Historic pilgrimage reconnects Japanese American community to Angel Island immigration station

CONNECTING TO THE PAST — Wendy Sakuma, 12, whose great-grandmother Lowe Shee Miu spent time on Angel Island, peers out from an Immigration Station barrack window. photo by Paul Sakuma/Paul Sakuma Photography

CONNECTING TO THE PAST — Wendy Sakuma, 12, whose great-grandmother Lowe Shee Miu spent time on Angel Island, peers out from an Immigration Station barrack window. photo by Paul Sakuma/Paul Sakuma Photography

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States Immigration Station at Angel Island served as a primary entry point into the mainland United States, particularly for immigrants from Asia. Renown for its carvings of Chinese poetry by immigrants, the story has been predominantly focused on Chinese immigrant history. On Oct. 4, the Nichi Bei Foundation, in partnership with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and the National Japanese American Historical Society, held the inaugural Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage to cast a spotlight on the Japanese American journey.

Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said more than 600 people attended the pilgrimage, embarking on ferries from San Francisco and Tiburon, Calif. 

Kallan Nishimoto, Naoko Amemiya and Misa Hayashi started the pilgrimage with an impromptu concert by playing the taiko, flute and cymbals on the upper deck of the Tiburon-Angel Island Ferry. They later performed at the main program in front of the ruins of the immigration station’s old administration building.

Attendees landed on Angel Island State Park’s docks and made their way on a 1.5-mile trek to the immigration station. The immigration station featured both its permanent exhibit in its restored immigration barracks, and a series of new mini-exhibits developed by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation focusing on Japanese Americans. Along with the mini exhibit, volunteers from the California Genealogical Society provided information on genealogy resources, while the Japanese American Museum of San Jose presented on the history of Japanese Americans in Santa Clara Valley and hosted children’s activities. 

The main program, which started after lunch, featured talks by historians and artistic presentations by Nikkei poets and actors such as poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi and historian Judy Yung.

 

Reconnecting to a Legacy

Taguma called Angel Island the “Plymouth Rock” for Japanese Americans, but noted that many Nikkei were apathetic to its historical significance.

The immigration station was destined to be demolished in the early 1970s, until a California State Parks employee, Alexander Weiss, noticed the carvings on the walls of the former immigration barracks. Weiss brought the carvings to San Francisco State University professor George Araki’s attention, and the ensuing expeditions to the immigration station led to its preservation.

Among the first expeditions, Araki invited friends such as San Francisco State ’s Ethnic Studies Dean Jim Hirabayashi and photographer and architect Mak Takahashi. Taguma said that in a recent meeting with Takahashi, he was disappointed Japanese Americans were not as interested in Angel Island at the time. “I was surprised that it didn’t get the play that it should, especially in the Japanese world,” Taguma quoted Takahashi. “These people (rediscovery team) understood the gravity of the situation. They tried to get it out to the Japanese American community, but they probably didn’t have the voice to be heard.”

Taguma presented Araki and Weiss at the program with awards and said another award for Takahashi — who documented the early expeditions with his lens — is forthcoming. While Araki had passed away in 2006 and Weiss could not attend the pilgrimage due to his health (he later passed away on Oct. 17), their families attended to accept the award on their behalf. “To me, the opportunity to finally honor those who ‘rediscovered’ the Angel Island Immigration Station was the most important highlight of the day,” Taguma said. “I’m grateful that we were able to do this while Alexander Weiss was still with us.”

Jill Shiraki, the pilgrimage’s program coordinator, said Taguma first conceived the event’s idea some time ago, but planning came together relatively recently. While the hot weather during the day was unanticipated, Shiraki said the plans fell into place with community organizations contributing great ideas and enthusiasm. She said she was pleased with those who could attend, especially students, and the families of the pilgrimage’s honorees. “I was touched by Lianne Araki’s reflection that her father’s ashes were scattered in the SF Bay and that she felt he was present in spirit for this honor,” she wrote in a e-mail to Nichi Bei Weekly. “And with the recent passing of Alex Weiss, we are grateful to have had the recognition to share with his wife and daughter just a few weeks prior.”

