A Radically Reimagined Historic Memorial in Little Tokyo

A living memorial to the past and present honoring all who were incarcerated in the U.S. during WWII is now at L.A.’s Japanese American National Museum

For Bill Fujioka, a first-of-its-kind book that lists every person of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II reads like a personal family history book.

Among the 125,284 names listed in the unassuming-looking book are those of his father, Willie Fujioka, a U.S. veteran, his grandfather Fred Fujioka, and other family members. With over 1,000 pages, the book embodies the impact of war when innocent people became collateral to hysteria after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It precisely enumerates the WWII incarceration experience when Japanese Americans were seen as a threat to national security and incarcerated en masse. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and the blur of names, but Fujioka wants you to see the book’s spirituality. 

“It’s full of emotions,” said Fujioka, who is a third-generation Japanese American and former chief executive officer of Los Angeles County. “Each name is a person.”

Bill and Darlene Fujioka at the dedication of the Hall of Justice in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Bill Fujioka)

The book, called the Ireichō—a sacred book of names—was hand-sewn together and personally escorted from its San Francisco bookbinder location to Little Tokyo’s Japanese American National Museum for its Sept. 24 installation. It’s the first part of a multi-faceted project that reimagines the future of historical memorials, post-George Floyd. The Ireichō is a decided step away from the permanence of granite and bronze markers and statues that dot Los Angeles’ cityscape and a move toward a new kind of memorial—one that evolves along with the people it embodies.

“We believe that a monument can be a living, dynamic one that actually changes because of you,” said Duncan R. Williams, one of the project’s leaders, to a room full of ceremony participants—survivors, descendants, or preservationists of the Japanese American wartime incarceration experience. “You become the monument.”

Monuments and memorials have traditionally tried to tell stories about people and history through physical evidence of power—immovable granite and stone. Many do and will continue to exist—just a few blocks away from JANM, the memorial plaque at Fletcher Bowron Square credits the former Los Angeles mayor with modernizing the city but omits his shaky handling of race relations. The plaque stands unchanged since its 1975 dedication. The thrust of the Ireichō project differs in its impermanence and crowdsourcing.

In Aratani Central Hall, the museum’s glass room, officials have begun a year-long campaign to edit the book’s official list of names. Who better to do this than survivors and descendants? They can make reservations with the museum to affirm and correct misspellings or omissions. They can also imprint a blue circular stamp next to the name as a gesture of honor. With these edits, the memorial changes and becomes an active agent of healing intergenerational trauma.  

“We really feel this is a project of repair, healing and making right the historic record,” said Williams, director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture.

The Ireichō, a sacred book of names, lists all Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII. (Photo: Kristen Murakoshi)

The Ireichō is one piece in a three-part project funded by the Mellon Foundation to “elevate and preserve the stories of those who have often been denied historical recognition.” The project includes a database website of names and a forthcoming interactive monument at the museum.

Before the Ireichō, no such official comprehensive list existed, said Williams. Sure, there is an oft-reported narrative of 120,000 Japanese Americans forced to live in hastily built camps across the United States, but that round number is an estimate from scattered government records. 

The Ireichō includes the names of people from 75 WWII incarceration sites, including assembly centers and military detention centers like Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where in 1942 guards shot and killed Kanesaburo Oshima. The Issei, or first-generation Japanese American, was arrested hours after the Pearl Harbor attack under suspicion of being a spy. During his incarceration, he grew increasingly despondent over the separation from his family. On the day of his death, witnesses said Oshima ignored orders to stop walking towards a fence. “I need to go home,” he repeated. He was shot in the back of the head. Oshima was survived by his wife and 11 children. 

In the living room of Jiko Nakade’s childhood home in Kona, Hawaii, there is a black-and-white portrait of Oshima. He is smartly dressed and smiles confidently. He was the grandfather that Nakade never got to know. At the Ireichō installation ceremony, Nakade, a Buddhist priest, clutched her grandfather’s photo to her black and mustard color robe to honor his memory. By participating in the ceremony, she feels connected to him. 

“Suddenly [my grandparents’] pictures and their faces, which are kind of etched in my memory from childhood, has deep meaning for me now,” said Nakade, 60. 

Before the war, Fred Fujioka was a successful Los Angeles automobile entrepreneur, “the life of the party” with jet-black hair. FBI agents arrested and held him at Leavenworth, a federal prison in Kansas, on suspicion of being a war criminal. Upon return, his hair turned snowy white, and he didn’t speak a word for almost a year.

“It just broke him,” said Fujioka about his grandfather who died when he was 16. “It was real sad.”

Both Nakade and Fujioka plan to visit the museum and stamp the book. For Fujioka, the process conjures spirits.

“I guarantee that everyone who made the mark did not just put a mark next to a written name. They saw the person in their head,” said Fujioka.

The stamp, and the edits, tell the world that these lives counted.

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