National Japanese American Memorial

National Japanese American Memorial photo
Bill Webster - The Washington Post

Editorial Review

Imagery Says It All at New Monument
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2001

If there were a kit of parts for aspiring memorial builders on Washington's National Mall, it would include a long stone wall, a figurative statue or two, a list of names to be engraved, a few inspiring inscriptions, a pool of water and, of course, some trees and grass.

With the kit would come instructions advising the aspirants to pick and choose carefully among the elements and never, ever dare to use them all. Avoid confusion, the booklet would admonish. Beware of clutter.

Architect Davis Buckley, who has been around the memorial-building block a time or two as a designer and consultant, knew all about the kit of parts when he started work nearly a decade ago on the national Japanese American memorial. He knew of the cautionary warnings, too, and yet blissfully ignored them in his design.

The memorial opened to the public yesterday afternoon after a short, moving ceremony in the triangular park it occupies at Louisiana and New Jersey avenues and D Street NW, within view of the Capitol dome -- and there is good news to report.

There's some bad news, too, but let's start with the good. You can tick off the parts, one by one -- wall, statue, names, words, water, trees, grass. Check, check, check. Buckley even added something that no other Washington memorial has -- an astonishing tubular bell designed and fabricated by artist-inventor Paul Matisse.

Too much stuff, according to the conventional rules, especially when packed into a triangular site of less than a single acre. Yet Buckley, along with Matisse and sculptor Nina Akamu, designed these elements with such skill and placed them so sensitively that the parts work brilliantly together.

The result? Buckley's art has transformed a pleasant, if anonymous, patch of green in the cityscape into a significant, informative and moving monument.

Anything less would have been a great disappointment, for the events commemorated here need to be remembered. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and thereby set into motion one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

In the following months, persons of Japanese ancestry, many of them U.S. citizens, were forced from their homes in the western states, placed temporarily in makeshift compounds, then moved to 10 bleak camps hastily constructed in remote locations -- mostly deserts -- in seven states. A total of 120,000 people were incarcerated, most for more than three years.

In effect, the memorial is an apology set in stone. A terse statement by President Ronald Reagan, issued when he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was a legislative apology, is engraved in granite. It encapsulates the lasting meaning of the memorial: "Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."

A second purpose of the memorial is to commemorate the courage and, under the circumstances, incredible sense of duty of Japanese Americans who served in the U.S. military during the war. Confined largely to segregated units, they served with great distinction, as attest the engraved names of more than 800 who died.

So far, so good. The extraordinary actions of these brave soldiers deserve enduring recognition. But the memorial's official name, also inscribed in stone, certainly gives pause: the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II.

Whoa. Patriotism is a loaded word, and its use here is inadvisable, to say the least. It obliterates what must have been the profoundly ambivalent experiences of most Japanese Americans during the war. So, too, does the equally inadvisable inclusion of an effusively patriotic quotation from the "Japanese American Creed," written in 1940 by Mike M. Masaoka, who is identified as a soldier and "civil rights advocate."

"I am proud that I am an American of Japanese ancestry," he wrote. "I believe in this nation's institutions, ideals and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future."

Actually, in the early years of the war, Masaoka became a leading voice for Japanese Americans who endorsed the illegal incarcerations and opposed those who wanted to fight for their rights in courts. It is wholly understandable, then, that a significant minority in the Japanese American community spoke out vociferously against using the Masaoka statement in the memorial. Its inclusion tends to oversimplify, even distort, a rich, complex, painful story.

Fortunately, these word problems have nothing to do with the memorial's design. In conceiving of the memorial as a procession, as a space to move through, Buckley opted for what is often called the "landscape solution" to the problem of memorial design. (It is the kit of parts originated by Lawrence Halprin with his mid-1970s design for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and eloquently added to by Maya Lin with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.)

Buckley had done the same in his elegant design for the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Judiciary Square downtown, but the story that had to be given physical form in the Japanese American memorial was much more complex. Not surprisingly, Buckley's initial designs contained even more elements than the final product. Nor is it surprising that each thing he took out -- a huge, figurative bas relief sculpture, for instance -- improved his chances for success.

Early on, Buckley conceived of a simple spiral as the basic floor plan for the new memorial -- a happy choice. Symbolizing regeneration, it is thematically apt; it plays well against the triangular geometry of the site, and the form naturally encourages movement from place to place. You enter from the south (near the intersection of Louisiana and New Jersey avenues), proceed directly to the center, and then, as if released, you spin slowly out to the "end" of the story -- Matisse's bell.

The center is totally compelling. It is framed on two sides by semicircular walls made of great, tapering granite blocks, thick at the bottom and more than seven feet high. On one wall, to the west, are simply inscribed the names of the 10 camps in dark, large letters. In the other wall, to the east, a long notch has been cut. Through the notch you see a placid pool of water from which five rough rocks emerge, like mountains. In the middle is Akamu's bronze sculpture, 14 feet tall, depicting two cranes painfully ensnared in barbed wire.

Individually, each of these elements is convincing. The wall of camp names is starkly impressive, eloquent beyond words. The notch is like a window on an ordered, far-away universe -- "borrowed scenery," say Japanese landscape gardeners. The pool is a Zen garden with water, rather than sand, as its surface; the rocks stand both for the homeland islands and for a well-ordered world. (But for heaven's sake, those projecting metal light fixtures have to go! They look like microphones, or periscopes.) And Akamu's sculpture is a brilliant, moving allegory – there's not a soul in the world who would not be moved by these golden, chained, winged creatures.

All together, these pieces make magic. Standing in this enclosure under the baking sun is like being in the eye of a terrible, quiet storm. Escape hardly seems possible, but it comes, as you are gently led to the wall of names, to another view of the wonderful pool, and finally to Matisse's bell -- a long, hollow aluminum tube cradled horizontally in two bronze arms high against curving granite slabs.

The bell is a striking visual object, to be sure, but its deeper beauty is its sound whenrung. Any visitor can set the bell hammer in motion by pushing on a waist-high bronze lever, and then will come a deep, solemn tone that resonates in the air, and in your mind and heart. The tone goes on for a long time, and this long decline, Matisse says, is "the natural way of things, a falling away of the grief."