Focus on Nikkei History

Along with the program, Grant Din of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation presented a new exhibit on Nikkei who passed through Angel Island both before and during World War II. Din said most of the pre-war information came from Yung’s research.

According to Yung, approximately 85,000 people of Japanese descent were detained on Angel Island between 1910 and 1940, making them the second largest ethnic group to pass through after the Chinese. While the Chinese were subject to long detentions and multiple rounds of interrogation, Japanese were generally admitted within a day or two and had the lowest deportation rate, Yung said, due to Japan’s political strength following their victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The United States and Japan negotiated the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1908 which, while curtailing Japanese laborers from entering the United States, allowed Japanese laborers already in the United States to summon family members, thus an influx of “picture brides” — women who came to America through an arranged marriage with Japanese men in America — arrived between 1908 and 1920.

After the immigration station’s closure in 1940, following the administration building being burnt down in a fire, Din said the barracks held Japanese prisoners of war and Nikkei detainees from Hawai‘i and the Pacific Coast. The exhibit Din created elaborates on Angel Island’s immigration barracks being used to house “enemy aliens” of Japanese, German and Italian descent during the war. “There were about 600 people from Hawai‘i, they came on eight separate boats. Another 100 or so came from around the Pacific Coast,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

During the program, Din detailed the conditions and experiences some of the men passing through Angel Island during the war experienced.

He pointed out that Issei were not allowed to become naturalized citizens until 1952, “so when Japanese immigrants were classified as ‘enemy aliens,’ it was not something they had chosen.”

Additionally, another 400 Japanese were also imprisoned on the island as prisoners of war, according to the exhibit. Din said the immigration station has interviewed a former Nisei guard at Angel Island and possesses records from the National Archives, but finding additional information on the experience has been difficult. Through the pilgrimage, however, new stories and avenues of research have also surfaced.

Attendee Mark Shigenaga said he had been interested in learning more about his family’s connection to the wartime incarceration. He began looking into his family’s history while organizing family gatherings, and discovered that his grandfather and granduncle were sent to Angel Island from Sand Island in Hawai‘i before being sent off to Department of Justice camps on the mainland. Their story is mentioned in Patsy Saiki’s book “Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit,” Shigenaga said.

“That blew me away, but we don’t have any records or details,” he said. Shigenaga said he decided to go on the pilgrimage to find help on digging up more information. Shigenaga said he met Din and they have correspond–ed with each other since the pilgrimage to share information on wartime inmates at Angel Island.

Remembering and Honoring Immigrants

Taeko Oda, 93, of Richmond, Calif. looks out the window of the former Immigration Station barracks at Angel Island State Park, a view many dejected immigrants from Asia held from 1910 to 1940. photo by Paul Sakuma / Paul Sakuma Photography / www.paulsakuma.com

Taeko Oda, 93, of Richmond, Calif. looks out the window of the former Immigration Station barracks at Angel Island State Park, a view many dejected immigrants from Asia held from 1910 to 1940. photo by Paul Sakuma/Paul Sakuma Photography/www.paulsakuma.com

Yung, along with other presenters, highlighted some of the Nikkei who passed through the immigration station.

While much of the writing on the barrack walls are Chinese poetry, Nikkei who passed through Angel Island also wrote poetry, some of it published in Japanese American newspapers. Charles Egan, professor of classical Chinese literature at San Francisco State, read a series of translated poems published in the Nichi Bei Shimbun written by Issei between 1910 and 1924. “When (the) Japanese American experience is discussed in the media these days, invariably the focus is on the tragedy of the World War II internment,” he said. “Yet the Issei experience that Angel Island represents predates all of that. Their lives were hard, they were homesick for Japan and they encountered violence and discrimination. But at the same time, they remained focused on starting a new life here. … The emotions they expressed in the poems were mixed, but chief among them were hope.” 

