Thoughts on war, and innocents bearing blame

As they do every year, this spring the cherry trees lining the walk outside the student center will brighten the gray days with pink blossoms. Small signs will be placed at the base of the trees, one for each of the 30 Puget Sound students of Japanese ancestry who in the spring of 1942 were sent to internment camps away from the coast. When the trees bloomed last year, Takanori Asai, a 70-year-old former journalist and newspaper owner, the Miki Scholar for 2004-05, and a Hiroshima survivor, gave this short talk:

Sakura sakura
Yayoi no sora wa
Miwatasu kagiri
Kasumi ka kumo ka……

Sakura, or cherry blossoms, this traditional song of my country is everyone’s favorite. In March, as the cherry blossoms bloom up north throughout the Japanese archipelago, people enjoy picnicking under the trees. I am going to enjoy cherry-blossom viewing with a bento box as I do in Japan. Where? Around the little garden in front of Wheelock Student Center here at UPS. You will see 12 cherry trees still blooming there. But who do you think planted these trees and why? What do they mean to you and to me? This is what I want to tell you today.

On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war following Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the day before. Two months later he signed Executive Order 9066, which gave presidential permission to the secretary of war and the military commanders to evacuate persons from any area deemed a threat to U.S. security. As a result, mass evacuation of Japanese descendants living in this country became a military priority. The 30 Japanese-American students enrolled in the College of Puget Sound were no exception. For all of these Americans, Dec. 7, labeled as “a day of infamy” by President Roosevelt, was a traumatic turning point.

On Dec. 8, students listened to Roosevelt’s radio broadcast in the auditorium. Waichi Oyanagi, the only Issei (first-generation immigrant) student at UPS, recalled being in a state of shock that day. He said, “Members of the Japanese Students Club went off by ourselves and cried.” Then came the order for evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry. On the West Coast alone, 110,000—including 70,000 Nissei (born outside of Japan) who were U.S. citizens—had to dispose of all their property and businesses.

Just before leaving for the relocation camp, the Japanese-American students planted the cherry trees as a token of friendship for UPS. On behalf of the Japanese students, Shigeo Wakamatsu read the following final message to the faculty and students. “Each spring you will watch the cherry trees bloom and grow. It has been our only tangible contribution to the college. It is our earnest prayer that our friendship will continue to grow. At this time, we say, not good-bye, but until we meet again.”

Jack Hata wrote to the college’s newspaper, The Trail, his memory of the May 17, 1942, evacuation date, which was his 21st birthday. “What a day to celebrate! I also remember the very first day in camp, being in line waiting to get into the mess hall in 100-degree heat. I had the strong feeling that I would never leave the camp again.”

The cherry tree is designated as the national tree by the Japanese Ministry of Education and is a symbol of Japan. This raises the question of why the Japanese students, who pledged loyalty to the United States, presented the symbol of Japan as a gift. At that time the Japanese were, in Oyanagi’s words, “enemy aliens.” I have not found any answers to my simple question. However, my assumption is that cherry trees have been regarded as a symbol of good will and friendship worldwide. The hundreds of cherry trees planted along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., before the war is a good example of friendship between the two countries.

In the past, some UPS students have challenged the issue of Japanese-American Internment for their research papers. Alma Balahadia, a history major, argued in her 1992 thesis that the internment was “a blemish in America’s seemingly democratic past.”

The enforcement of “imprisonment without trial” not only violated the Constitution but was also racially motivated. Very few Americans opposed the mass relocation. In Washington state, only the mayor of Tacoma said no publicly. Malignant images of Japanese in the media added to Americans’ false pictures of Japan. In a mounting wave of anti-Japanese sentiment, the whole society seemed to believe that the Japanese were inferior and unnecessary for American cultural development. It’s like suspecting that all Arab-Americans are terrorists after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Thanks to the unusually mild weather this year, cherry trees in the UPS garden have already begun to bloom. Behind the pretty, tiny pink blossoms is a history of agony, pain, humiliation, shame, fear, and hope that the Japanese-American students experienced. In other words, these cherry trees are a historical monument that we should never forget. The Asian Pacific American Student Union has been working for the past three years to commemorate the interned students by hanging paper cranes onto the branches. This act inspired me to make this speech. I will remember these trees as I always remember Pearl Harbor and atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kasumi ka kumo ka
Nioi zo izuru
Izaya izaya
Mini yukan