Report from Topaz

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On November 30 and December 1, 2021, an expert National Park Service team was in Delta, Utah at the invitation of the Topaz Museum to conduct a condition evaluation of the Wakasa monument and site. This is a report of that evaluation and concurrent ceremonies conducted by the Wakasa Memorial Committee (WMC), as seen through the eyes of a Topaz survivor who was there on behalf of the museum.

As I stood at the Topaz site in the bright sunlight to make my incense and floral offering at the WMC’s ceremony, I thought of my parents, who were probably among the estimated 2,000 prisoners who attended James Hatsuaki Wakasa’s memorial service in 1943.

The ceremony held on December 1st gave me the chance to join my parents in paying respect to Mr. Wakasa, and I am grateful to the WMC for giving me that  chance.

Others should have that chance too.

The Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah is planning a commemorative event, open to  the general public, to be held in April 2023, marking the 80th anniversary of the  killing of Mr. Wakasa by a military sentry.

As it prepares for this event, I urge the museum to include the input of a variety of community voices, including Topaz survivors, Topaz descendants, and other  community organizations and groups such as the WMC.

It was a WMC member who discovered the map, drawn by an Issei back in 1943, that led to the physical location of the monument. WMC members and supporters traveled to Topaz to watch the NPS conduct its evaluations, and to stage two separate ceremonies of remembrance — one at the monument itself,  currently located on the museum grounds, and the other at the original site of the monument, 16 miles away at the Topaz concentration camp.

The museum welcomed them as guests and hosted a dinner for nine of them the evening before the NPS began its evaluation work.

The next day, November 30, on the museum grounds where the monument is currently located, the museum made a brief welcoming statement and the WMC performed a ceremony and made remarks that invoked the memory of Mr. Wakasa and voiced criticisms of the museum.

That first day of the NPS evaluation included a detailed physical inspection of the monument. To allow for the day-long inspection, the museum temporarily removed the physical structure that protects the monument from the elements.

Throughout both days of the evaluation, events were captured by numerous video and still cameras. The WMC documentary filmmakers conducted interviews  of its members and supporters.

The second day was spent at the site where the monument was discovered on the  grounds of the Topaz concentration camp. There, the WMC held another ceremony, led by a Buddhist reverend from Salt Lake City, Utah. Members of the press also attended.

The ceremony included music beautifully played on a traditional Japanese woodwind instrument called a sho, and remarks from members of the WMC. Those remarks included a list of demands previously submitted in writing to the museum by the WMC.

Participants, including representatives of the museum, made incense and floral offerings to pay their respects to Mr. Wakasa.

In January 2022, the NPS is expected to issue a report with recommendations to the Topaz Museum on further steps to preserve and protect the monument and its original location.

To me, the solemnity of the WMC ceremonies was marred by its criticisms and demands made of the museum, and disrupted an otherwise contemplative and  moving experience.

My sincere hope is that by the 80th anniversary ceremony in 2023, a robust and inclusive process of community input will have taken place, that everyone with  input on the preservation and care of the monument and discovery site will have been heard, and that those who attend can pay their proper respects to Mr. Wakasa, unburdened by the current friction.

Mr. Wakasa deserves no less.

Ned Nobuo Isokawa is a Topaz concentration camp survivor. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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