Events honor James Wakasa, inmate who was killed at Topaz, but questions remain about future of his memorial

Editor’s Note: Chizu Omori is a Wakasa Memorial Committee member.

James Hatsuaki Wakasa probably would have been astonished by the recognition and appreciation events attendees bestowed upon him in April in San Francisco and Delta, Utah. Wakasa was murdered at age 63 by a soldier in a watch tower at the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp for American Japanese during World War II.

He was out on a stroll with his dog on April 11, 1943. One shot killed him instantly. He was one of at least seven others who were killed by soldiers while incarcerated by the government. There was outrage in Topaz over this and authorities were worried that there might be a riot. After some negotiating, camp inmates were able to have a funeral for Wakasa that several thousand people attended.

Wreaths of paper flowers made by women served as decorations. One person clearly remembers the “Rock of Ages” hymn being sung. Some inmates built a stone monument to mark the spot where Wakasa died. When John J. McCloy, assistant secretary of war, was notified about the monument, an official gave the order to destroy it. So the men who put it up had to take it down. It turns out that instead of destroying the stone, they buried it in that spot. Wakasa’s story was buried with it.

Amazingly, a researcher, Nancy Ukai, found a hand drawn map of the spot, which led archeologists Mary Farrell and Jeff Burton to see if they could pinpoint the location where Wakasa was murdered. They found a bit of rock showing in the ground, investigated it and concluded that it was part of a larger rock buried in the ground. This may be the most important artifact that has been found at any former Japanese American concentration camp.

Those who were informed about it were extremely excited and a meeting was called to discuss what to do. The consensus was to leave it where it was until there was more discussion about it.

Before any decisions could be made, the Topaz Museum dug up the rock on July 27, 2021 and placed it in the museum’s courtyard in Delta. The handling of the stone has been controversial, and there has been no agreement about its disposition. But the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the Topaz Museum Board agreed to have ceremonies in observance of the 80th anniversary of Wakasa’s murder.

So, on April 11, the Memorial Committee had a public ceremony in San Francisco’s Japantown, with the cherry blossom trees in full bloom and the sun shining. Rev. Masato Kawahatsu and his wife Alice Kawahatsu of the Konko Church of San Francisco, led a purification rite. The Rev. Michael Yoshii, Patrick Hayashi, who was born in Topaz, archeologist Farrell, and head of the Wakasa Memorial Committee Ukai, spoke. Decorated with banners that named every person who died while at Topaz and the soldiers killed in World War II, the event was a solemn, beautiful tribute to this man and what his killing meant.

In Utah, on April 21, there was a gathering at the Salt Lake City Buddhist Temple with dinner and speakers. The next day, the Rev. Duncan Williams led a moving ceremony at the spot where the stone was found. Many community leaders participated, including Eric Pikyavit of the Kanosh Council of the Paiute Band. His words and acts connected powerfully with that desolate landscape of greasewood and alkaline soil. He led blessings with sweetgrass smoke.

The Rev. Amy Uzunoe-Chin, a Konko Church of Portland associate minister, conducted a purification ceremony, the Rev. France Davis of Salt Lake City read scripture, Yoshii from Alameda, Calif. sang and gave a sermon.

The rest of the observance was conducted at the Topaz Museum where the Wakasa memorial lay resting on a pallet in the courtyard. Williams led a healing mantra, community members read the names of all who died at Topaz, while everyone was allowed to offer condolences and touch the monument.

So, James Wakasa, his murder and his life, were permanently remembered with these commemorations. With all the media present, his story will be told here and in Japan.

Now, we are still left with the knotty question of the last resting place for the memorial stone. It has languished in the back of the museum for a couple of years with a thin metal covering, and we have never been informed about the museum’s plans for it. Rock experts have informed us about its condition; because of its fragility, they say it should only be moved once. So, this decision looms before us. It is such a strong symbol of our community’s ordeal of incarceration. It signifies death at the hands of the oppressive government and of the inmates determination to leave something for future generations as a reminder to remember what happened. It is a symbol of America’s scapegoating of a minority group.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif. is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

 

 

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