Let It Not Happen Again

Reflections on the 70th anniversary of Japanese American incarcerations.
portrait by ansel adams

When the World Trade Center towers fell, I watched the unbelievable images on TV and, perhaps as a defense mechanism against trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, I thought that the cascading towers and billowing smoke looked like manufactured Hollywood special effects.

Sadly, it was all too real. 

I also remember hearing scores of public officials, news reporters, people and friends repeatedly saying, verbatim, “This is our generation’s Pearl Harbor.” 

My first thought: I dearly hope not. 

I immediately feared for the constitutional rights and personal safety of my Arab American and Muslim friends, their families, and their communities, stating publicly at several events that they must not face the same unwarranted persecution, hatred, and sanctioned racism that my community faced 70 years ago.

February 19 2012 is the 70th anniversary of another “Day of Infamy” that occurred when, under the banner of national security and patriotism – amply supported by war hysteria, racial prejudice, fear, and a failure of political leadership – President Franklin D. Roosevelt ignored due process and constitutional liberties and signed Executive Order 9066. 

While we were also at war with Germany and Italy, no mass exclusion orders were ever issued for German or Italian Americans.

FDR’s executive order set in motion the mass removal of everyone of Japanese descent – more than two-thirds of them U.S. citizens – from Western Washington, Western Oregon, all of California, and part of Arizona with a series of Civilian Exclusion Orders. While we were also at war with Germany and Italy, no mass exclusion orders were ever issued for German or Italian Americans.

The first such order was posted throughout Bainbridge Island, Washington on March 24, 1942, giving the island’s 276 Japanese Americans only six days notice to take care of their properties, businesses, and possessions. 

On the cold morning of March 30, 1942, 227 Japanese Americans (those who weren't already in the U.S. military, or arrested without charges by the FBI, or who hadn't moved to eastern Washington to work on farms there) assembled at the Eagledale Ferry Dock Landing, either on their own or rounded up by bayonet-armed U.S. Army soldiers. Taking only what they could carry or wear – and without knowing where they were going, how long they would be gone, or if they would ever return – they shared tearful farewells with their island friends and neighbors, becoming the first of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed and placed in concentration camps. 

to manzanar by war relocation authority
1942, waiting for buses to the War Relocation Authority in Manzanar, California

After the lonely ferry ride to Seattle, they boarded a train and embarked on a three-day trip to California, becoming the first group to be incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp. After less than a year, the majority of the Bainbridge Islanders transferred to the Minidoka concentration camp in southern Idaho where they were placed in the last barracks, making the Bainbridge Island Japanese Americans the emblematic bookends of this sad chapter in American history. 

Today, a sinuous 276-foot long Memorial Wall of old-growth red cedar, granite, and basalt now stands on the historic Eagledale Ferry Dock site where they lost their freedom 70 years ago, listing the names of every Japanese American on the island at the start of World War II and honoring their American story with artistic images and powerful quotations.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial also honors the rare and unique legacy of a supportive community that stood beside their Japanese American friends and neighbors, looking after their homes, businesses, and properties while they were gone and warmly welcoming them back home.  

“Nidoto Nai Yoni” or “Let it not happen again” is a timeless, hopeful and inspirational wish.

To commemorate this year’s 70th anniversary, on March 30th the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association will be hosting a day long series of free events highlighting the theme “Celebrating our Community and our Constitution.”

The Memorial’s maxim “Nidoto Nai Yoni” or “Let it not happen again” is a timeless, hopeful and inspirational wish, whose call to action is perhaps best described by the last line inscribed on a granite marker – a prominent feature at the Memorial Wall – unveiled a decade ago at the 60th Anniversary Dedication Ceremony in 2002: 

“May the spirit of this memorial inspire each of us to safeguard constitutional rights for all.” 


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