WASHINGTON – For a long, quiet moment, a white-haired gentleman stood and gazed at the words engraved in a low granite wall. Few passersby noticed the memorial, tucked on a tiny patch of federal parkland near Union Station in Washington. But every time Grant Ichikawa returns to the spot and stands before the statue of two majestic birds caught in barbed wire, a half-century of memories floods back.
“This is a holy place for me. My whole life is here,” Ichikawa, 93, a Japanese-American veteran of World War II and resident of Vienna, Virginia, said on a chilly afternoon last month. First, he pointed to a row of stone panels listing obscure towns across the West and South.
“Gila River — that’s the camp where my family was interned,” he said.
Then he turned to another panel honoring about 20,000 Japanese-Americans who served in the war, including more than 800 who died. “You fought not only the enemy,” he recited from one tribute, carved in the granite. “You fought prejudice, and you won.”
It took 47 years for the U.S. government to apologize, in 1988, for the wartime executive order that swept more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans to remote prison camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still later, in 2000, the modest memorial was built, in part to honor Japanese-Americans who served in U.S. Army combat and intelligence units and in part to commemorate the ordeal of families who were interned.
In a gesture to Japanese cultural roots, the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of flowering cherry trees. These are the same delicate trees that line Washington’s Tidal Basin — a gift from Japan whose centennial is being celebrated this spring, and one that has survived some of the worst years of the relationship between the two nations. In addition, the two struggling birds in the memorial are Japanese cranes.
“We are Americans, but we are very proud of our Japanese cultural heritage. Both the cherry trees and the cranes signify our ties to the old country,” said Gerald Yamada, 67, a retired U.S. government lawyer who played a key role in promoting and developing the memorial project.
Today, the estimated 800,000 Japanese-Americans — some of whose forebears immigrated more than a century ago — have achieved extraordinary economic success and have worked exceptionally hard to integrate fully into U.S. society.
Many lost thriving produce farms and other businesses during the war, then redoubled their efforts after it ended. Some joined the federal government or built political careers, notably Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and Norman Mineta, transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.
Yet the complicated legacy of their special past continues to privately haunt the postwar Japanese-American community. Once caught between two warring powers and viewed with suspicion by their ancestral homeland and their adopted country, many have wrestled ever since with a legacy of wounded dignity, conflicted identity and vertiginous twists of fate.
With a single act — the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — a proud and accomplished immigrant group became a pariah population, ridiculed and feared. Only after decades of effort to out-perform and assimilate — decades also of embarrassed silence about the past — have many Japanese-Americans begun to publicly discuss their wrenching wartime experiences.
“We were always told to be as American as possible,” said Floyd Mori, 73, a lifelong activist from California and Utah who heads the District of Columbia-based Japanese American Citizens League. He recalled being excluded as a boy from schoolmates’ birthday parties. Even his original name, Shiro, was changed to Floyd so he would fit in better.
“We were seen as the enemy, and we were ashamed of being Japanese,” he said. “I put my heritage aside, and it took me years before I began to understand and appreciate those values.”
Despite their drive to assimilate, scholars say many Japanese-Americans have clung fiercely to core Japanese traditions and values, from rice-pounding holiday rituals and ikebana flower-arranging classes to absolute insistence on paying the entire restaurant bill.
Yet they rarely put these roots on public display. While other, newer Asian-Americans tend to cluster in urban enclaves with ethnic eateries, Japanese-Americans are more secluded and scattered through affluent communities. Most live on the West Coast or in Hawaii, census data show.
Larry Shinagawa, 46, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland, said many Japanese-Americans have adhered strongly to the ancient samurai values of endurance, reserve, ambition, duty and avoiding embarrassment.
These values helped them survive the war. Then it helped put the fighting behind them and rebuild their lives, even while the wounds were fresh.
“We are the most mainstream American of all Asians, yet we are more traditional than the Japanese in Japan,” said Shinagawa, a California native. He described how his family was forced to abandon their home in 1941, carrying heirloom kimono and swords to a guarded horse stable, where they were housed for weeks. “We are frozen in time. We are caught between two cultures, and we have mixed feelings about everything.”
Another legacy of the war was that Japanese-Americans remained estranged for decades from the country and government of Japan. Little fresh immigration and few visitor exchanges took place until the past 20 years.
In the 1970s, a wave of Japanese investment brought a new form of rivalry, along with thousands of businessmen from Tokyo, to the West Coast. Today, there are well more than 100,000 Japanese nationals living and working temporarily in the United States, yet for the most part, they do not mingle socially with Japanese-Americans.
Now that longtime chill is beginning to thaw, in part because of aggressive diplomatic outreach by Japan and in part because a new generation of Japanese-American students and young professionals, including fourth — and fifth-generation immigrants, have begun to visit Japan and take jobs there. Yet some visitors report being viewed as objects of confusion and curiosity in their ancestral homeland.
“I have been to Japan five times now, and I found people were fascinated to meet a Japanese-American. They didn’t even know we exist,” said Hillary Nakano, 23, a Californian who is living in Washington as a fellow with Mori’s nonprofit group. She said that when she tried to explain about the wartime internment camps, her peers in Japan had no idea what she was talking about.
Kaitlin Inamasu, 19, a student at George Washington University from Hawaii, said she has never been to Japan and speaks English, Spanish and Hawaiian. But she said that coming to Washington, where people constantly ask her about her background, made her suddenly aware and proud of her Japanese roots. Now, when she goes home on vacation, she has started asking her grandparents about their internment. “I had never asked before, and they had never talked about it,” she said.
Since the 1988 apology by President Ronald Reagan, and the accompanying legislation that provided financial redress for camp survivors, a burst of pride, creativity and discussion among Japanese-Americans has gradually replaced the years of silent shame over the war.
Some creative projects even raise the still-sensitive issue of disputes within internment camps between young men who volunteered for the U.S. war effort and others who were too embittered to join up.
“The apology told people it wasn’t their fault. It lifted the feelings of guilt, so now the stories can be told,” said Yamada, the former U.S. government lawyer, during a recent visit to the memorial, at Louisiana Avenue and D Street NW.
Yamada, who served in the army during the Vietnam War, also heads the Japanese-American Veterans Association. But it is Ichikawa and another local World War II veteran, Terry Shima, who work tirelessly to raise public awareness of their history. Shima, 88, loves visiting schools to recount the heroic exploits of his compatriots who fought the Germans in Europe and worked as intelligence gatherers in the Pacific. The American students, he said, are always amazed.
“In World War II we were treated as nonpersons. Now, in 70 years, there has been a huge transformation,” said Shima, a resident of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who always wears his veterans’ cap. “We proved our loyalty and leveled the playing field for future generations to compete and succeed in America.”
Like Ichikawa, he said he reveres the memorial, but for a different reason. “To me, it represents the greatness of America,” Shima said. “The government recognized it had made a huge mistake and apologized for it. No other nation would have done that.”