I can’t express my sorrow over the six meetings the Topaz Museum board held in August to ask the community for input concerning the Wakasa memorial stone. They held four meetings in person and two virtually. They held the first two in the Bay Area, a virtual meeting and then one in Delta, Utah. Next, a meeting in Salt Lake City followed, as well as a last virtual meeting. It sounded as though they were making a comprehensive and real effort to engage the public and get feedback from the community. Well, I attended all six meetings. It seemed important for me to witness what happened at the meetings. The Wakasa controversy has been going on for more than a year, and this, it seemed, would be a way to begin to resolve the issues. We could meet, face to face, and talk about our concerns and disagreements. I was wrong.
The meetings were formatted in a way that it was almost impossible to hear the concerns and questions participants raised. First, no board members attended any of the meetings. Then, Dana Shew, who directed the meetings, announced that we weren’t to discuss anything from the past. We weren’t to record the proceedings, so that there wouldn’t be a record of what transpired at the meetings. We were directed to “stations” where we would address a narrow range of topics in the form of remarks we jotted down on Post-its. Students who did not seem very knowledgeable about the deeper issues that many of us had in mind conducted these stations. Shew said that she did not represent the board and could not speak on their behalf on any matter.
It’s noteworthy that no board member showed up at Delta, even though seven of them lived in that town, the site of the museum. In Delta, around 16 people attended, five of us from the Bay Area, and 10 docents. It was nice to meet the docents, but we didn’t discuss any topics with much substance, because they were in no position to engage in serious issues. At least in Salt Lake City, and in spite of the rigid formatting, we had many serious conversations because there was a crowd of over 60 people, including government officials and prominent Nikkei from the community. Shew finally gave the mic to the audience, and we were able to conduct a serious exchange of opinions, comments and ideas.
But by then, it had become clear to me that these meetings were not an honest attempt to engage the community in real issues. They were going through the motions to look like they wanted to hear us, answer our concerns and find out about what we were thinking. I understand that what was done was done and nothing can change the facts. The Topaz Board dug up the monument on July 27, 2021, contradicting an earlier decision made by a 14-person group composed of board members, survivors and descendants of Topaz, and archeologists that met on Oct. 15, 2020. They decided that the stone should be kept where it was until it was given a deeper examination. All this is documented in the timeline posted on the Wakasa Memorial Committee Website.
Now, the museum has the stone, and it “owns” it. I saw it when I went with the Wakasa Memorial Committee to Delta to conduct a ceremony to honor James Wakasa on Nov. 30, 2021. The stone sits on a pallet in the back courtyard, on a piece of rug and with a strap around it. It has a metal structure as a cover, and can be seen if anyone asks to see it, I suppose. When I looked at this stone, I thought of all it represented, all the effort it must have taken — since it weighs about 1,000 pounds — to haul it to the site where Mr. Wakasa was killed, to erect it. All this to mark the spot where a terrible deed had taken place. Topaz, at that time, was in turmoil over the loyalty questionnaire, and in the preceding months, guards from the guard towers at camp had fired eight other previous shots.
The uproar caused by Wakasa’s death was so concerning to the camp authorities that they prepared for a riot. And then, word came from the highest authorities that this stone had to be destroyed. There was to be no sign left of this murder.
What a symbol of protest and defiance this rock is. It is a marker of life in these incarceration camps, how we really were prisoners at the mercy of trigger happy guards.
People had already been killed at Manzanar, and at other locations. Wakasa’s spirit resides in this rock. It has a lot to say to us. It belongs to the Japanese American community.
Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif. is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.