For decades after World War II, Americans worked hard to forget the painful memories of Japanese American internment. Thanks to a group of dedicated Japanese Americans, this systematic erasure of that history was challenged in 1978. In November 1978, the first Day of Remembrance was held at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, the site of what was formerly known as Camp Harmony in Washington State. On Thanksgiving weekend, more than 2,000 participants reenacted the evacuation of hundreds of Japanese American citizens residing in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area over three decades before. Paying tribute to the suffering and persecution Japanese Americans endured during the war, the event raised awareness of this difficult history and created a renewed sense of solidarity among members of the Japanese American community.
Extending its scope beyond nonviolent protest or demonstration, the first Day of Remembrance featured collective activities that mixed historical reenactment, street theater, and political assembly. Its dramatic character was in part due to the professional background of its founders, Chinese American playwright Frank Chin and sansei actor, journalist, and activist Frank Abe. Chin and Abe spearheaded the campaign, approaching the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee with a proposal to recreate the scenes and conditions of Japanese American removal during the war. Various generations, genders, and ethnicities came together to perform this collective ritual. Upon their arrival at gathering places around the Seattle area, participants were given manila name tags similar to those internees were required to wear during the war. Former evacuees wrote their own identification numbers on these cards. Then participants, led by military escort, processed in buses and cars to the recreated Camp Harmony on the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Upon their admittance through a symbolic barbed-wire fence, men and women congregated to listen to speakers and entertainers who bore witness to everyday life in the camps. There were readings of personal memoirs written of the camps, political calls for redress by local leaders, historical accounts of the
events that led up to the creation of America's concentration camps, and personal oral histories of camp survivors.
This event received extensive local and national media attention; local television stations, the Associated Press, the Pacific Citizen, and other news outlets covered the event. The first Day of Remembrance did much to increase the visibility and efficacy of the national redress and reparations movement, which in the late 1970s was just beginning to make headway. It encouraged Seattle mayor Charles Royer to sign a resolution in support of the cause, as well as initiating Governor Dixie Lee Ray to call for an official Day of Remembrance in Washington State. Perhaps most importantly, however, was the effect the events had in revitalizing a sense of ethnic solidarity and group cohesion within the Japanese American community. More than any other event, the public collective nature of the day's events inspired crucial efforts at intergeneration dialogue among family members, who had for decades kept these experiences silent.
Since 1978, the Day of Remembrance activities have grown nationwide. The day is officially observed on February 19, the date President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066 that authorized the exclusion and concentration of Japanese Americans during the war. Each year, commemorative events are held across the country, in Japanese American neighborhood centers, at churches, on college campuses, at museums, and in the nation's capital. Activities include, but are not limited to, candlelight ceremonies, film screenings, poetry readings, political rallies, and art exhibits. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these memorials were paired with various reunions that took place at such concentration camps as Manzanar, Tule Lake, and others. These outings were organized in part to bring together former camp internees as a community and renew long lost friendships. By creating an opportunity for collective memory, personal reflection, and public education, these events work to ensure that this terrible history never will be repeated.
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Murray, Alice Yang. Historical Memories of the Japanese American Internment and the Struggle for Redress. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Shimabukuro, Robert Sadamu. Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.
Takezawa, Yasuko I. Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.