By Ryan Kuramitsu
Earlier this month, members of Chicago’s Japanese American community gathered at the Chicago History Museum to commemorate the day Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the legislative move that ordered the mass deportation and incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans. Each year, five local Nikkei advocacy and cultural groups, including JACL Chicago, come together to share in the responsibility for planning and holding this event.
The first Day of Remembrance was inaugurated in 1978 on the Puyallup fairgrounds in Washington, which had served as an incarceration center named Camp Harmony during WWII. That first year, the National Guard provided trucks similar to those used in 1942, and led a caravan that traced the original path followed by some of the camp’s incarcerees.
In the nearly 40 years since the event’s inception, Nikkei communities across the country have continued to commemorate this day in a number of novel ways. In Chicago and elsewhere, community members gather annually at solemn ceremonies where music is played, stories are shared, excerpts from the Executive Order and the Exclusion Poster are read and organic community reflection is given space to occur.
Christine Munteanu, assistant program Director with JACL’s Chicago chapter, believes these traditions are key to the spirit of the Day of Remembrance. “The goal,” she explained, is to meditate on “the impact the incarceration experience has had on our families, our community and our country.
It is an opportunity to educate others on the fragility of civil liberties in times of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all.”
In short, remembering the past is important because it is inextricably linked to a responsible furthering of our future. Memories must be honored and grieved and held onto going forward.
This year, more than 130 attendees braved the foul weather and gathered to honor the community’s female compatriots and civic leaders.
Scholar and civil rights attorney Peggy Nagae gave a presentation on Japanese American female leadership called “Women Warriors: From Incarceration to Redress and Beyond,” which touched on the lives of icons and activists such as Mitsuye Endo and Yuri Kochiyama. Nagae also specifically honored the women who played an integral role in the redress movement, including Grayce Uyehara and Cherry Kinoshita, as well as Chicago’s own Tsune Nakagawa, Chiye Tomihiro and Kiyo Yoshimura.
According to Munteanu, this tribute was especially meaningful because while some of these women were in the audience, others had died over the years — Yoshimura passed away in December.
Bursts of applause frequently punctuated Nagae’s remarks, as community members of all ages deeply resonated with her presentation. Younger attendees were able to more fully grapple with the disturbing legacy of incarceration in the safety of their own community, and older audience members were able to celebrate the lives and examples of their friends, mentors and colleagues.
For many attendees, this was not an abstract history lesson but their lives on display.
As Chair of the Day of Remembrance Committee and community leader Sharon Hidaka shared, “Peggy’s presentation was powerful and enlightening . . . she gave the entire audience an awareness that women in [our] community have long been overlooked.”
This year’s public telling of Nikkei history from a refreshingly femalecentric perspective was a needed rebuke to our familiar patriarchal narratives, which generally consign Japanese American women to a secondary role at best, as wives and daughters of the “real heroes.”
But the truth is, our women warriors have led our community from the brink of collapse, from incarceration to redress and far beyond. They have displayed fire and brilliance, acted as primary protagonists.
The leaders honored in this year’s Day of Remembrance ceremony aren’t quite the docile women society often conjures by assumption and stereotype — they are not curtsying demurely, serving tea with a quiet smile. They are proud, fearsome, inspiring people; they don’t need men to speak for them. They are examples for Nikkei of all genders of which to aspire.