LETTERS: Wakasa monument statement from the Friends of Topaz

August 30, 2021

To the Japanese American Community,

We are the Friends of Topaz, a group of predominately Japanese American descendants of World War II Topaz concentration camp incarcerees, living in the San Francisco Bay Area. We exist to support the Topaz Museum because we believe in their mission to preserve Topaz stories and to educate the greater public about this tragic chapter of American history, including the devastating impact the concentration camps had on its Japanese American survivors. We continually draw inspiration from the courage and resilience of our community, generations later.

In understanding the current controversy surrounding the Museum’s decision to unearth the monument memorializing the unjustified killing of James Wakasa by a Topaz guard, here is the background. In June-July, Discover Nikkei published a five-part article on this tragic and largely unknown story. While the article is highly informative and well-intentioned, unfortunately, the July 4, 2021 installment revealed the exact location of the half-buried monument whose location had been previously unknown to the public. This alarmed the Museum because of recent vandalism, including signage blasted apart by high-powered rifle bullets and shotgun shells, and spray painted political or racist graffiti. Because the article revealed how to find the stone, the Museum was placed in a dilemma: either ignore that the stone’s location was now public and hope that nothing bad would happen, or risk that the monument, imbued with historic and spiritual meaning, would be an attractive target for wrongdoers to deface. Faced with this predicament, it decided it had to act immediately to remove the stone to the protection of the Museum. In its haste however, it failed to notify the community in advance of the removal, thereby triggering anger and leading some to conclude that it acted with callous indifference. The Museum has since profusely apologized for failing to inform the community in advance of the unearthing, but stands by its decision that it did what was required to protect this precious monument for all posterity.

We trust the work of the Museum Board and feel that it has done nothing that disrespected the Wakasa monument. In fact, the Board has made every effort to prevent any damage to the artifact or to the Topaz site. Additionally, the decision to excavate the monument was made by the entire Topaz Museum board, including its Japanese American members.

We have worked closely with the Museum for many years and have always been informed of the actions of the Board. We are encouraged to share our opinions; and in our experience, the Museum has always been receptive to any input or suggestions from the Japanese American community. The Friends of Topaz works very closely with Topaz Board president, Jane Beckwith, on outreach and fundraising to support the Museum and its successful work over the past 25 years. The Board has now purchased the 640 acres of the camp’s original site, built the Topaz Museum in the town of Delta, hosted tours of hundreds of Utah school children, and worked with the public to educate and share our descendants’ stories, in order to prevent a recurrence of a similar denial of American civil rights in the future.

The climate of vicious anti-Asian hate, where physical assaults and vandalism are real, makes it all the more necessary for the Topaz Museum to exist and do its excellent work, under the sound leadership of the Museum Board. We understand that the stone had to be protected and feel that now that it has been safely moved to the Museum’s courtyard, where it can best be conserved, protected, and interpreted by visitors and scholars, a healing ceremony involving Japanese American community members and other stakeholders can proceed without further risking the site or artifact.

The Topaz Museum is for everyone. It is a story that speaks to the need for a more just America. No one group of people has full ownership over the history of a place or event, and we are grateful to the citizens of Delta for being our partners in telling our stories, after the cataclysm that brought our communities together.

Respectfully,
Friends of Topaz

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