John Tanaka was well liked, valedictorian of his class, but when the commencement ceremony for the Juneau High School class of 1942 began, where Tanaka would have sat was an empty chair. So the story goes. Mary Tanaka Abo likened it to a “legend,” like Patsy Ann the loyal dog, or the man who survived a particularly brutal bear mauling and lived a perfectly normal and fulfilling life — Lee Hagerman might be his name — though Marie Darlin confirmed the tale of the chair is true. But with 2012 marking the 70th anniversary of the internment of Japanese-Americans in the U.S., stories like this are getting harder to remember.
That’s why a group of JDHS graduates, including Tanaka Abo, Marjorie Alstead Shackelford and David Gray — all friends from class of 1958, along with Dixie Johnson Belcher, Marsha Erwin Bennett, Janie Hollenbach Homan, Jan and Andy Pekovitch, Fumi Matsumoto, Marie Darlin and Betty Marriott formed a memorial committee and petitioned the Juneau Historic Resources Advisory Committee before they adjourn for the summer to create a memorial to those Japanese families in Juneau. It would be the first memorial to the Japanese internment in Alaska, Shackelford said.
Though the old friends, Tanaka Abo, Shackelford, Gray, Karleen and Roger Grummett, are lively and full of stories, many with memories of the internment are gone — Tanaka Abo was 2 when they left and 5 when they returned to Juneau, with few recollections — the attitude, 70 years later, is “What are you waiting for?” — voiced by Karleen.
The proposed memorial, based on the story of the 1942 commencement, is an empty chair in the center of a round slab inscribed with an inscription by Tanaka Abo, who found her voice as a creative writing student at the University of Washington, and the names of Juneau evacuees, which Tanaka Abo pulled from two lists, one of first generation Japanese-Americans, the other second generation. The list has 43 names.
Shackelford and Tanaka Abo have been friends since third grade, Shackelford recalled, but it wasn’t until they were in university together that Tanaka Abo started voicing feelings and sharing memories about the internment, her experiences and those of her family.
“In the beginning I didn’t know anything about the internment, I didn’t know anything about it because Mary never talked about it, and the first I knew about it was when I went to UW and she wrote a piece about it.” Shackelford said.
“It was a literary magazine, because I was a creative writing major.” Tanaka Abo said.
“And I read the piece and there were some comments in there that — I was just browsing around and I saw Mary Tanaka on the cover and I read the piece — I was just so amazed because I didn’t know that she had these feelings or that, I didn’t know anything that had happened to her.” Shackelford continued. “Over time, she didn’t talk about it all that much but over the last 10 years, 15 years, it’s come up in conversation and we’ve all, other friends have talked about it, and she’s taken us to spots, like in Portland (Ore.) they have a memorial, and they have another one in Bainbridge Island that we went to that marked the people that left from Bainbridge Island.”
Attending an event with her sister, Karleen, Shackelford listened to a testimony by Betty Marriott, who had been at Minidoka (Internment Camp), and found a yearbook from the camp, where she found the Tanaka family.
“Then I came home and I was grousing about the injustice of it all and my sister said, “Well, why don’t you do something about it.””
“When we were talking we realized nothing’s been done, you know, to recognize what had happened to Mary and her family and others. So that’s kind of how it all got started.” Karleen said. She had called the Juneau-Douglas City Museum and the Alaska State Museum and it was confirmed there were no memorials to the Japanese Internment in Alaska, thought Ron Inouye, whose book Darlin had suggested to the rest of the committee, had mentioned interest in a memorial in Anchorage.
What the empty chair will memorialize is the history of the Japanese-American families who were quietly evacuated from Juneau in 1942. The valedictorian student, the owner of the City Café, the parents, children, friends and well regarded citizens.
“Well, I mean, the Japanese internment was just part of the war and all of us in Juneau, the families were well thought of in Juneau and they were in school with us for a long time. Walter Fukuyama — we were together since kindergarten.” Darlin said in a phone interview Saturday.
“Mr. Lewis, Mr. Max Lewis was a national guardsman at the time and at one of my class reunions,” Tanaka Abo said, “he really felt bad because he knew Sam Taguchi and he had to escort him down to the ship, and that feeling that you’re escorting somebody with the authority of the U.S. Government, he probably had a rifle, but he had to take him, send him away. He felt very bad about that.”
“(Rude’s son) visited my brother in Spokane, Wash. because he had terminal cancer then, and he told my sister later that his class, I don’t know what class, he said they should have laid down across the gang plank — done a protest. Do something. But at the time, I think no one knows what to do in a situation when the law says you have to do this. Everyone does what the law says you’re supposed to do.”
