For Japanese Americans, the World War II U.S. concentration camps are part of our heritage and family history, holding a special significance that others have not experienced. Even so, the historical legacy of these camps belongs to all Americans.
We now have an opportunity to remember James Hatsuaki Wakasa and to acknowledge those Japanese Americans who erected a monument in his honor in protest of the brutal injustice and attempt to erase his killing from memory. The monument is a tribute to Mr. Wakasa, a prisoner at the Topaz concentration camp. On April 11, 1943, he was walking his dog when he was shot and killed by a military guard, which was ruled a justifiable act. At the time, the government allowed the Topaz prisoners to hold a funeral service, but ordered a monument in his honor destroyed.
In July 2021, the monument, an unmarked half-ton stone, was found partially buried near the edge of the Topaz barbed wire fence. When it was removed, there was no sign of writings, memorabilia, or anything else that might have been buried with it. Except for its extraordinary symbolism, it looks remarkably ordinary.
There are plans underway for an 80th anniversary commemoration of Mr. Wakasa’s killing and discussions about the future of the Wakasa Monument. Initially, it feels as if any remembrance ceremony should be the exclusive domain of Topaz descendants and other Japanese Americans stakeholders. But this ignores and dismisses our community allies: the people who are not Japanese Americans who fight to have our story told, and without whose support the Topaz Museum would simply not exist.
I refer to the people of Delta, Utah and the dozens of volunteer docents who staff the Topaz Museum greeting the 10,000 people who visit annually. I am grateful to the non-JAs who serve on the Museum’s Board of Directors. I am indebted to Jane Beckwith, a former Delta high school teacher, who passionately dedicated countless hours for the past 30+ years to make the Museum a reality, and who continues to do so today on an unpaid basis.
Our allies include the National Park Service employees who educate the public about the Japanese American incarceration experience. Let’s not forget the Indigenous People of the Great Basin, who once lived freely on the land we ironically now call the Topaz concentration camp. Their experience and that of our families remind us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
When the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 passed leading to redress and reparations, it was the result of coalition-building and allyship, the countless people both within our community and outside who joined in solidarity to support us. By including the input of many voices, the significance of the Wakasa Monument and its role in Japanese American history will rightfully become a part of the tapestry of mainstream American history for current and future generations.
Dianne Fukami is a documentary filmmaker, journalist, and retired educator. A descendant of a Topaz family, her most recent work was the film “Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story.” She has written and produced many films and co-authored a book about the Japanese American experience.