The Empty Chair Project, a proposed bronze memorial statue symbolic of the empty chair left by the absence of Valedictorian John Tanaka when Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps in May of 1942, is closer than ever to materializing.
Those who first imagined the memorial, members of a committee dedicated to raising the funds and securing the location, are surprised at how quickly things are coming together. They have chosen an artist, Seattle-based Peter Reiquam, who visited Juneau in late 2012; they have raised awareness, in part through media coverage, in part through their own determined presence at meetings, emails and blog posts; and they have raised funds — more than half what they set as a goal. It’s hard to say if they imagined a day when a benefit concert would be hosted, or a day when a single gift of $5,000 might be presented — but that day is coming up in less than a week.
In a recent phone interview with Marjorie Alstead Shackelford, the committee chair, the progress the group has made was clear.
“I talked to Malin Babcock, because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t letting the cat out of the bag, but the Juneau Historical Society is going to give us $5,000.”
On the fundraising scale, they are at about $26,700, Shackelford said, but this donation will bump the group up to about $32,000. The ultimate goal is to raise $40,000 and there was noticeable excitement in her voice sharing the news.
The upcoming benefit concert will push the group even nearer their goal, though the concert is more to the organizers and musicians than a fundraiser.
Steve Tada, a local musician and architect with the City and Borough of Juneau Engineering Department, said Betty Marriott asked him if he might be interested in playing a concert to benefit the Empty Chair Project.
“I was asked by Betty Marriott,” Tada said, “Late last year, I think, out of the blue, she asked if I would be interested in playing a benefit project and Nancy (Nash) and I, at the time, were preparing a nice program anyway. So it was a neat project that kind of found us.”
Tada sees the Empty Chair project as an homage to Juneau’s welcoming attitude toward Japanese-Americans during wartime. His father was sent to an internment camp from his home in Seattle and Tada said not all communities were as warm to those who returned as Juneau was.
“It’s kind of serendipitous… the more I talked to Betty, we realized we have a lot in common in our families as well. My father grew up in Seattle, so did I, so did Betty. I didn’t know it at the time, but it came up that she went to a Japanese-American internment camp, and it was the same one my dad’s family was sent to during the war, ‘42-’45. It was Minidoka, in Idaho, and it’s very coincidental that she had that background and so did my dad, so did my family,” Tada said, adding, “I think the really cool thing about the Empty Chair, as you know it’s about kind of giving back to the people who were so nice to the returning Japanese-Americans after the war, who made Juneau their home, and how welcoming they were — they were just very neighborly, the reception they got was pretty exceptional. That’s not what happened everywhere. … It’s a really neat story.”
Tada said his father didn’t talk about his time at Minidoka, he’s done research himself, but he said it was something that was “not drudged up, not discussed.”
“I think it is a great idea and sculpture, and we’re just really happy to be playing a benefit for it.”
Tada and Nash will open the concert with Franz Schubert’s Sonatina in D-Major, followed by Nash performing a solo piano piece by Robert Schumann. Following Robert Schumann is the piece by Michio Miyagi, then a brief intermission, during which the $5,000 donation from the historical society will be presented. The second half of the show will feature composer Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert, who Tada said is acknowledged as a better pianist than her husband, though her pieces were forgotten for almost a century. The piece, Romance No. 1, was dedicated to Johannes Brahms, whose composition Sonata No. 1 in G-Major will close the show.
“Kind of the most interesting piece is this Japanese piece, Haru no Umi,” Tada said.
He scoured the web, he said, searching for a Japanese composition that would fit the bill. Haru no Umi, which translates to ‘The Sea in Spring,’ will follow Robert Schumann’s Aufschwung. They decided the piece would be fitting because of the cultural ties but also, Tada pointed out, looking out over the Gastineau Channel from the small conference room in the downtown library, because it was something Juneau residents could relate to, adding “I can kind of see where he’s coming from.”
Tada spoke highly of Nash’s musical abilities with “every known instrument, including not only Western instruments but Chinese instruments,” describing her home as a museum for musical instruments. While exploring the piece by Miyagi, Tada said he had a hard time imagining how it should sound, so Nash demonstrated the flute arrangement with a Chinese and a Thai flute she happened to have, just so he could get the feeling.
“It’s a traditional Japanese song that is arranged nicely for violin and piano and that would be appropriate for the Empty Chair,” Tada said, “I came across this piece, then I found sheet music for it — I think I saw a youtube video of it first, for violin and piano — and the more I dug into it, this man, Michio Miyagi was his name… he went blind at age 8, which is interesting, and he took up the Japanese Koto, which is like a zither, became this great koto master and composer… he composed this piece as kind of a remembrance of his childhood, growing up by the ocean — that’s why it’s called The Sea in Springtime.”
The flute arrangement was transcribed for violin by French violinist Renee Chemet in 1932, and “somewhere there is an archive victrola recording of these two (Chemet and Miyagi) playing it,” Tada said; Nash will play the part originally meant for koto on piano. He said they both really like the piece and think it will have a lot of appeal for the audience.
The concert featuring Tada on violin and Nash on Piano will benefit the Empty Chair Project, with tickets selling at $20 for adults, $10 for seniors and free for students. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Northern Light United Church on Saturday, Feb. 23.
To keep up with the progress of the Empty Chair Project, look for future coverage in the Empire or follow the group’s blog at emptychairproject.wordpress.com, for more information about the project and the Tanaka family, please refer to the May 5, 2012 article The empty chair and a hushed history.