The Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages hosted a town hall discussing the Wakasa memorial stone Sept. 9 at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown. The meeting included a statement from the Topaz Museum board announcing future plans and a leadership change for the Delta, Utah-based organization.
The in-person meeting, which was also streamed online, aimed to discuss the ongoing issue of the Topaz Museum’s decision to excavate the 1,000-pound memorial stone dedicated to James Wakasa, an Issei who was shot and killed by the U.S. Army while incarcerated at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp.
The Topaz Museum board claimed they excavated the stone to protect it from vandals, but the Wakasa Memorial Committee — comprised of the camp’s survivors, historians and other community members — criticized the museum board for conducting the dig without consulting the broader community, and opposed their use of a forklift.
Speakers included Mary Farrell, an archaeologist who rediscovered the stone in the Utah desert in 2020, and Nancy Ukai, a historian who uncovered the map Farrell used to locate the stone. Patrick Hayashi, a retired University of California administrator-turned-artist born in Topaz, moderated their discussion.
During the town hall, Ann Tamaki Dion, the head of the Friends of Topaz Museum, read a statement on behalf of the Topaz Museum board. She said members of the museum’s board could not attend the Sept. 9 meeting due to scheduling and travel conflicts.
The statement, confirmed by the museum board to the Nichi Bei Weekly, invited the Wakasa Memorial Committee to jointly plan an 80th anniversary commemoration for Wakasa’s death in April 2023 and said it would participate in joint meetings with the Wakasa Memorial Committee through the Utah State Historic Preservation Office to discuss how to “preserve the monument and the site.”
“Details are being worked out and a press release is being created as we speak, but we wanted to make this announcement tonight,” Dion said during the meeting.
Both Ukai, and Patricia Wakida, a Topaz Museum board member, said a formal press release is forthcoming on their collaboration through the historic preservation office.
The Topaz statement announced museum board members Patricia Wakida and Scott Bassett will serve as interim co-presidents to “primarily focus on external affairs” and that “(founder and board president) Jane Beckwith will continue to be in charge of day-to-day operations” at the museum.
The museum’s board did not confirm Beckwith’s new official title to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
The statement also gave a quick update on the Topaz Community Outreach Project, a series of six meetings held in-person and online in California and Utah to discuss future plans for the stone and the 80th anniversary commemoration of Wakasa’s death. The museum’s statement said more than 350 people responded to their online survey and approximately 150 people attended their public meetings. The board said they would share the feedback they received with the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the public as they plan for the 80th anniversary commemoration.
Ukai responded to Dion after the statement, saying the committee had asked the museum board to work together on the 80th anniversary commemoration and was pleased to hear the two entities could work together, but also noted the stone remained “vulnerable” as it sits on a pallet in the museum’s courtyard a year on from its excavation.
“We feel that the urgent need is for treating, discussing and having a remedy for the immediate stabilization of the stone and the site. And you really can’t plan for a ceremony, when more urgent existential questions are at risk right now,” she said.
Ukai also reiterated the committee’s demands for the museum to release a video recording of the 2021 excavation and criticized the Topaz Community Outreach Project for not inviting stakeholder participation in steering how the museum collected input from the general public.
Following the program, Ukai, however, expressed hope for future relations with the museum board.
“To be frank, we have almost no contact directly with the board, and so I hope that what it means is that there will be more contact,” Ukai said. “I hope that this new structure will mean a better flow of communications.”
She also expressed the joint meetings with the Utah historic preservation office will be a positive step forward.
Farrell, along with her husband and fellow archaeologist Jeff Burton, also recounted to the Nichi Bei Weekly their decision to go look for the stone in the Utah desert. Burton, who was recovering from chemotherapy during the height of the pandemic and the California wildfire season, decided to drive up to Utah with Farrell to get out of the house. Although now under fire, Farrell noted Beckwith’s contributions to helping tell the story of the wartime incarceration story.
“It’s a beautiful area in how stark it is, and I’ve always … loved Delta.” Farrell said. “The people seemed to really get it. … And I have to credit the Japanese American community and Jane, really, for making that community receptive, more aware.”
While the stone’s excavation remains a contentious point for Japanese American community members, some, like Hayashi, said it has brought people together as well.
“The interesting thing is that, I’m no longer angry about the treatment of the stone, and I’ve been wondering about that, and I think the reason for that, is because — look what’s happened: we’ve come together, I’ve made friends with people, and our community is getting stronger because of it,” he said.