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Memorial for Japanese American WU students forced into camps during WWII more relevant than ever

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Jake Procino

News editor

Pictures of the Japanese American students who were forcibly removed from Willamette University and relocated to internment camps in 1942 are from Wallulah 1942, Wallulah 1941 and Wallulah 1940. Layout by Mary Wang.

April 1, 2021 marks the ten-year anniversary of the dedication of the wall, tree, rock and bench on the north side of Jackson Plaza to the ten Japanese American students who were forcibly removed from Willamette University and relocated to internment camps in 1942.

When Professor of American History Ellen Eisenberg taught about this period of history in her classes pre-pandemic, she said she would “physically bring the class out and I would jump up on the wall there and do an impromptu thing about these students.” Eisenberg would talk about how the removed students were just like Willamette students today, and who were American citizens by birth. She would tell them that the students were wrenched out of campus and their families were wrenched out of their homes and held behind barbed wire for years. Some of them were able to get out earlier through programs set up for students to transfer to schools on the east coast. “I know a couple of the students ended up at Earlham College in Indiana, and some of them ended up fighting in World War II,” said Eisenberg.

Reiko Azumano, Kenji Kurita, Kate Kyono, Tom Oye, Henry Tanaka, Hideto Tomita, Maye Oye Uemura, Edward Uyesuge, Taul Watanabe and Yoshi Yoshizawa were all students in 1942 that were forcibly removed from Willamette.

Photo of the plaque located on the north Jackson Plaza wall. The plaque reads: "This place of reflection is dedicated in remembrance of the Japanese-American students forced by the government to leave Willamette University in 1942 during World War II. Reiko Azumano, Kenji Kurita, Kate Kyono, Tom Oye, Henry Tanaka, Hideto Tomita, Maye Oye Uemura, Edward Uyesuge, Taul Watanabe, Yoshi Yoshizawa. Dedicated April 1, 2011." Photo taken by Jake Procino.

Eisenberg said conversations about creating a memorial started more than a decade before the dedication of the memorial. Willamette student Dean Nakanishi (’98) got a Carson Grant to do summer research in 1997 on the removal and incarceration of Willamette Japanese American students, with the help of then-Professor of Education Linda Tamura, who is a well known historian of Japanese Americans in Oregon, according to Eisenberg.

Eisenberg said the memorial creation was spurred because many of the removed students were starting to pass away, and as a result “there were a number of universities that started recognizing them in various ways.” Eisenberg, who had Nakanishi as a student, and Tamura started thinking of ways that Willamette could honor those students. “Ultimately, this idea of having a physical space, having a recognition of them on campus, started to emerge,” said Eisenberg.

With a plan in mind, Eisenberg and Tamura started the process of creating the memorial: “It took a couple of years of work. It's surprising how complicated it is to get something like that approved. There was a whole committee system that has to do with use of space and a series of approvals,” said Eisenberg. Initially, some administrators in the discussion suggested that the memorial should go in the Japanese Garden by the Art Building or by Kaneko Commons, which Eisenberg said she and Tamura strongly disagreed with. “These students had been othered because they were Japanese Americans, but they were American students, American citizens by birth and we didn't want them put in a place that was perceived as a Japanese space. We wanted them at the center of campus. They were regular Willamette students and that was what was important,” said Eisenberg.

Eisenberg and Tamura were later given several options of where to put the memorial, including in Jackson Plaza. To Eisenberg and Tamura, Jackson Plaza was the “obvious choice.” “We were thrilled at the space we got which is as central as central can be on campus,” said Eisenberg.

Wide shots of Jackson Plaza. The plaque can be seen on the brick wall. Photos taken in 2019 by Jake Procino.

With a location in hand, Eisenberg and Tamura started the process of what would go into the memorial. Eventually, they decided to dedicate the existing cherry blossom, install a bench and stone underneath the tree and install a plaque with all of the student’s names on the wall. “There was sort of a menu of memorial things you could do, and the bench was one of them,” said Eisenberg. A bench under the tree by the Mill Stream was appealing to Eisenberg because it could be a space to contemplate “what happened, and what could happen when you let racial hatred inform public policy.”

The process from choosing a space, getting it approved and installed took a couple more years, according to Eisneberg, but eventually the date of the dedication was set for 1:30 p.m. on Friday, April 1, 2011. “I remember that it was a beautiful day and the cherry tree was in bloom, and everything fell into place very nicely,” said Eisenberg.

According to the March 16, 2011 edition of the Collegian, the ceremony was hosted by then- Willamette President M. Lee Pelton, with speakers including Nakanishi, then-ASWU President Walter Robinson II (’11) and United Methodist Church Bishop Robert Hoshibata. After the ceremony, Oregon’s fifth poet-laureate Lawson Inada performed a poem he wrote for the occasion and the Minidoka Swing Band performed in Hudson Hall. Eisenberg said all of the removed students had passed away before the ceremony, but “a number of members of their families came.”

With the memorial installed, Eisenberg believes it is one of only two monuments on campus dedicated to students, the other being the “Town and Gown” sculpture on the north side of campus. “I think a lot of students walk by it a million times and never see it, because I find when I talk to my students about it in class, many of them indicate that. And then they say once I've talked about it, then they're conscious of it after that,” said Eisenberg.

Ten years later, the memorial still holds relevance today. “There have been so many acts of hatred and, recently, attacks on Asian Americans, which in many ways echo exactly what happened during World War II. Asian Americans, many of whom have been here for generation after generation after generation, are still perceived by people as if they don't belong, or as if they're not "real Americans."” said Eisenberg. According to a [report] by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, anti-Asian hate crime spiked 149% in the U.S. in 2020. “Wouldn't it be great if it were just a relic of the past and we said, ‘Oh, look how terrible things were back then, but there's nothing like that now.’ Unfortunately we haven't gotten there yet,” said Eisenberg.

The memorial and Jackson Plaza has also served as the location for several recent vigils, including a memorial observance to honor the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018 and a vigil to mourn the victims of the New Zealand mosque shootings in 2019.

Nakanishi’s [research paper], “Between worlds: the Willamette University Japanese American experience resulting from Executive order 9066,” is available to Willamette students in the University Archives. For further research, Eisenberg recommends [Densho], a website dedicated to sharing the history of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Collegian's 2011 article about the memorial can be [found online] in the Willamette University Archives, on page six and seven of Volume: 122, Issue 22.

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Apr 02, 2021

Really important subject matter, and something that should remain a strong part of our institutional memory.

“We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence….Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.” - Michel-Rolph Trouillot

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