Day of Remembrance: An invented tradition for the community


The Day of Remembrance was created in Seattle, at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, on Thanksgiving weekend of 1978.

Days of Remembrance have now become a tradition to mark the anniversary of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, but it is an invented tradition, observed wherever Japanese Americans live.

The leadership in 1978 came from the Evacuation Redress Committee of the JACL chapter in Seattle. We were the so-called maverick chapter. I want you to know their names. From the left in the photo, they are Shosuke Sasaki, Henry Miyatake, Chuck Kato, Mike Nakata and Ken Nakano. Shosuke was the Issei thinker of the group, a retired securities analyst. Henry and the Nisei were aerospace engineers at Boeing, real slide rule jockeys with pocket protectors in their shirt.

The idea for the event, and the name, came from San Francisco playwright Frank Chin, who was then living in Seattle to write a long essay on the grassroots redress campaign. What kicked us into action was opposition to redress from this seeming authority on the subject: California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, who if you’re too young to remember, was a Japanese Canadian who never spent a day in camp.

The major media joined the attack. The Wall Street Journal accused us of guilt mongering — of snapping at compensation for ancient wrongs under the guise of human rights, and condemning “a broader society in which collective guilt for past sins has become a commodity to be traded, mongered and exploited.”

So “A Day of Remembrance” was conceived as street theater, a way to get the media and public opinion on our side.

This was the poster we tacked up on telephone poles and in bowling alleys, just like the Western Defense Command posters in 1942. The design was superimposed over a ghost image of the original poster, with language calibrated to signal that this was not just a commemoration. The operative words were:

“Remember the concentration camps
stand for redress with your family.”

This poster invited people to join us in dramatizing the eviction from Seattle with a car caravan down Interstate-5 to our hometown concentration camp at the Western Washington Fairgrounds, the site of the old Puyallup Assembly Center. We had a sense people were interested by the number of phone calls we were getting … but nothing prepared us for the crowd of 2,000 that flooded the parking lot of Sicks Stadium. It felt like the entire community poured out to remember the camps and stand for redress with their families. So many people showed up we struggled to sign everyone in.

Actor and comedian Pat Morita came out to join us and speak at the event. So did Gordon Hirabayashi, Seattle’s “Nisei Daughter” Monica Sone, and the actor Mako.

The line of cars stretched down Interstate-5 as far as the eye could see. And inside the cars, the memory of leaving Seattle triggered something inside the Nisei. Parents opened up to their children about what happened to them during the war, many for the first time.

And what people feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. No “rekindling of old resentments and racism,” as Hayakawa had threatened. That fact alone showed Nisei nationwide that after a generation it was finally safe to come out of hiding. It was the spark that kickstarted the popular campaign for redress and reparations. Anthropologist Yasuko Takezawa calls it the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.

We’ve come a long way from that day in 1978. But while A Day of Remembrance is often observed as a commemoration, or a time for reflection, it was founded in the heat of political pushback. It was always about taking action.

Over the past 40 years, I’ve been pleased to see communities use the Day of Remembrance as a rallying point to stand with other targeted groups. Our government was wrong to single out Japanese Americans for exclusion and incarceration based solely on our race. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

Fortunately, whenever we see America turn against a people because of their race, or their religion, or their immigration status, Japanese Americans have shown we won’t just stand by. We won’t just go along. We’re speaking up. We’re saying that every person deserves a fair hearing before removal or detention. We’re saying no children should be separated from their parents, just as after Pearl Harbor many of our fathers were separated from their families. We’re being the friends we didn’t have when we needed one the most.

It happened to us. And every year on the Day of Remembrance, we are saying we refuse to let it happen again, to anyone else.

Frank Abe is a Seattle, Wash.-based writer who helped organize the nation’s first Day of Remembrance in 1978. He is the lead author of “We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration,” and co-editor of “JOHN OKADA: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *