Wakasa remembered in Utah, 80 years after fatal shot in concentration camp

Attendees touch the bottom of the stone at a ceremony at the Topaz Museum. photo by Greg Viloria

TOPAZ, Utah — A set of solemn and respectful ceremonies permeated through the Central Utah breeze April 22 under dotted clouds over the former Topaz concentration camp and the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. They served as a contrast to the sudden and violent death of Japanese immigrant James Hatsuaki Wakasa 80 years ago, who was shot and killed near the fence of the former prison camp while walking his dog.

And while remnants of bitter feelings regarding the manner in which the Topaz Museum board unceremoniously dug up a memorial stone in 2021 first erected by Wakasa’s friends, for one weekend, peace and collaboration to remember the death was the charge of the day, as the Museum board and Wakasa Memorial Committee collaborated on a series of events to mark the historic occasion.

Yet the quandary remains: what will the museum ultimately do with the memorial stone?

Memorial Stone Discovered
Some 2,000 people attended the memorial service for Wakasa in the camp in 1943. A memorial stone was erected, but then ordered destroyed by government officials. All that remained of Wakasa’s existence were a photo of the service, and memories by camp survivors.

But then a detailed map of the memorial’s potential location was discovered by researcher Nancy Ukai in 2015, at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“I knew that it was important because it was so detailed,” Ukai recalled to the Nichi Bei News. “It was down to the inch, and there were drawings of sage brush and floodlights, and of course, the blood spot, and it marked the guard tower. I put it away and didn’t use it until 2020 when there were protests for Black Lives Matter. And I thought, let’s write a story about this monument that wasn’t allowed to exist, that was erased, that was demolished.”

Ukai wrote an article on the 50 Objects Website that she manages. “I put the map in thinking that it was demolished, not knowing that archeologists would take that diagram and with their 100-yard tape, find it,” she recalled.

But it turned out that instead of destroying the memorial, it was buried in the dessert.

After Ukai’s discovery, Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell — two vacationing archaeologists in the middle of the COVID pandemic in 2020 — discovered the large stone that the administration ordered destroyed buried in the desert.

The controversy surrounded the Delta, Utah-based museum’s excavation of the thought-to-be lost memorial for Wakasa, an Issei senior who was shot and killed by a guard at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp on April 11, 1943.

After the archeologists 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 was conducted by a contractor hired to clear trash from a separate part of the former concentration camp — leading to outrage from descendants.

Repeated apologies, however, could not prevent shouting matches at community meetings called by the Topaz Museum board in the Bay Area, where a number of activists formed the Wakasa Memorial Committee. The long-time head of the Topaz Museum, Jane Beckwith, would leave her position, and a new group formed to mediate the discussion with a focus on preserving the Wakasa memorial stone.

Mediation
The Wakasa Memorial Committee called for mediation over the issue, and the National Parks Service and the Utah State Historic Preservation Office stepped in with former Utah State Sen. Jani Iwamoto. A new committee, referred to as the “3-3-3 Committee” due to its equal representation of the Topaz Museum board, the Wakasa Memorial Committee and other neutral parties, was formed.

And while the controversy at times seemed bitter — including letters back and forth in the Japanese American press — the group that formed seemed to find a quick resolve.

“Everyone had a place that they could communicate their concerns, their issues,” Chris Merritt, an archeologist with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office central to the new committee, told the Nichi Bei News. “Very quickly, even the first meeting, we all reached consensus on the central issue. All groups care about the story of James Wakasa, and all groups cared about adequately preserving the stone itself and the site. From that, all the commentary dissipated. We were all joined together on the common goal.”
According to Merritt, the group has been meeting every two or three weeks over an eight-month span.

There was also praise for the Topaz Museum leadership, for having the foresight to purchase almost all of the former concentration camp land, and for being stewards of the site through the museum.

“It’s been a great gem here in the state,” Iwamoto said of the Museum. “It’s something that we treasure here in Utah.”

“(Jane Beckwith) is a fireplug that made everything happen in Delta because she does have those deep roots in the community, which is always so important when you’re working in a rural community is you need to have that local buy in or else it’s never going to really get traction,” said Merritt. “And so Jane has been that steady hand, that measured force for decades. And I cannot say enough nice things about Jane and the work she’s done because I think without her role early on in the ‘80s, we would have lost large chunks of Topaz, and we wouldn’t have the Museum today without her passion and drive.”

Condition of the Stone
Both Merritt and John Lambert, the masonry expert hired by the Topaz Museum to help preserve the stone, said the excavation of the stone was not ideal. However, they indicated that it could have been worse.

“Any time you move a stone that’s four and-a-half feet long, two feet high, two and-a-half feet wide, that only the top two to four inches are visible, and you try to unearth that and you don’t know exactly what its sizes and dimensions and characteristics are, it’s extraordinarily challenging,” said Lambert. “I’m just grateful that it was done. It’s now in a secure place. It’s safe from vandalism and it’s safe from the elements.”

“To me, as an archeologist, it wasn’t done the way we would do it,” said Merritt. “But for the parties that were involved in its removal, they were fairly careful. They were doing fairly decent work, but they’re just not trained archeologists. And so obviously, I would have loved to have done more controlled work because I think we could have answered more questions. But I also don’t think that it’s all been destroyed either.”

It “… would have been best if they would have had a little bit more expertise from an archeologist … that is familiar with the characteristics of stone and what different stresses put upon them,” said Lambert, adding that the skid steer operator was “extraordinarily talented.” “But all in all, the stone got out of the ground and it’s in a safe place.”

Lambert said he feels strongly that the stone should be housed indoors, rather than outdoors. Merritt agrees in theory.

“If the end goal of the community is to preserve the stone for perpetuity, outside is the worst possible thing for us to do with that stone, whether it’s in the Museum courtyard or back at the site,” Merritt said.

A ‘Very Special Moment’
On April 22, the events brought a sense of healing to those who attended to honor the legacy of Wakasa, an Issei bachelor with no known family. At the original site, there were rituals by both Japanese American and Native American spiritual leaders, and the placing of paper flowers on a makeshift shrine.

Attendees touch the bottom of the stone at a ceremony at the Topaz Museum. photo by Greg Viloria

Later, back at the Topaz Museum in the nearby town of Delta, Utah, attendees had the opportunity to physically touch the stone.

“It was very moving,” said former incarceree Satsuki Ina, who traveled from the Bay Area to attend the event. “It’s like connecting with each other around this history is a form of healing. It really helps us to not have these fractured elements of our memory and our connection with each other.”

The act of touching the memorial stone was like “touching back into the past,” said Ina, whose family was originally incarcerated at the Topaz concentration camp but relocated to the Tule Lake Segregation Center, where she was born.

“The unresolved issues of Topaz reverberated through the generations, and many people will call that generational trauma,” said incoming Topaz Museum board member Ann Tamaki Dion. “This weekend is a way of addressing that with people, with descendants who were not present in Topaz, but emotionally felt the weight of it, the injustice of it. …

But it is also about coming together as a community, speaking with our fellow Topaz families.”

As frank discussion surfaces, Ina sees hope for the future.

“I don’t know that the two groups will ever come together and agree on how to narrate the existence or the removal of the stone. But I always feel like conversation, however opposing positions people have, at least we’re not burying things anymore,” Ina said. “We are surfacing things, and there are always going to be difference of opinions. So I think there’s work to be done. I think this has been really, in many ways, a very healing experience. And hopefully now, after this gathering that we’ve had and worked through some of the differences, that we can move forward.”

Future of the Memorial Stone
While various factions of the community — who only months ago seemed to be a gulf apart — came together in remarkable unity to remember the killing of Wakasa, the elephant in the room remains: the actual future of the memorial stone.

Tamaki Dion suggests it should not be moved out of state. “I don’t feel that’s appropriate because I believe that the stone belongs to the site, belongs to the history of Topaz,” she said. “It strikes me a little bit like I visited the British Museum at one time and I was astounded at the collection of Egyptian art and Assyrian art. It was fantastic. But I don’t think Egyptian art really belongs in Britain. It is a similar situation.”

Ina, however, opined that the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles would be ideal “because that is a national museum where people would have more access.”

Masako Takahashi of the Wakasa Memorial Committee, a former Topaz incarceree, suggested that the National Parks Service take over stewardship of the former Topaz concentration camp site. “They could build a Visitor’s Center surrounding the site of James Wakasa’s murder — where the Memorial Stone could be returned and preserved — to be properly remembered, to educate, and be honored in the very place he was senselessly killed (out walking his dog).”

“I love that idea,” said Ina. “I feel like it would only enrich the storytelling and would really make a case for having the monument there at the site. An interpretive center in many ways is different from a museum that’s removed from the site. So I could see pilgrimage there, more people engaged in learning about it. So yeah, I think that is a great idea and hope that NPS will consider that.”

While the end game remains to be seen, Ina remains optimistic.

“For us to resolve this will be powerful,” Ina said. “It will be a profound healing. I don’t think everybody will ever get to the point where we completely agree on everything, but the potential to be able to work together, I think is definitely there.

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