“Gila River — that’s the camp where my family was interned,” he said. Then he turned to another panel honoring about 20,000 Japanese Americans who served in the war, including more than 800 who died. “You fought not only the enemy,” he recited from one tribute, carved in the granite. “You fought prejudice, and you won.”
It took 47 years for the U.S. government to apologize, in1988, for the wartime executive order that swept more than 120,000 Japanese Americans into remote prison camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still later, in 2000, the modest memorial was built, in part to honor Japanese Americans who served in U.S. Army combat and intelligence units and in part to commemorate the ordeal of families that were interned.
In a gesture to Japanese cultural roots, the monument is surrounded by a semicircle of flowering cherry trees.These are the same delicate trees that line the Tidal Basin — a gift from Japan whose centennial is being celebrated this spring, and one that has survived some of the worst years of the relationship between the two nations. In addition, the two struggling birds in the memorial are Japanese cranes.
“We are Americans, but we are very proud of our Japanese cultural heritage. Both the cherry trees and the cranes signify our ties to the old country,” said Gerald Yamada, 67, a retired U.S. government lawyer who played a key role in promoting and developing the memorial project.
Today, the estimated 800,000 Japanese Americans — some of whose forebears immigrated more than a century ago — have achieved extraordinary economic success and have worked exceptionally hard to integrate fully into U.S. society. Many lost thriving produce farms and other businesses during the war, then redoubled their efforts after it ended. Some joined the federal government or built political careers, notably Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Norman Y. Mineta, transportation secretary under President George W. Bush.
Yet the complicated legacy of their special past continues to privately haunt the postwar Japanese American community. Once caught between two warring powers and viewed with suspicion by their ancestral homeland and their adopted country, many have wrestled ever since with a legacy of wounded dignity, conflicted identity and vertiginous twists of fate.
With a single act — the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — a proud and accomplished immigrant group became a pariah population, ridiculed and feared. Only after decades of effort to out-perform and assimilate — decades also of embarrassed silence about the past — have many Japanese Americans begun to publicly discuss their wrenching wartime experiences.