Pilgrimage sheds light on JA immigration history, honors those who preserved it

Although largely known for its Chinese immigrant history, the United States Immigration Station at Angel Island also retains stories from many other immigrant groups, evident today by old carvings on the barrack walls in languages like Russian, Urdu and Japanese. The immigration station’s Japanese immigrant history reveals two layers of stories: Japanese immigration from 1910 to 1940 and wartime detention of “enemy aliens” during World War II.

After its first successful pilgrimage last year, in which more than 600 people attended in unusually hot weather, the Nichi Bei Foundation partnered once again with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and the National Japanese American Historical Society to present the second Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage on Oct. 3 in order to continue bringing to light the station’s Japanese American history and to honor those who helped preserve it.

“We always hear about Ellis Island, but hardly anything about Angel Island, so this was an eye opener for many people,” said attendee Lynn Nihei, who learned through a family history consultation during the pilgrimage that both her parents were detained at Angel Island. Nihei added that learning about her parents through the consultation was the most memorable part of the pilgrimage for her.

Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma estimated that more than 400 people attended the pilgrimage this year, including around 300 people who registered through the nonprofit and others who attended on their own.

The pilgrimage attendees began their trip early in the morning, boarding ferries from San Francisco and Tiburon, Calif. Members of New Ensemble enveloped the top deck of the Angel Island Tiburon Ferry with Japanese music once again, sounding the underlying theme of the day’s venture, while other members performed on the ferry from Pier 41 in San Francisco.

The formal program began at 11:15 a.m. and featured musical performances by New Ensemble and speeches by San Francisco State University Asian American studies Professor Ben Kobashigawa and Grant Din of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

UNCOVERING HISTORY — The second Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage honored those who helped in the preservation efforts early on, including Christopher Chow (L) and Paul Chow (represented by son Gary, above). photo by William Lee

UNCOVERING HISTORY — The second Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage honored those who helped in the preservation efforts early on, including Christopher Chow (L) and Paul Chow (represented by son Gary, above). photo by William Lee

Christopher Chow and the Paul Chow were recognized for their work in preserving the immigration station and Fred T. Korematsu Institute Executive Director Karen Korematsu shared stories about her grandmother, Kotsui Korematsu, a picture bride. Mark Shigenaga, who attended the pilgrimage last year, shared what he learned one year later about his grandfather Kakuro and granduncle Shigeo. Kakuro and Shigeo were detained as “enemy aliens” during World War II.

Recognizing the Immigration Station Preservationists
While last year the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage honored the late Alexander Weiss and George Araki, as well as photographer Mak Takahashi for their work in rediscovering the immigration station barracks, this year it recognized key figures in its preservation.

“The early work of people like Christopher Chow and Paul Chow was crucial in saving the immigration station,” Taguma said. “Every movement, after all, needs agitators to spark change.”

Christopher Chow said that the immigration station barracks “looked and felt like a prison” when he visited the site in 1974. He attended the East Bay Asians for Community Action meeting that summer, where University of California, Berkeley Professor Ronald Takaki presented a slideshow of the barrack photos taken by Mak Takahashi. Soon after the presentation, an ad hoc committee was formed to save the barrack buildings from being torn down by California State Parks.

The Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee would emerge after the ad hoc committee to lead the preservation efforts by advising the California Department of Parks and Recreation to stop plans for the site’s destruction, identify financial resources and begin drafting formal recommendations for its preservation, restoration and interpretation, Taguma said. Chow was first chair of the advisory committee.

“We were going to light a fire under the Department of State Parks to do something about that building there,” said Chow, whose parents passed through the Angel Island immigration barracks.

The late Paul Chow was a civil engineer with the State Department of Transportation when he was asked to help put together the advisory committee. With the help of his colleagues, Paul Chow did much of the research and advocacy work toward the site’s preservation. He also founded the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, spending many days giving tours at the immigration station, along with Christopher and many others. According to Paul’s son Gary, who represented him, Paul was one of the first California State Park volunteers to log 20,000 hours of volunteer work.

The Struggles of Issei Women
In addition, the pilgrimage program paid tribute to the picture brides, which tied into the Nichi Bei Foundation’s 20th anniversary screening of Kayo Hatta’s film “Picture Bride” one week prior in San Francisco’s Japantown.

A highlight of the formal program was the storytelling performance by the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. The performance — written by Judy Hamaguchi and acted by Pearl Wong and Kiyomi Takeda — illustrated the fear and uncertainty felt by picture brides who arrived on the island in the early 1900s.
Attendee Lisa Nakamura said the performance brought back memories of her own grandmother, who was a picture bride. “I was just recalling how my grandmother said how nervous she was being here, seeing these other really young brides come and be picked up by really old men and have no other alternative to that,” she said.

Participants like Lynn Nihei (C) were able to uncover their own family histories through the help of the California Genealogical Society, while hundreds discovered immigration history in the Immigration Station Museum (top right). photo by William Lee

Participants like Lynn Nihei (C) were able to uncover their own family histories through the help of the California Genealogical Society, while hundreds discovered immigration history in the Immigration Station Museum (top right). photo by William Lee

Insight Into Family History
Volunteers from the California Genealogical Society returned this year to help participants learn more about their ancestors at the pilgrimage’s Family History Workstations.
California Genealogical Society President Linda Harms Okazaki said that the consultations were conducted in a way to demonstrate that anyone can do the research themselves.
“You can hire a researcher, but it’s so much more rewarding if people can do it themselves,” she said.

Okazaki and the other genealogy volunteers used online resources like the subscription-based Ancestory.com, but the main resource for Japanese American specific records can be found at various branches of the National Archives. With enough research, Okazaki said each family can order their own koseki, or family registration, from Japan.
First-time attendee Ken Okabayashi said he learned more about how his father came to America through a consultation with Okazaki. Okabayashi said he didn’t know that his father was actually a crewman on the ship he arrived in, rather than just a passenger.

“The front end of the program, it was good, but once we came here (for the genealogy consultation), it just really sealed everything for us,” he said, and his wife Peggy added, “I think it helps to bring closure to an era that you never knew anything about.”

Okabayashi said that, if time permits, he and his wife plan on taking a class with Okazaki and the California Genealogical Society to learn even more about his family history.

Taguma said he hoped participants would gain valuable insight to their own family histories through the consultations.

Taguma said he believes the consultations provided some “meaningful connections to our past, as participants were able to peel off layers of their own family histories.”

“I hope that through the pilgrimage, participants gained a deeper sense of appreciation for the journey and struggles of those who came before us.”

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