RABBIT RAMBLINGS: The ‘desecration of sacred ground’ at Topaz

bioline_Chizu OmoriI imagine many of you know the story of James Hatsuaki Wakasa, the man who a sentry killed while Wakasa was walking with his dog along the barbed wire fence surrounding the Topaz (Central Utah) incarceration camp during World War II. This happened on April 11, 1943, during the period when camp inmates were being forced to comply with the so-called “loyalty questionnaire.” Most of the Japanese Americans living in and around the Bay Area were sent to Topaz.

It has had the reputation of being a “good” camp, with more cooperative, docile inmates. This is absolutely false. When Wakasa was killed, inmates quickly recognized his death for what it was, an outright murder. Once again, like the earlier killings at Manzanar, it proved that we were being held in prisons and could be shot at any time, that those soldiers in the guard towers held the power to kill us. The sentry, 19-year-old Private First Class Gerald Philpott, was declared not guilty of any crime, and so that was that.

But the community was outraged by all of this and conducted a camp-wide funeral. The community was not going to let the murder be forgotten; a small group of Issei landscapers built a stone memorial to mark the place where Wakasa was killed. They installed it two months afterward. This did not please the authorities, and the inmates were ordered to take the memorial down and dispose of it. The authorities forcibly suppressed the Topaz inmates’ attempt to memorialize Wakasa’s murder.

The government wanted all traces of this atrocity to be erased since such news would tell the world that the guards were shooting people in the camps. They succeeded in marginalizing and muffling these stories, and it has taken years of studying government documents and telling these stories to set the record straight: There were many such killings. We also now know that inmates engaged in plenty of rebellious gestures and activities to counter the myth that we accepted the situation. People tried to resist in many ways: writing letters, signing petitions, conducting strikes and holding work stoppages and protests. They understood what the government was doing to us.

The Wakasa monument story is one of those rebellious gestures. My friend, Nancy Ukai, decided to use it in her project, “50 Objects/Stories of the American Japanese Incarceration,” a Website on our incarceration that uses artifacts to tell our stories. In her research, Ukai discovered a detailed map at the National Archives that showed where Wakasa was shot. This pointed to where the Issei men had placed the monument. Two archaeologists, Jeff Burton and Mary M. Farrell, took the map, and with the aid of some scientific instruments, discovered what seemed like the top of a massive rock, close to the spot of Wakasa’s death. Was this it? Was this the memorial that the camp inmates were forced to dispose of? It would appear that, indeed it probably was.

This was a momentous discovery, an artifact of our history, a precious symbol of our community’s attempt to remember the shooting of an innocent man. It symbolized the peoples’ grief, the bitter realization that we were prisoners who could be randomly killed. This artifact represented our incarceration and our helplessness. Its discovery was unique and meaningful to our community.

Wakasa had been cremated, but both the inmates and the government didn’t know what to do with the ashes because he was a bachelor and had no family here. In a sense, then, this rock was also his gravestone. In October 2020, Ukai and others met to discuss the next steps, and Burton and Farrell published a five-part series, “The Power of Place: James Hatsuaki Wakasa and the Persistence of Memory,” on Discover Nikkei.

And then what happened? The Topaz Museum Board arbitrarily decided to dig it up. This happened on July 27 without consultation or notification to the Japanese American community and with no archeological experts to supervise. A contractor hired to clean trash from Block 42 took two hours from this job to pull the monument out of the ground. It seems like an act of vandalism, a desecration of sacred ground and an insult to those who know the value of such a piece. This is part of our story, our tribulations and our ordeal as prisoners of a racist government.

To me, this is an important moment. I believe that people should appreciate Jane Beckwith, the president of the Topaz Museum Board who also runs the museum, for her years of devotion to remembering Topaz, but she is not qualified to control our story and artifacts. She obviously has little idea of what this memorial means to the Japanese American community. Her act of removing the stone shows a profound lack of understanding of how to handle an extremely important artifact, how the community feels, and a completely tone deaf attitude on what her role is.

And we Japanese Americans have too often been just reactive to situations instead of proactive. This time we need to make it very clear about what we want. It is time to seize control over our stories. The memorial stone belongs to us, and we should decide what is to be done with it.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif. is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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