Topaz survivors, descendants rankled by Topaz Museum Board’s outreach efforts

The Topaz survivor Akemi Ina of Concord, Calif. places a flower along the fence line where James Wakasa was killed during a cerermony for him at the Topaz concentration camp site in Millard County, Utah on Dec. 1, 2021. photo by Briana Scroggins KUER

 

While the Topaz Museum board and its supporters would love nothing more than to move forward after a haphazard excavation of what some consider one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in Japanese American history, a vocal contingent of activists, academics and survivors are continuing to demand an ongoing dialogue on their terms.

The controversy surrounds the Delta, Utah-based museum’s excavation of a thought-to-be lost memorial for James Hatsuaki Wakasa, an Issei senior who was shot and killed by a guard at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp on April 11, 1943. After Nancy Ukai discovered a map of the memorial’s potential location, Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell — two vacationing archaeologists — discovered the 1,000-pound stone that the administration ordered destroyed buried in the desert in 2020.

After they published their findings on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei Website with detailed information on the stone’s location, the Topaz Museum board had the stone dug up July 27, 2021 and transported it to the museum, saying people could have tracked down the monument and vandalized it.

The excavation, however, was conducted without any Japanese Americans or archaeologists present, and the removal by forklift was conducted by a contractor hired to clear trash from a separate part of the former concentration camp — leading to outrage from descendants.

Initially, the museum apologized for the misstep and started discussing the stone’s excavation with the Wakasa Memorial Committee, a group of Topaz survivors and descendants, scholars and academics concerned with the stone’s excavation. The museum commissioned a Condition Assessment Report by the National Park Service to delve into its next steps. They then met with the committee in February of this year, after the report was issued, but discussions broke down shortly after as the museum board said the Wakasa committee had been hostile to them, despite their repeated apologies.

The Topaz Museum Board commenced its Topaz Community Outreach Project in June, an online survey coupled with four in-person and two online meetings. Jane Beckwith, the museum’s board president, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the entity wants to move forward to prioritize “the importance of broad-based community input in future decision-making regarding the Wakasa monument, which is why we have invited Topaz survivors and their descendants, the broader Japanese American community, and the Utah community to give us feedback.”

She said the outreach project will inform the future plans for both the Wakasa Monument and the 80th anniversary commemoration of Wakasa’s death.

Meeting Devolves Into Shouting Match
The first in-person meeting, held with more than two dozen attendees July 30 at J-Sei in Emeryville, Calif., degenerated into a shouting match after frustrated attendees, primarily those affiliated with the Wakasa Memorial Committee, complained that the process the museum had set up was too restricting.

The meeting, run by Dana Ogo Shew, the Topaz Community Outreach Project’s project leader, was formulated to have the attendees break out into smaller groups to give anonymous feedback at one of four stations set-up in the room. Attendees, however, wanted a town hall discussion to ask for more accountability from the museum.

“Why doesn’t the museum accept the offers for going under the auspices of the National Park Service?” Masako Takahashi, a Wakasa Memorial Committee advisory board member and a museum donor since the 1990s, asked.

Shew, while acknowledging the camp survivor’s concerns, said the project can’t answer those questions and that she, as a project manager, can’t speak on behalf of the museum’s board.

“The reason we’re here is because the Topaz Museum Board, without professional advice and without stakeholder participation, desecrated the most important artifact of all the World War II camps, and certainly the most spiritual artifacts of the Topaz property,” Ukai, a descendant of a Topaz inmate and a leader within the Wakasa committee, said. “And how can it be that the entity which caused the damage is completely in charge of now creating a remedy? This means the board is policing itself. And the National Park Service suggested, highly recommended, that stakeholders have a consensus on how to move forward.”

Ukai said the museum board’s control of the process is akin to the so-called “loyalty questionnaire” the U.S. government administered to Japanese Americans during the war.

She called the process “structurally biased,” noting that four of the six suggestions for how the stone and memorial should be cared for, keep the stone under the museum’s care.

The museum’s suggestions were to “Build a structure to display the monument in the Museum courtyard. Build a new addition to the Museum to house the monument. Rebury the monument at the site of Topaz. Keep the monument protected in the collections facility and make a replica for display. Donate the monument to another repository” and “Other.”

Topaz Museum Board Isn’t Required To Follow NPS’ Recommendations
The NPS Condition Assessment Report recommended that decisions be made “strategically through a collaborative decision-making process that takes the philosophies and concerns of key stakeholders into account and builds support for the final outcome” for the stone, and called for “opportunities to build support among stakeholders regarding how this location and artifacts found there should be treated and if further archaeological investigation is appropriate” for the site of the monument itself. As a private landowner, however, the NPS noted that the museum’s board “is under no legal obligation to carry out any of the recommendations proposed.”

