Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community

Opinion: America has no problem confronting unpleasant facts about its past


BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — On the side of a lightly used road, from which drivers can look across Puget Sound to Seattle’s skyline, a small sign identifies the turnoff to the “Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.” On a recent sun-dappled midweek summer morning, 79 years after the exclusion began, a smattering of visitors were facing a dark episode in American history. They, and the memorial, are quiet refutations of current loud accusations that the United States does not face unpleasant facts about its past.

Seventy-four days after Pearl Harbor — Feb. 19, 1942; today, among Japanese Americans, Feb. 19 is a “Day of Remembrance” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the evacuation to concentration camps of, eventually, about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens, half of them children. The first 227 left this island from a dock a few yards from the memorial’s sinuous wall listing all of their names.

They were destined for Idaho, via California. While they were away, many of their homes, farms and businesses sold for much less than their value.

This report was kept from the Supreme Court when it upheld the internments in 1944. As was a report, prepared for Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King, estimating that perhaps 3 percent of Japanese Americans were potentially disloyal, and that these were “already fairly well known to naval intelligence.”

DeWitt said that “the interception of unauthorized radio communications” emanating from along the West Coast “conclusively” explained Japanese attacks on U.S. ships. The FBI, however, found “no information” of “any espionage activity ashore or … illicit shore-to-ship signaling.” Nevertheless, to some people, whose racial animus was heated by war fever, the complete absence of Japanese American sabotage was seen as sinister evidence of how stealthily the homegrown enemies were biding their time.

In time, the fever of war abated. Then, the civil rights movement sensitized the nation, and occasioned much soul-searching, some of it retrospective. In 1988, Congress formally apologized for the internments, and provided reparations checks of $20,000 to 82,000 victims. In 2018, the Supreme Court repudiated its 1944 decision as “gravely wrong the day it was decided” and “overruled in the court of history.” In 2011, here by the dock where the exclusions began, this island’s memorial was opened.

In 1994, David Guterson, a high school English teacher on the island, published a novel, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, where Japanese residents had been blown about by the winds of World War II. The novel won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. One of Guterson’s characters remembers signs posted by the War Relocation Authority on March 21, 1942, notifying all “Japanese islanders” that they must leave in eight days. The novel sold 4 million copies during a year and a half on bestseller lists. It was kept there by readers who were willing to be immersed by him in the unpleasantness of a fictional internment camp. It is not unlike the one the Bainbridge Islanders were sent to: Idaho’s Minidoka War Relocation Center, which is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

This island’s small memorial, a modest contribution to the national memory, is a pebble from a mountain of evidence against those who accuse Americans of being too calloused or squeamish to redeem their nation’s honor by confronting departures from it.