LOS ANGELES — As taiko drummers beat in sync, dozens of formerly-incarcerated people and their loved ones marched in formation out of the Go For Broke National Education Center and into the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Multiple marchers held up fence panels, each dawning the name of one of the 75 former American incarceration camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II. Each panel was attached to a small container of soil from each site.
This procession commemorated the Ireicho, a sacred book containing the names of more than 125,000 imprisoned persons of Japanese ancestry during the war. The Ireicho is the first part of the “Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration,” a project meant to combat the erasure of those incarcerated during World War II.
“I think our effort to try and do this project of making sure nobody’s left out and also not misspelled […] was important,” said Duncan Ryuken Williams, co-leader of the Irei project. “As long as you had a drop of Japanese blood, you were kind of taken out from (Executive Order) 9066. [Japanese Americans were] this undifferentiated mass of people that they couldn’t be bothered to treat every person individually.”
According to Williams, the names of many incarcerated people were not documented accurately. He and a team of researchers made an effort to record every name in the Ireichō without spelling errors. The massive book contains the first comprehensive list of every person who was imprisoned in the camps, from the oldest inmate admitted, to the last baby born before the sites closed. As the book sits on display at the Japanese American National Museum, the public will be asked to use a hanko, a special Japanese stamp, to mark next to one of the names as a way to honor those imprisoned.
“We need people, not just the Japanese American community, but we need the wider American public to come to be part of the process of remembering and repairing this history,” said Williams.
The public unveiling of and the procession for the Ireicho took place on Sept. 24 at the Japanese American National Museum before it opened to the public the next day. Along with representatives from each camp who traveled from all around the U.S., multiple faith and cultural leaders showed up in the spirit of allyship to celebrate the project. Buddhist monks chanted as each representative witnessed the book and placed their panels in a long row, memorializing each camp.
Some of the oldest living camp survivors were present and bore witness to the book as well as stamped next to their own names. Many representatives and their loved ones held photos of their family members and friends who had passed. Viewers shed silent tears as they beheld the thousands of names etched in the monument. Community elders were the first invited to mark the book with the hanko, followed by all of the other representatives present prior to public access.
“Looking at the list of names is a very visceral experience, seeing what appears to be an endless line of names that continues on and on for more than a thousand pages,” said Barbara Takei of Sacramento, who attended the ceremony. “I am not a religious person, but in marking the book I felt a spiritual, emotional connection to all these souls who experienced this dark moment in our nation’s history.”
The Ireicho is the precursor to the second part of the Irei project called the Ireizō, which is an online archive of everyone in the camps. The records offer information about each former prisoner, including facts like their birthday and what camp they were in. It was launched on Sept. 25.
“You can click on a person’s name, search it alphabetically or by camp. We’re also working with Denshō, the [incarceration history preservation] organization based in Seattle,” said Williams. “They have an important digital archive or repository of photographs and camp newsletters [to put on the Website].”
The final installment of the Irei project will be the Ireihi, a series of three light sculptures. The sculptures will be a slow 90-minute scroll of the names of each person incarcerated in the camps. Each sculpture will be placed in a different location starting in 2024. One of the pieces is set to be the size of the monument in the Manzanar cemetery, which was the inspiration for this leg of the project.
Williams said the Irei project was also inspired by multiple other historical remembrance projects, including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each public installment commemorates the lives lost to unjust violence and promotes equity and peace in the U.S.
Williams is a Buddhist priest and sees this project as a way to address the racial karma in America.
“There’s a racial karma in America that we need to attend to and repair and heal. These fractures in our nation’s past need us collectively to do something. It can’t just be one group. We need everybody to participate in acknowledging and honoring this history,” said Williams. “And we do this in this case by honoring names of giving individuals that were kind of merged together as this amorphous threat to national security. The idea of giving their names prominence in this way is a way to repair that history.”
The Ireicho is currently on public display at the Japanese American National Museum. The Ireizo can be found at https://ireizo.com.
The Ireicho is available for stamping from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in the Weingart Foyer at JANM. Reservations are required and museum admission is not required.