to the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Ben Nakagawa is credited with coordinating the law enforcement support.
"The strange thing is that people didnt talk until they were in their cars," recalled Chin. "Once they were in their cars, they all talked. Families were talking about being in camp. The trip together with their families brought all the talk out."
"For some parents, this was the first time they talked about the camps to their children," said Miyatake. "It was difficult but cathartic. Psychologically I think it did a lot of good."
Miyatake estimates that another 1,000 people went directly to Puyallup, for a total of 3,200 participants at the first DOR.
Actors George Takei, Pat Morita and Mako spoke before the crowd, as well as Seattle Mayor Charles Royer and a representative from the governors office.
In addition, Seriguchi had spearheaded an exhibit consisting of past newspaper articles chronicling the internment years and a collection of art work from former internees. Miyatake recalled seeing a six-foot replica of a Minidoka water tower that a camp internee had built in camp and somehow transported to Washington.
"It was an event not to be repeated," said Abe. "Well never have that same passion of trying to put out our story which back then was unrecognized by the government."
Abe felt part of DORs success was the timing. That same summer, at the national JACL convention in Salt Lake City, invited guest speaker Sen. S.I. Hayakawa had held a press conference after his JACL speech, blasting redress and supporting the governments decision to put the Nikkei into camps although Hayakawa, himself, was never in camp. The non-Nikkei public seemed to embrace Hayakawas comments, according to Abe.
Uyeda remembered that particular JACL convention. Although some thought Uyeda had invited Hayakawa, he vehemently denied this. "I had nothing to do with the keynote speaker," said Uyeda. "I was opposed to asking him. After that, we (Uyeda and Hayakawa) were no longer friends."
In retrospect Abe felt Hayakawas comments helped galvanize Nikkei anger and propelled them into action, particularly with DOR. "It (DOR) worked because there was so much pent up energy and decades of frustration of not having their stories told," said Abe. "The media could see that this was a real story, not staged."
But with all events, Abe noted that it takes planning and he recognized Chin for pulling it together.
"I credit Frank Chin with coming up with the idea and inspiring everyone and kind of pushing it along," said Abe. "He was behind the scenes, directing the activity. He was the only person with the vision to see how big it could be and how it all fit together."
Following the Seattle DOR, then-Portland JACL President Jim Tsujimura asked Chin to help them organize a similar event in Portland.
"Portland JACL liked the event and Jim asked that I help him set theirs up, and I did," recalled Chin. "That made two (DORs). Two was good because it set things in motion, and it seemed like things were leading to something. There was movement."
It was the movement that once again jump started the fight for redress.
© 2000 Pacific Citizen, reprinted by permission.
Updated: February 17, 2000