‘There’s our family name’: Sacred book honors Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII

The book weighs 25 pounds and is over 1,000 pages long. It’s about the size of the Gutenberg Bible.

Instead of the Word of God, it contains names – 125,284 names.

A few live. Most are dead. All were imprisoned behind barbed wire during World War II, their only crime being their Japanese heritage.

June Aochi Berk stepped forward. Her name was in the thick tome.

She stamped a blue circle next to her parents’ names, Chujiro Aochi and Kei Aochi.

Over the next year, survivors and their descendants will make a pilgrimage to the Japan-American National Museum in Little Tokyo to do the same for the names of their loved ones.

All 125,284 names have never been collected in one place. With 75 detention centers – some well known, like Manzanar and Heart Mountain, others forgotten – the records are scattered.

Named Ireichō, which means “Record of Comforting Ancestors” in Japanese, the book pays homage to the immeasurable loss each and every one of them suffered, even if they were just children at the time. It underscores their dignity as individuals, with lives left behind when the US government reduced them to faceless enemies.

The blue circles represent the Japanese tradition of leaving stones at memorials.

“This is not just an act of remembrance, but an act of repair,” said Rev. Duncan Ryuken Williams, director of the USC Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture and founder of the Irei Project, of which the book is a part. “Japanese Americans have always been viewed as un-American or anti-American — a mass of people viewed as a threat to national security more than other Asian groups in the history of Asian America.”

Berk, 89, was among the survivors who stamped the ireichō on Saturday as museum officials unveiled the book to visitors.

She was 10 when strangers herded her into a horse stable at the Santa Anita racetrack and then into the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas.

Her father, a gardener, and her mother, who did mending and washing, lost everything.

She was only allowed to stamp two names. She chose her parents and left her own name blank. The names of her three siblings are also in the book.

“You were so stoic. They dressed in their Sunday bests to go. They never complained, never cried,” said Studio City’s Berk of her parents. “They just started fresh after the US blamed us for a war we didn’t cause.”

Spiritual leaders carry the holy book Ireicho

Spiritual leaders carry a sacred book at the National Japan-American Museum in Los Angeles on Saturday.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The afternoon began with an Indigenous blessing from a man representing Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming.

Survivors, descendants and clerics – nearly 150 in total – passed through the ceremonial arches of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple and solemnly entered the museum while taiko drummers pounded. Some dabbed tears.

In the museum’s great hall, monks intoned prayers while tearful people bowed respectfully to the book.

“Public interaction with the Ireichō will be the first step in correcting the historical record and ensuring it is accurate for future generations,” said Ann Burroughs, the museum’s president and executive director.

Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Irei project includes a website to search for names and a future light installation that will project all names.

Compiling the names required several years of exhaustive research, including combing through the 1940 census and reviewing World War II draft maps, Williams said.

The complexity of Japanese names and Anglicized names, and wives taking their husbands’ names, presented further challenges.

“Different groups have issued different numbers. But no one knows an exact number,” he said of the total number of detainees of Japanese descent.

A line of people outside the Japan-American National Museum.

A procession of spiritual leaders, survivors, family members and representatives from each of the 75 camps to which Japanese Americans were sent during World War II.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Actor George Takei was credited as Hosato George Takei at Rohwer camp, then Hozato George Takei when his family moved to Tule Lake in Northern California.

“Knowing him, I just called him and he said he always spells it with an S,” Williams said.

Takei also told Williams, “Everybody sort of knows me as George Takei — just call me George Hosato Takei.”

A procession of spiritual leaders and survivors, family members and representatives.

A group of spiritual leaders, survivors, family members and representatives from the Japan-American National Museum march in the procession carrying sticks bearing camp names and soil samples from the sites.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

For Hiroshi Shimizu, 79, who was born in 1943 in Camp Topaz, Utah, he spent his first four and a half years behind fences and barbed wire.

After his family moved to the Crystal City camp in Texas, his father worked as a spokesman for the inmates, handled communications with administration, and helped families with paperwork.

“To go from this dark history to a place where we can recognize our names in hopes that this will never happen again is very special,” Shimizu said.

On Saturday, it was Nannette Fujimoto Okada’s turn at Ireichō to look up the names of her parents, Mikio and Dorothy Fujimoto.

Okada, who arrived at Camp Amache, Colorado, at the age of 4, described the procession and stamping of names as a “healing experience” and “the end of a journey.”

“It is an end,” she said, “that we must close this chapter.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-25/monument-honors-japanese-incarcerated-during-world-war-two ‘There’s our family name’: Sacred book honors Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII

Alley Einstein

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