Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II


Architect  Davis Buckley,  Sculptor  Nina Akamu

Not all national monuments clamor for attention.  This memorial, on a quiet street just north of the Capitol grounds among some nondescript office buildings, is not one that tourists are likely to find by chance.  This is an “expiatory” monument, one intended to publicly atone for past actions.  It presents a very different tone from the more blustery monuments our nation erects to many of its other events.  It is reminiscent of the paradigmatic early 19thcentury expiatory chapel in Paris, meant to atone for the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

The viewer enters into a calm, spare space, minimally landscaped with a reflecting pool containing jagged rocks that contrast with the otherwise smooth surfaces of water and stone walls.  It contains a single piece of figural art: a large cast bronze sculpture of two Japanese cranes tangled in barbed wire.  Standing high atop a distressed pedestal, they are the only thing higher than the stone walls, blank on the outside, that shelter, or perhaps hide from view, the events commemorated inside. According to the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, which sponsored and commissioned the structure, there are two cranes to reflect “the duality of the universe”, a conception which surely reflects the Taoist religious beliefs that suffuse Japanese culture.  The commission goes on to explain in more detail the iconography of the subject.  “Their right wings are held flush to the sides of the base by an incluse [sic] strand of barbed wire.  The birds have grasped the wire in their beaks in an attempt to break free.  The sculpture is symbolic not only of the Japanese American experience, but of the extrication of anyone from deeply painful and restrictive circumstances.”

The intention here is surely a tragic but healing vision, engaging the sky and offering in the present some redemptive attitude toward the past.   But this generous conception is held back unfulfilled in several ways by its overall context.  First is the name itself.  This is not deemed a monument, after all, but a memorial.  That is, it does not represent a continuing ideal, like the statue of Liberty or the statue of Freedom at the top of the Capitol dome.  Rather, it is a memorial, something solely about the past, like any tombstone.

This monument is meant as both acknowledgement and apology to a nation’s treatment of its own.  At the heart of this monument is an official governmental apology for America’s decision to place nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps during WWII.  It is part of a long-standing public campaign to receive an official apology for this shameful action, which reached fruition in the passage of legislation in the 70s and 80s. Through them, the US government not only officially apologized for the internment but also made monetary reparations to descendents of the families.

Yet much as the structure encourages the viewer toward a contemplative melancholy, it is also a bit puzzling.  For it might make one wonder how “patriotism” is illustrated, or for that matter just what a “memorial to patriotism” even means.  A walk around the, unusually laconic, walls (nearly one third of them blank) makes somewhat clearer what is intended, but also how the present filters out aspects of the past.  Among the many wall panels that simply state the names and number of internees of the many camps are a few of text.  In the process of describing the internment is inserted a paragraph hailing the accomplishments of Japanese-American soldiers who served in the military of the same nation that captured its parents and relatives as enemies. Their names are inscribed elsewhere, in tiny lettering and partly obscured by planting.  “Patriotism” has long served as a good tool to wash away irony.

Here, though, the concept of patriotism does even more work in shaping/obscuring the whole story.  The wall also includes quotations from various politicians central to the campaign for apology, such as long-time Congressmen Norman Mineta, Robert Matsui and Daniel Inouye.  There is even a laudatory text to the Japanese-American soldiers at their 1946 reception by President Harry Truman.  Yet the monument also includes a text by Mike Masaoko, identified solely as a former soldier and “civil rights advocate.” It states, in part, “I am proud that I am an American of Japanese ancestry.  I believe in this nation’s institutions, ideals and traditions…” These words were actually published by him in 1940, part of a pamphlet called the Japanese American Creed.  Masaoko and his organization, the Japanese American Citizens League, had actually collaborated with the internment process.  For this reason, some on the planning board of the memorial objected to privileging his words.  They failed, and after the memorial’s opening, a petition campaign to the National Park Service to remove them was also rejected. Moreover, this controversial and problematic inclusion is matched by an equally dubious exclusion of any acknowledgement of those who protested and resisted the internment.

Thus while the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II inscribes into stone the words of Ronald Reagan “Here we admit a wrong,” it also works to distinctly sanitize an event.  Its many blank walls are almost teeming with what might be on them, acknowledging the full scope of the tragedy of internment, and filling out the true nature of the pain that its cranes seek to overcome.