James Hatsuaki Wakasa would often walk his dog around the edge of the Topaz Relocation Center near Delta, Utah.
On April 11, 1943, he took an evening stroll near the barbed wire fence that detained 11,000 Japanese Americans at its peak. On this day, a military police sentry saw Wakasa at the southwest corner of the camp, and assumed he was trying to escape.
Just before sunset, the sentry fired a single shot, killing 63-year-old Wakasa.
Eighty years later, the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the Topaz Museum Board hosted a commemorative memorial weekend on April 21 and 22. Camp survivors and descendants gathered to remember Wakasa and the roughly 140 other Japanese Americans who died at Topaz. The ceremony centered on purifying the land, as well as a memorial stone made for Wakasa.
Rock of Ages and paper flowers
The purification began with a walking pilgrimage. The 160 survivors, descendants and other participants who gathered started at the site where Wakasa lived and ended where he died, which is also where the memorial stone was once buried.
It’s a barren area of cracked dirt and sagebrush, just 30 minutes outside of Delta, Utah. Rev. Michael Yoshii, the retired pastor of the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California, invited everyone to walk with intention.
“We want to allow you to honor what you bring into the space of this land, but also to help you process feelings that you may have as you take this journey,” he said.
Each walked holding a paper flower handmade by camp survivors, descendants, Seattle schoolchildren and citizens of Wakasa’s hometown in the Shika, Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan.
After arriving at the site of the shooting, Rev. Yoshii sang Rock of Ages in Japanese, just as it was sung at Wakasa’s funeral 80 years ago.
Rev. Amy Uzunoe-Chin, the associate minister of the Konko Church in Portland, Oregon, conducted the ceremony to purify the land, beginning with a blessing. The purification ceremony ended when Uzunoe-Chin threw sacred salt onto the spot where Wakasa was killed.
After the purification, participants offered their paper flowers at an altar while the Heart Sutra was chanted. Survivors and descendants went first. They bowed their heads and dropped their flowers into a basket.
Paper flowers were used at Wakasa's funeral as well. They didn’t have real flowers in the camp, so intricate paper flower wreaths were made instead. The author of a 1943 War Relocation Authority report about Wakasa’s death wrote that the wreaths would “put to shame an equal display of real flowers.”
Similar wreaths stood next to the altar at the ceremony 80 years later. Akemi Yamane Ina spent months hand-making them “in memory of the women who made the flowers for Mr. Wakasa during the funeral.” She was born in Topaz the day after Wakasa was killed and is a Wakasa Memorial Committee member.
“I never made flowers before. So, you know, it was done in love.”
After the ceremony, participants headed back to the Topaz Museum for the purification of the memorial stone.
More than just a stone
The massive stone was first erected by incarcerated Japanese Americans at Topaz on the site where Wakasa was killed. The War Department ordered it to be destroyed. After that order, it was believed the stone had been torn down.
But in 2020, Nancy Ukai, a writer, researcher and Wakasa Memorial Committee member, found a map in the national archives that showed where Wakasa was shot. Two archaeologists, Mary Farrell and Jeff Burton, saw her article and found the top of the monument sticking out of the ground.
Emiko Omori, a member of the Wakasa Memorial Committee and a survivor of the Poston internment camp in Arizona, said burying the stone was an act of defiance.
“They left some showing, and I’m positive they did that so we in the future would find it and it would mean to us, you know, don’t forget what happened to us.”
Masako Takahashi was born at Topaz and is part of the Wakasa Memorial Committee advisory council. She offered to provide the Topaz Museum Board funding from the Takahashi Family Foundation to do an archeological dig and ceremonial healing after the stone's discovery, but the museum board removed the 2,400-pound, 4-foot-long monument without professional helpor input from the Japanese American community. Takahashi said she was shocked “like a bucket of ice poured in [her] face.”
Since the contention surrounding the handling of the stone, the Topaz Museum Board has taken some steps to regain the community’s trust. The board is currently in the process of restructuring and now has some Japanese American members.
A committee with members from the state of Utah, the Topaz Museum Board and the Wakasa Memorial Committee is also working together to assess the damage to the stone and discuss conservation.
John Lambert, a stone conservator and expert on historic masonry restoration, examined the memorial. He said part of the stone is very fragile. Lambert suggested the stone be moved only once and conservation efforts be conducted when it reaches its final resting place, which should be indoors.
The stone currently sits outside the museum on a wooden pallet. A yellow nylon ratchet strap used during removal is still wrapped around it.
Rev. Uzunoe-Chin began the ceremony to purify the stone with four solemn claps, followed by an ancestral prayer.
“Allow the monument to become more than a reminder of injustice of war, but a living entity to allow healing for their ancestors, descendants, family. A place of learning for the future generations so that the history does not repeat,” she said.
After the ceremony, a procession lined up. Ukai offered Senbazuru Cranes made by children from Wakasa’s hometown. Survivors, descendants and other participants wiped their hands clean. They ritually touched the stone while the names of those who died at Topaz were recited.
While it hasn’t been decided what will happen to the memorial stone, Ukai said it’s a question for the community.
“There’s a lot of opinions, but that’s the way it should be,” she said. “We should have a big discussion about it and hopefully tell some stories.”