“I think the whole town (had an emotional response),” Darlin said, “we didn’t like to see people go, they were well liked and they were part of the community. I think it was one of the saddest experiences we had in Juneau.”
While Tanaka Abo admits to having only the usual childhood recollections, like nursery school, she said, during her time at Minidoka, her sister has shared stories about her family during the time period.
“My sister mentions that our mother (Nobu Tanaka) was very traumatized because our father (Shonosuke Tanaka) was in Santa Fe (N.M.) at this time in a special camp… and so my mother, who could hardly speak English and could hardly understand what was happening, panicked, in these barracks, about food and she started hoarding toast from the mess hall and storing it underneath our cots. And I think the family thought maybe she was going kind of crazy, but after a while she felt more reassured, probably talking to other Japanese there that told her for sure we weren’t going to be sent starving to death.”
Tanaka Abo did recall a discovery during her college years that reminded them of the time leading up to internment and, with perspective, brought on a laugh.
“Many years later, when I was in college, I was helping her begin her garden and I saw some gunny sacks, and she laughed because she remembered before, during this time we were going to be evacuated, she buried rice sacs, burlap — to show how frightened she was.”
Tanaka Abo’s memories growing up are more about being Japanese after the war and she said she would feel “like we really have a home here.”
“It was kind of odd in a way, growing up in Juneau because I was the only Japanese aside from the Komatsubara family, I didn’t quite, in the schools, they don’t quite have a multi-cultural content so there was nothing about the Japanese, the only reference to the Japanese was during the war. So in a way, other than the friendship that I had with my classmates, you know, I really felt kind of like an alien myself.” she said.
“My mother used to make me visit Japanese people that we knew in Seattle … an older lady, and I would take a bus and the bus was kind of like, you know when the bus stopped, it would kind of, like, be breathing, like a breathing animal … here I was visiting someone I didn’t want to visit, a Japanese lady in a Japanese town, ‘cause I didn’t want to be Japanese and the line that was so shocking to Margie, I think, was “I don’t want to be a dirty Jap,” which was like the feeling that you can get, being, looking like the enemy.”
Though being in a more diverse community like Seattle and learning to express herself through creative writing alleviated some of the negative self images Tanaka Abo had about her culture, she and her family found Juneau to be a welcoming and supportive community.
“My friends in Juneau made me feel part of a community, and nurturing, so I feel bad for people who don’t have that closeness, people that you can rely on.”
“I think my father felt that way when he came back to Juneau,” Tanaka Abo said, “he was at this time 65, he had no workers anymore and he got credit from the home grocery… he didn’t have to pay until he had cash flow … The Messerschmidt Bakery gave him credit and, ironically, those are both German, German ancestry. And that’s by where my dad had the café, a lot of immigrants like the Russians were there, so he felt welcome. He got partners like Komatsubara from Petersburg and Sam and Gim Taguchi, so with the help of these Japanese, we were able to get the City Café back and going again and we were able to be ok as he thought he would be. It wouldn’t work in Seattle because he would just be one Japanese among many, but here he could have a café he could have a business.”
Shonosuke Tanaka ran the café for 39 years before the internment and, Tanaka Abo said, about 15 years after.
“They came back.” Shackelford said of the City Café customers.
“When my father wanted to leave Santa Fe, the prisoner of war, justice of war camp, to join our family in Minidoka, I think he asked or some affidavits of loyalty to this country from Juneau people and they offered this affidavit, which he was very proud of, to have people in Juneau vouch for his loyalty to this country.” Tanaka Abo said.
And she’s just as surprised and happy now that the Juneau community has been so proactive about the proposal for a memorial in Juneau.
“Well, I’m astounded that we were just talking about it and this idea just kind of spun out of control, with people here who have connections in the community, I’m just kind of startled that if you have an idea, people know people who say, well we could do this, we could meet with these people, we could call them and I think this could go. I called my sister in San Jose and I told her, “wow” because we went to the (Historic Resources Advisory Committee) meeting and —”
“And they’re giving us a letter of approval and a recommendation … And they were so supportive,” Shackelford said, “and we’re feeling a little nervous about the whole thing because we’re not really sure what we’re dealing with, but the reception was really warm and the support has been really warm. We’ve had input of ideas from a lot of different people. And support from a lot of different people.”
At this point, the process for the memorial has begun and it’s just a matter of time. The members of the committee present Friday seemed optimistic that their modest memorial would be a reality eventually.
For community members interested in involvement in the memorial committee, contact Shackelford at email@example.com.
Additional materials will soon be available on juneauempire.com, including a sketch of the proposed memorial and old articles about the Tanakas and other families.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.