Author and poet Hiroshi Kashiwagi read “An Issei Woman,” an ode to his mother, Kofusa Kashiwagi, who came through Angel Island.

While Japanese Americans were less likely to be held or deported from Angel Island, there are several notable cases of extended stays. Yung, along with a short play scripted by Judy Hamaguchi, illustrated some of the notable ordeals Japanese Americans experienced while trying to enter the United States through San Francisco.

In Hamaguchi’s short play “Toshiko Inaba: Longest Journey Home,” presented by the San Francsico chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Pearl Wong and Tim Yamamura acted out a dramatized account of Toshiko Inaba’s ordeal in re-entering the United States. Inaba, who was born in the United States, was denied re-entry to the U.S. after having married a Japanese man, albeit the arranged marriage was annulled before the couple ever lived together. Inaba was detained on Angel Island for 16 months — the longest known period of incarceration for any person of Japanese descent on Angel Island — before being deported back to Japan in 1930. She would not return to the United States until 1965.

Connecting with Broader Generations

Ben Kobashigawa, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State, led more than 140 university students to participate in the pilgrimage. Kobashigawa, whose Kibei Nisei father went through Angel Island, had previously visited it and understood its historical significance. “It was more important to get the students over there this time around,” he said. “A lot of them were not expecting to find it that interesting to go through the museum and program.” 

Kobashigawa shared Emiko Osaka’s thoughts on the pilgrimage through an essay she wrote for class. Osaka wrote that Hamaguchi’s play was the “most emotional and touching segment of the program.”

“Some might (have) overlooked the Japanese in relation to the historical context of Angel Island because of the ‘Japanese having an easier time than Chinese arrivals in terms of the interrogation process and length of stay at Angel Island’ … Yet this was not the story for all Japanese, Toshiko’s experience being a clear representation of that.”

Takashi Tanemori, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, said the pilgrimage also was an opportunity for post-war Japanese immigrants to appreciate the sacrifices Issei made. “I think there’s an opportunity to say thank you from our younger generations of Japanese immigrants,” he said. “These early immigrants carved the way for us.”

Jon Funabiki, journalism professor at SFSU, said he encouraged his family to attend the pilgrimage with him. “I was always interested for the Chinese poetry on the walls and even took Chinese journalists there once to show them,” he said. “What I didn’t realize was the number of Japanese going through.”

“The symbolism of the ferry ride was great, the number of people was amazing,” he said. “I think everyone kind of got a taste of arriving on Angel Island on a ship. I think it made us think about their grandparents’, or whoever came through here’s, experience.”

Opening up Avenues of Family Research

Linda Harms Okazaki, a member of the California Genealogical Society, presented on her family history and encouraged others to research their family through the society. “Every immigrant story is unique,” she said. “You can document your own history. The records are there for you to search and there’s no better way to honor your own ancestors than to document their stories and pass it on.”

According to Okazaki, the five CGS volunteers completed more than 50 brief consultations with attendees. “People got a kick out of seeing passenger records, camp exit rosters, census records, World War I draft registrations, and yearbook pictures,” she said. Okazaki said many attendees asked how they could access files from the National Archives and other resources to start their search and also learned how to fill out a pedigree chart.

Taguma said he was moved by the number of pilgrimage attendees, as well as the broad range of ages of its participants. He said he appreciated the California Genealogical Society for helping attendees reconnect with their ancestors and sparking interest in researching family histories, which Taguma considered a main goal of the pilgrimage. “I hope that we can continue to get community members more connected with their history, and to our collective history on Angel Island,” he said. “This pilgrimage — with its unprecedented attendance — provided a vehicle to reclaim some of that lost legacy. It sent a loud message that we, as a community, have a vested interest in our history there.”

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