The unique case of Bainbridge Island’s JA community in ‘Bearing the Unbearable’

THE FIRST TO GO ­— Bainbridge Island became the first Japanese American community to be forcibly removed during World War II in March 30, 1942. images courtesy of North Shore Productions

A little over a month after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the infamous Executive Order 9066, military orders by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt began forcibly removing people of Japanese descent from the West Coast.

Bainbridge Island, located west of Seattle in Washington state’s Puget Sound, was the first community to be sent to American concentration camps. Filmmaker Rory Banyard captured the unique story behind the island’s Japanese American community in “Bearing the Unbearable” for the National Park Service.
As part of a commission for the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho, Banyard produced and directed the 30-minute film introducing viewers to

the history of Bainbridge Island and the wartime incarceration. Much of the film shares interviews with Banyard’s other 2019 short film “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp,” which serves as the interpretive center’s introductory video.

“Bainbridge Island is very much a part of the Minidoka story as well, but they have their own unique story,” Banyard said.

As with “Minidoka,” the other half of Banyard’s commissioned work from the National Park Service, “Bearing the Unbearable” runs long in comparison to most interpretive center films. Banyard noted that, while most films are around 20 minutes long, his film is about 30 minutes long.

“I think this is a very rich topic,” Banyard said. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of material to tell a story with. We could certainly have made a longer film.”

While the site of the former Minidoka concentration camp is more than 700 miles away from the island near Seattle, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a unit within the National Historic Site since those forcibly removed from the island eventually were sent to the Idaho concentration camp.

Banyard said several elements made the Bainbridge story stand apart from the rest of the wartime incarceration experience. While Bainbridge Island was the first site of a mass removal of Japanese Americans during the war, it was also a community that supported Japanese Americans and opposed the injustice.

“The Japanese American population was dispersed throughout the island and it was a integrated rural community,” Banyard said. “So, that I think stands as a strong counterpoint to Seattle — a ferry ride away — which is much more segregated.”

Clarence Moriwaki, the president of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, said the more welcoming attitudes on the island meant 150 out of the 276 people of Japanese descent forcibly removed from the island eventually returned to the island instead of moving away after the war.

“It was a closed ecosystem economically, socially — we had compulsory public education so all the kids grew up together,” Moriwaki said. “Bainbridge was supportive and welcoming, and defended their neighbors and friends. If there’s anything to celebrate out of this story, it’s that Bainbridge went against the tide. They went face front against the tide of fear and said they didn’t want a part of it.”
Banyard also noted that the island’s local newspaper opposed the mass incarceration. The local paper also published weekly updates on what former residents were up to in the concentration camps and “thought strategically about how to reintegrate them after the war and be sure that they’d be welcomed back,” Banyard said. “As far as I know, that pretty much is unique in terms of the press taking a stand anywhere on the West Coast, at least a stand that continued throughout the war.”

The Bainbridge Review was published by Walt and Milly Woodward, who warned against scapegoating the island’s residents of Japanese descent, and spoke out against their incarceration.

“Bearing the Unbearable” currently plays at the Bainbridge Island History Museum and was also on view at the Klondike Gold Rush site at Pioneer Square in Seattle (prior to the National Park Service closures due to the pandemic).

The film will eventually screen at a visitor’s center on the island as well. Moriwaki said the Japanese American community has been working since the early 2000s to build the visitor’s center near the former site of the Eagledale Ferry Dock where Japanese Americans were loaded onto a boat on their way to Manzanar, Calif.

So far, Moriwaki said the project has finished its third phase of construction, building the memorial for Japanese Americans on the island. They now hope to raise the funds to build the interpretive and visitor’s center. He hopes to get the center open soon, as survivors of the camp experience are dwindling. Moriwaki estimated about a dozen survivors remain from the island.

“We will eventually build this interpretive center, this visitor center, but it’s not going to be a great ribbon cutting if there’s not a survivor during that cut,” he said.

Likewise, for Banyard, he recognized the value in being able to produce his film while he could still interview survivors of the camp experience.

“Kay Sakai Nakao, when we interviewed her, she was 97 years old, and she passed away last summer at 100,” he said. “And it was just an extraordinary opportunity to get to meet her and hear those stories firsthand and be able to share them with other people. That’s the real privilege of doing this work.”

Moriwaki said the importance of telling these stories was to ensure mistakes such as the wartime incarceration are never repeated again. While discrimination was sharply on the rise throughout former President Donald Trump’s administration, Moriwaki said he was heartened by the protests against racism and misogyny he saw over the years, including those surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the travel ban and separation of children from their families at the border.

“They make my heart soar because there was none of that in 1942,” he said.

Banyard, likewise, said he hopes his film teaches viewers that individuals can make a difference by standing with their community.

“They couldn’t prevent the forced removal, but they could contribute to pointing out that it was wrong and helping the community reintegrate after the war,” Banyard said. “So I think that’s one of the most significant things for me.”

For information about watching “Bearing the Unbearable” and the virtual panel discussion Sunday, Feb. 21 at 1 p.m., or virtual screenings of “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp,” visit https://annual.filmsofremembrance.org/2021/on-demand-shows/.

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