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Race, Religion & Social Justice

Long-lost monument brings up a painful legacy for Utah Japanese internment camp descendants

Last year, two archaeologists found a monument at a Utah internment camp that imprisoned Japanese Americans. The prisoners there built it for a man killed by a guard. But earlier this year, the Topaz Museum — built to educate the public about the camp — removed the monument with a forklift. There were no archaeologists on hand and the museum hadn’t let former prisoners and their descendants know.

The Japanese American community was crushed. Some were angry. But now, they’re trying to find a path forward.

The former Topaz Internment Camp sits 16 miles northwest of Delta. It’s now an empty, dry desert landscape with just the foundations of buildings left. But 80 years ago, it housed 12 of Nancy Ukai’s relatives and a 63-year-old man named James Wakasa.

Ukai, a historical researcher and writer, returned there on a cold December morning.

“We're retracing the route that James Wakasa took after dinner on Sunday night, Apr. 11, 1943,” she said, stepping on greasewood shrubs and cracked earth. “He was walking his dog.”

It was nearing sunset when a guard shot Wakasa in the chest just a few feet from the fence. The soldier was later acquitted in military court.

The government’s first explanation was that he was crawling through the fence trying to escape. Then they acknowledged he was several feet away from it facing the guard. Stories flew around the camp that he was deaf and maybe couldn’t hear the guard’s warnings, but some accounts suggest he wasn’t.

“The image of him [is] this old deaf man who was a bachelor and a chef, but he had a full life,” Ukai said. “He traveled a lot. In his barrack, they found Mexican pesos ... He lived a lot in the Midwest. He lived in New York ... I think a lot of that humanity was lost in the retelling of the story.”

After the guard killed Wakasa, camp officials let the prisoners hold a funeral. But it wasn’t at the site where he was shot, like they wanted.

A group of them then built a monument out of a large stone, which camp officials ordered them to destroy. But in an act of defiance, they buried it where Wakasa had died.

Finding the monument

Last year, Ukai found a map in the national archives that showed where Wakasa was shot and therefore where the monument was. Two archaeologists saw that article, came to the desert and found the top of it sticking out of the ground.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This message from the past, which represents civil rights, defiance, resistance.’ [It] felt incredible,” Ukai said. “Also that they were trying to remember a friend and that history was literally buried for 78 years.”

After Ukai and eight other former prisoners and descendants walked to the spot where Wakasa was killed, they held a ceremony for him.

Most of the group had traveled from the San Francisco Bay Area to be here — the same route their parents and grandparents took when they were forced from their homes 80 years ago.

On this December morning, the group stood in a semicircle next to the original barbed wire fence, wrapped tightly in coats to stay warm in the crisp desert air. A Japanese American musician played a reed instrument and a Buddhist minister burned incense while giving a blessing.

During Wakasa’s 1943 funeral, the prisoners didn’t have fresh flowers, so they used paper ones. The group at this ceremony placed fresh flowers and paper flowers next to a cross on the fence.

Kyoshi Ina, who was born in the camp, read a letter from the group.

“Dear Mr. Wakasa, these flowers are for you,” he said. “We thank you for a life well lived. We grieve your death. We thank your issei friends who built your memorial in defiance of camp and federal officials and then buried it for later generations to find and to cherish. You continue to live in our memories and in our hearts.”

Removing the monument

The group at Topaz that day weren’t just grieving Wakasa and the pain their relatives endured while imprisoned there. They were also grieving what happened to the monument about two weeks after the archaeologists published a paper online in July about discovering it.

The Topaz museum used a forklift to remove the stone from the ground.

Masako Takahashi was born at the Topaz concentration camp and lived there until she was one and a half years old. Takahashi said she told the museum board president, Jane Beckwith, that she’d be happy to fund an archaeological excavation and an accompanying ceremony.

“One or two business days later, she wrote me back, saying, ‘Oh, we had it dug up this morning,’” Takahashi said. “It was a slap in the face … It felt like a combination of grief and rage.”

Takahashi said part of that grief and rage was knowing that the monument could have been damaged by the way it was removed.

“It could have writing or carving on the front of it,” she said. “There could have been gifts or tokens left at the burial site, flowers, incense. We don't know. We will never know maybe.”

Beckwith said it was important to remove the stone quickly because its location had been published online.

“When it was revealed, it made us really panic,” she said. “Vandalism out here is pretty common and we felt like if that happened, that would be really a tragedy.”

But still, she acknowledged the way they removed it wasn’t right.

“We've apologized that we moved it too swiftly,” Beckwith said. “If people wanted to see it removed, we should have given that opportunity.”

Trying to move forward

Now, the two parties are trying to heal and move forward. Part of that is an evaluation of the stone and its original location by National Park Service archaeologists. The museum and this group of descendants requested help from the agency’s National Historic Landmark program.

After the ceremony, the team started their work assessing the condition of the site. The day before, they had done the same for the stone, which now sits on a wooden pallet in the corner of the museum’s courtyard.

A photo of a large stone.
Briana Scroggins for KUER
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The half ton stone that is likely part of the memorial for James Wakasa is strapped to a pallet behind the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. | Photo by Briana Scroggins for KUER, with permission from the Topaz Museum.

Eventually, the team will compile a report for the descendants and the museum, which they can use to make a decision on what to do with the monument.

There’s still a lot of healing to be done. But Nancy Ukai, who first found the map that led to the monument’s discovery, said this day brings them one step closer.

“Healing means learning the truth, or at least as much information as we can about the land here, the artifact, the archaeology, which has created pain but also can create learning and I hope healing,” she said. “And meeting people and working together to learn — that’s a form of healing.”

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