Beckwith emphasized to the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail that the museum was “using those recommendations to create a work plan to conserve the monument and the site.” Takahashi noted during the meeting that the memorial stone continues to sit on a wooden pallet in the museum’s courtyard six months after the report’s publication.

As Takahashi and Ukai verbally sparred at the meeting with Shew, a woman who later identified herself to the Nichi Bei Weekly as Shew’s mother yelled at them from the back, accusing Takahashi and Ukai of coming to the meeting to disrupt it. From there, the room erupted into a shouting match. A moment of calm returned as Rod Henmi asked to speak.

“I’m an architect, I’ve led a lot of community meetings and processes, and it’s clear there’s a lot of resentment and anger from the people in this meeting, and … it’s a good idea to allow a discussion. And, I have to agree, the format, the structure is rather controlling,” he said. “It splits everybody up and it doesn’t allow for this venting. I think venting is important. I think you organizers should remember that allowing people to speak out does allow them to feel differently about their participation in this process. And perhaps, you can address some of these concerns.”

While Shew agreed with the importance of venting, she stressed that the process she is managing did not allow for it. “I think that the problem with the venting is that, I’m not here representing the Topaz Museum board, I’m here leading this project, which has very specific goals and objectives that I think are different than the conflict and the things that people are angry about. So I’m not equipped to be able to facilitate a discussion like that, and I don’t have those answers that I think people are looking for, and so I don’t know that this is the appropriate place for that,” she said.

As the arguments continued, they came to a head when Shew said: “What’s happened in the past is not relevant to how we’re going to move forward.”

Ukai fired back: “Why do we even bother studying history?” as the room erupted in yelling until Shew shouted to quiet the attendees.

“I’m releasing everybody else who would like to participate in the way that this meeting has been formatted and set up. If you do not want to participate in that way — you’re upset with it — I’m sorry you feel that way, but you are more than welcome to not participate and to leave. And if anybody wants to stay and have discussions amongst themselves, that is also fine, and don’t forget about the refreshments,” she said before the attendees dispersed.

Following the meeting, Sherrie Hayashi, a Topaz Museum board member, characterized the Wakasa Memorial Committee’s actions on July 30 as “an ambush.” She said several attendees left the meeting early due to the hostile environment of the meeting and called Ukai’s analogy of the museum’s survey being like the WRA’s loyalty questionnaire as “preposterous” and “hyperbolic.”

“We believe that all members of the community have a right to express their opinion. But no community members have the right to bully and intimidate others who happen to have a contrary view, nor does anyone have the right to disrupt or thwart the Museum’s efforts to solicit the views of all community members. While we value the input from WMC members, we also value the input of all Topaz survivors, descendants, stakeholders, and members of both the Utah and greater Japanese American community,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The Topaz Museum board will continue to acknowledge its past error and apologize for it, but at the same time, will put this rancor aside and move forward to plan for the preservation of the monument and its legacy. Inviting everyone, including Wakasa Memorial Committee members, to complete the surveys and to participate in the in-person and virtual meetings are a step in that direction.”

Some attendees expressed their displeasure to the Nichi Bei Weekly with how the meeting was handled.

Susan Kai, whose aunt was incarcerated at Topaz, said she was hoping to hear more perspectives, but instead felt “drained” following the meeting. “I just feel weak. There’s just so much tension in the air, and I was thinking that we were — I knew about the controversy, but I was hoping that we were beyond that,” she said. “We all want the same thing, we want the legacy and the death to be honored.”

Meanwhile Kimi Hill, a founding member of the Friends of Topaz Museum, told the Nichi Bei Weekly the controversy is a repeat of 2013, when the Topaz Museum was firstputting together exhibition materials for its new museum. Japanese American community members expressed their complaints in 2013 over the proposed educational panels that were being fabricated for the museum. Complaints on the exhibition materials, according to Ukai, included listing non-Japanese soldiers from Delta, Utah who died fighting in World War II above the Nisei soldiers from Topaz who died fighting in the war, among other issues with the language contained in the proposed educational panels. The complaints resulted in a National Park Service-guided effort to refine the exhibition’s materials and convene what Hill called the “Reno Meeting.”

“The Topaz Board made a mistake. They jumped on it with all the emotion that happened in 2013. And I wasn’t surprised it’s all the same people.”

