Long-lost monument hints at painful legacy for descendants of Japanese internment camps in Utah

Last year, two archaeologists found a monument in a Utah internment camp that imprisoned Americans of Japanese descent. The prisoners there built it for a man killed by a guard. But earlier this year, the Topaz Museum – built to educate the public about the camp – removed the monument with a forklift. There were no archaeologists on site and the museum had not informed the former prisoners and their descendants.

The American-Japanese community was crushed. Some were angry. But now they are trying to find a way forward.

The former Topaz internment camp is located 16 miles northwest of Delta. It is now an empty, dry desert landscape with just the building foundations to the left. But 80 years ago, it was home to 12 family members from Nancy Ukai and a 63-year-old man named James Wakasa.

Ukai, a history researcher and writer, returned there on a cold December morning.

“We retrace the route James Wakasa took after Sunday evening dinner, April 11, 1943,” she said as she walked over thick woody bushes and cracked earth. “He was walking his dog.

Sunset was approaching when a guard shot Wakasa in the chest a few feet from the fence. The soldier was then acquitted by a military court.

The government’s first explanation was that it was crawling through the fence in an attempt to escape. Then they recognized that he was several meters from him, facing the guard. Stories circulated around the camp that he was deaf and may not be able to hear the guard’s warnings, but some accounts suggest he was not.

Topaz prisoners organized a funeral for James Wakasa after his assassination. They wanted to keep him where he was shot, but camp officials refused. The Topaz Times reported on the funeral on April 15, 1943.

“The image of him [is] this deaf old man who was single and a leader, but he had a busy life, ”Ukai said. ” He has travelled a lot. In his barracks, they found Mexican pesos … He lived a lot in the Midwest. He lived in New York… I think a lot of that humanity got lost in the telling of the story. “

After the warden killed Wakasa, camp officials let the prisoners organize a funeral. But it was not at the site where he was shot, as they wanted.

A group of them then built a monument from a large stone, which camp officials ordered them to destroy. But in an act of defiance, they buried him where Wakasa had died.

Find the monument

Last year Ukai found a map in the National Archives that showed where Wakasa was shot and therefore where the monument was located. Two archaeologists saw this item, came to the desert, and found the top sticking out of the ground.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God. This message from the past, which represents civil rights, mistrust, resistance. ‘ [It] felt amazing, ”Ukai said. “Also that they were trying to remember a friend and the story has literally been buried for 78 years.”

After Ukai and eight other former prisoners and descendants traveled to the place where Wakasa was killed, they held a ceremony for him.

Most of the group had traveled from the San Francisco Bay Area to be here – the same route their parents and grandparents took when they were forced to leave their homes 80 years ago.

On that December morning, the group stood in a semicircle next to the original barbed wire fence, tightly wrapped in coats to keep warm in the cool desert air. A Japanese-born American musician played a reed instrument and a Buddhist minister burned incense while giving a blessing.

At Wakasa’s funeral in 1943, prisoners did not have fresh flowers, so they used paper flowers. The group at this ceremony placed fresh flowers and paper flowers next to a cross on the fence.

Kyoshi Ina, who was born in the camp, read a letter from the group.

“Dear Mr. Wakasa, these flowers are for you,” he said. “We thank you for a life well lived. We mourn your death. We thank your issei friends who built your memorial in defiance of the camp and federal officials and then buried it for future generations to find and cherish. You continue to live on in our memories and in our hearts.

Remove the monument

Topaz’s group that day weren’t just mourning Wakasa and the pain their loved ones endured while imprisoned there. They were also mourning what happened to the monument about two weeks after archaeologists published an article online in July about its find.

The Topaz Museum used a forklift to remove the stone from the ground.

Masako Takahashi was born in Topaz Concentration Camp and lived there until she was one and a half years old. Takahashi said he told the chair of the museum’s board, Jane Beckwith, that she would be happy to fund an archaeological dig and an accompanying ceremony.

“A business day or two later, she responded by saying, ‘Oh, we dug it up this morning,’” Takahashi said. “It was a slap in the face… It was like a combination of grief and rage.”

Takahashi said part of that heartache and rage was knowing that the monument could have been damaged by the way it was removed.

“There could be some writing or an engraving on the front,” she said. “There could have been gifts or tokens left at the burial site, flowers, incense. We do not know. We may never know.

Beckwith said it was important to remove the stone quickly as its location had been posted online.

“When that was revealed it really freaked us out,” she said. “Vandalism here is quite common and we felt like if it happened it would be a tragedy really.”

But still, she admitted that the way they took him off was not fair.

“We apologized for moving it too quickly,” Beckwith said. “If people wanted to see it deleted, we should have given them this opportunity. “

Try to move forward

Now both sides are trying to heal and move on. Part of this is an assessment of the stone and its original location by archaeologists from the National Park Service. The museum and this group of descendants have enlisted the help of the agency’s National Historic Landmark program.

After the ceremony, the team began their work to assess the condition of the site. The day before, they had done the same for the stone, which now rests on a wooden pallet in the corner of the museum’s courtyard.

A photo of a large stone.

Briana Scroggins for KUER

The half-ton stone that is likely part of the James Wakasa memorial is attached to a pallet behind the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. | Photo by Briana Scroggins for KUER, courtesy Topaz Museum.

Eventually, the team will write a report for the descendants and the museum, which they can use to make a decision on what to do with the monument.

There is still a lot of healing to be done. But Nancy Ukai, who first found the map that led to the monument’s discovery, said today brings them a little closer together.

“Healing means learning the truth, or at least as much information as possible about the earth here, the artefact, the archeology, which has created pain but can also create learning and hopefully recovery,” said she declared. “And meeting people and working together to learn is a form of healing.”

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