Community honors Issei, dives into family histories, at 5th Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage

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PJ Hirabayashi and the TaikoPeace Ambassador. photo by Mark Shigenaga

With the beat of drums by PJ Hirabayashi and the TaikoPeace Ambassadors, Nichi Bei Foundation’s fifth Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage commenced at the Angel Island Immigration Station Oct. 1. Overlooking China Cove, where immigrants first set foot on U.S. soil before heading to the mainland, the pilgrimage honored the Issei immigrants who first set foot in America there.

PJ Hirabayashi and the TaikoPeace Ambassador. photo by Mark Shigenaga

The program, emceed by Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2 News in Oakland, Calif. featured the Buddhist Sanbujo chant by the Rev. Dennis Fujimoto of the Buddhist Temple of Alameda, a performance by Mark Izu and Brenda Wong Aoki of First Voice and a Bon Odori led by Hirabayashi and other members of TaikoPeace.

The Angel Island Immigration Station was the point of entry for immigrants from 1910 to 1940. Approximately 85,000 Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco during that time, the second largest group after the Chinese. Some were questioned on board ship, and many of them were detained on Angel island.

The site was also used during World War II as a temporary holding facility for prisoners of war and Japanese American community leaders arrested in Hawai‘i who were being transported to mainland Department of Justice camps.

“This is referred to as the Ellis Island of the West for people in pursuit of their dreams, but unlike Ellis Island, which was there to welcome immigrants, mostly from Europe, Angel Island was pretty much used to exclude immigrants, mostly from Asia,” Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma said during the program. “So we launched this pilgrimage in 2014 to get the community reconnected to that legacy on this island. It might have been lost forever, had it not been for Alexander Weiss, who discovered the carvings, told his professor George Araki about it and helped get these expeditions with photographer Mak Takahashi … who captured the saga through his lens.”

State Park Interpreter Casey Dexter-Lee said the immigration station, a National Historic Landmark, tells a story of the United States that highlights a negative aspect of the nation’s history to impart important lessons for future generations.

“As we often hear that history is told by the winners, it would be very hard to argue that anyone detained here was winning,” Dexter-Lee said during the program. “So we get to listen to their voices, that might have otherwise disappeared.”

Volunteers from the California Genealogical Society help pilgrims discover their family histories. photo by William Lee

As part of the pilgrimage, California Genealogical Society genealogists were on hand to help attendees look up historical records of family members who might have come through the island.

Linda Harms Okazaki, a genealogist with the society, told the Nichi Bei Weekly it was fun to help attendees research their family histories. One of her highlights included helping a man who had received a consultation at a previous Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage.

“He brought the records he got after whatever pilgrimage he was on, and then he wanted to take it to the next level,” Harms Okazaki said. “I mean how cool is that?”

Attendees were equally excited to get in touch with their family history. Lauren Ito, attending with her parents who came from Washington state, said Harms Okazaki helped her find more information on her great uncle Riuichi Ipponsugi. Another attendee, Shari Arai DeBoer, said her grandfather Kaiichi Suzuki came through the island as well.

“It was nice to come, to be with a group of people, because before when we came, we just came up on our own and stumbled around. But it’s nice to have this extra community of people that I know. It’s nice,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Since the previous pilgrimage in 2018, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation also opened the Angel Island Immigration Museum located inside the former station hospital. Danielle Wetmore, program manager for the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, noted the building’s significance as a gatekeeper to immigration into the U.S. mainland.

“Part of the immigration process was a health inspection that was incredibly invasive, and racist,” she said during the program. “There were health provisions put into place after the fact, after inspectors figured out what sorts of diseases would keep people out. And we’re using that space to tell that history, but also others as well. It is a more formal exhibit space with a rotating exhibit gallery.”

The Angel Island Immigration Museum, opened in January at the former hospital building. “Taken From Their Families,” a new permanent exhibit in the former Mess Hall, examines those of Japanese descent held at the Immigration Station from Hawai‘i and the West Coast during World War II. photo by Mark Shigenaga

Also new are the exhibit “Taken From Their Families: Japanese American Incarceration on Angel Island During World War II,” which explores the detention of some 600 persons of Japanese descent from Hawai‘i and another 100 from the West Coast detained on Angel Island en route to other detention sites.

The museum is currently showing the temporary exhibit “The Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War II,” produced by the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project, the American Italian Studies Association – Western Regional Chapter and the German American Internee Coalition. Grace Shimizu, director of the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project, gave two lectures at the museum to talk about the lesser-known aspects of discrimination and wartime incarceration through the lens of German Americans and Japanese Peruvians.

Shimizu emphasized how the exhibit highlights wartime history, and also reminds viewers how it remains significant today, including through the ongoing issue of Japanese Latin Americans pursuing redress from the United States government.

“When we try to look at our history, we’re not just looking at what happened 80-something years ago, our history comes all the way up to today, and then part of the importance of that is … that in telling our history, it’s not just to know better what happened to our family, we want to make sure that what happened to us doesn’t happen to us again, or to any other family,” Shimizu said.

A crowd of around 300 attended the program that day. Taguma said he had limited publicizing the pilgrimage to take overcrowding precautions against COVID-19, but the event also featured attendees bussed in from San Jose and Sacramento, Calif., funded by a grant from California Humanities. Taguma added that attendees from as far away as London joined this year’s pilgrimage.

Ann Okamura took the Sacramento bus to attend the pilgrimage. “I’ve never been here on Angel Island. This was my chance,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Couple of friends (attended) to keep me company too.”

Others such as Ruth Shimomura, from Woodland, Calif., attended to seek a connection with their family histories. Shimomura said her father Noboru

Aoki, a Kibei Nisei, was held at the island when he tried to return to the U.S.

“He wrote down: ‘hell on earth,’” Shimomura said on a carving her father had left somewhere in the immigration station barracks. She lamented she could not find that particular carving during her visit.

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