Ukai contested Hill’s accusations, saying Takahashi, who was a longtime donor to the museum, had not been a part of the Reno Meeting. “The people who went to the Reno Meeting are not even necessarily the same people here,” Ukai said, noting that many committee members and advisory board members were not a part of the 2013 discussions. “And so I think it’s easy to just kind of focus on personalities and say, ‘Oh, there they go again,’ but this is actually something that if we didn’t feel so strongly about in terms of our material culture being destroyed and desecrated, I don’t think we would have been able to gather a group of people to hang in for a year, and not go away, because it’s not fun. It’s stressful. I don’t think anybody is enjoying this.”

Ukai also noted that the Wakasa Memorial Committee, while denigrated by the museum board for being too critical, had members leave because their position against the museum was not aggressive enough.

Toru Saito, who attended the J-Sei meeting, said he left the committee for being too “namby-pamby,” too worried about offending Beckwith. The octogenarian Topaz survivor angrily called for Beckwith’s resignation. “It’s our story, our camp. They’re going to tell us what we need to see, what we don’t need to see? … It’s an insult,” Saito said.

Saito said the anger expressed at the meeting was natural and that he’s surprised more people aren’t angry. “More people should be up in arms and saying, ‘We’re not going to donate a damn dime to that place anymore.’”

Takahashi said the museum should be run by trained staff who have the archaeological and academic expertise to manage the site and museum.

Pleas for ‘Professional Stewardship,’ ‘Transparency’
“I hope our plea for professional stewardship of the Wakasa Memorial stone and the killing site at the Topaz concentration camp grounds will be heard,” Takahashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail. “I fear their ‘polling’ and ‘surveys’ are not transparent, and that they will simply continue to do as they please. They have gotten funding to have these noninclusive meetings (the audience has no place on the agenda to speak or ask questions) which they will say are collaborative with the Japanese American public.”

Despite the chaos of the meeting, Shew said she received some productive feedback after the meeting dispersed. While relatively fewer people attended the in-person meeting, Shew said around 300 people had submitted answers to the online survey. She added that most of the respondents were Japanese American and residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, the region where most Topaz inmates originated from.

Among those who came to discuss the stone with her, she said most wished to see the original stone, rather than see a replica made. Shew will continue collecting feedback through the meetings and draft a report for the museum board once the process concludes at the end of August.

The question remains, however, on where those frustrated with the museum’s board can meaningfully air their grievances. Shew emphasized the meeting was not the “time and place” to air grievances to the museum’s board. Chizu Omori, another Wakasa Committee member, asked during the meeting why none of the museum’s board members were present to answer questions if Shew could not. While the museum is based in Utah, several board members are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I think that the board should have had representation there,” Ukai said. “When there is such a tension on this topic right now, and emotions are high, it would have been good to have board representatives there instead of having a project manager say, ‘I’m not in a position to answer those questions.’”

And while Hayashi characterized the Wakasa Memorial Committee’s actions as “an ambush,” Shew said she was aware of the possibility that the meeting could go sideways, albeit, she told the Nichi Bei Weekly she was not prepared for “such an onslaught.”

As Shew continues to hope that the community can move forward and find unity as they proceed with the process, the community’s frustration seems far from quelled.

Meanwhile, Farrell, who had rediscovered the stone in the Utah desert, said she hoped the Topaz Museum board will recognize the importance of the site and the stone.

“The WMC has some truly inspired and inspiring ideas on how Mr. Wakasa’s murder can be remembered and his legacy can be honored. That’s the goal, isn’t it? To recognize the injustice of the murder, the community trauma it engendered, the bravery of the Issei who built his monument,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

She said the museum’s general outreach efforts makes sense, but stressed that they would not be effective until the board listens to the Wakasa Committee.

“Members of the WMC have the deepest connection to the monument, the deepest awareness of what it means for the Japanese American community and what it could mean for all of us,” she said. “We all know that we citizens of the U.S. can be very quick to give our opinions even when we don’t have all the information. A general questionnaire may be well intended, but why not work more closely with the WMC, who have demonstrated their knowledge, interest, and commitment? It would be, by far, the best way forward. It may be the only way forward.”

The Topaz Community Outreach Project will hold three more in-person meetings and two online meetings via Zoom: Saturday, Aug. 13 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Konko Church of San Francisco, 1775 Laguna St., in San Francisco’s Japantown; Friday, Aug. 26 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the RJ Law Community Center at 75 W Main St., Delta, Utah; and Saturday, Aug. 27 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, 211 W 100 S, Salt Lake City. Virtual meetings will be held Monday, Aug. 15 and Tuesday, Aug. 30. Visit www.TopazCommunityOutreach.com for more information.

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