At the Japanese American National Museum, a Book Becomes a Monument

LOS ANGELES — As traditional monuments are graffitied, toppled, and removed left and right, what does it mean to create a new one? One answer is the Ireichō, a book on view at Los Angeles’s Japanese American National Museum that bears the names of Japanese Americans systematically incarcerated by the United States government during World War II.

Monuments based on names are nothing new. Precursors include Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names and its Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names commemorating millions murdered during the Holocaust. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial bears the names of the 58,318 US servicemen and women who died in the Vietnam War. More recently, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, inscribed the names of lynching victims in the American South onto 800 steel columns. 

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Compared to these efforts, the Ireichō seems modest, but its relatively small scale belies the research and care that went into its making and its outsized significance to the Japanese-American community. For one thing, it represents the first definitive count of those incarcerated. Despite being one of the most documented populations in US history, the number of Japanese Americans imprisoned during WWII has always been something of an abstraction, with most accounts estimating it anywhere from 110,000 to over 120,000. The 25-pound tome contains 125,284 names — finally an exact number! — each carefully researched and vetted against a range of archival records by a team led by Buddhist priest and University of Southern California professor Duncan Ryūken Williams.

“To be able to excise an entire community from their homes, it requires a certain idea that people are not being treated with dignity and personhood and individual being,” Williams said of the mass relocation of Japanese Americans. “Little babies and infirm grandmothers, what real threat to national security would they constitute? But they were just smeared as a grouping, and so the way I thought deeply to correct that is to honor each person and their personhood, and the names stand in for that.”

The Ireichō and sotoba (photo by Doug Mukai, courtesy the Japanese American National Museum)

The book was created by Kaya Press, a publisher focused on the Asian and Pacific Island diasporas, and was unveiled at a ceremony in September at the Japanese American National Museum. (In full disclosure, I am a donor working on an unrelated project with the museum.) It was attended by camp survivors and descendants, representatives from the 75 incarceration sites, and clergy from a range of faiths. Each attendee was invited to touch the book and to acknowledge a name by placing a small circular ink stamp beneath it. Williams hopes that eventually all the names will be acknowledged. The book will be on view at the museum through September 24, and appointments to stamp names may be made online for free. 

The Ireichō has been very popular: The museum estimates over 3,000 people have stamped the book since its unveiling, with an average of 102 names acknowledged per day. As of this writing, the wait for an appointment is about a month. 

The names are listed in the book by birth year, and it’s not uncommon for two or more people to have the same name, so each request requires research to ensure visitors are placing a stamp next to the correct name. The museum hired two additional staff members and also relies on a team of specially trained volunteers. “We’re trying to ensure that this experience of honoring their ancestors, or their families or friends is meaningful and done with care,” said Clement Hanami, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions and art director. Visitors are each allowed to stamp two names, but the researchers often find other family members and offer those names for recognition as well. 

The procession of 75 camps at the Japanese American National Museum (photo by Grant Gulesserian, courtesy the Japanese American National Museum)

“The feelings that people have when they go through this experience are moving, and many people are brought to tears,” Hanami said. He recalls one visit by a family who wanted to acknowledge twins who were born in the camps. The researchers couldn’t find their names at first and had to go back to the archival records only to find that one of them was stillborn and the other passed away two days later. “When the family comes, you’re just able to then give them their space to kind of reflect on that whole experience, and to know that we’re honoring them as well,” he said.

The staff also collects additions and corrections to the names from visitors, keeping the Ireichō continually in dialogue with its community. Williams plans to publish a smaller, corrected version of the book that can be widely distributed. The project also includes a website, Ireizo, where an updated number of names (125,302) can already be seen, and plans for Ireihi, an interactive light projection of the names that will appear at the museum and at select incarceration sites. (The project’s name is derived from the Ireito, a concrete obelisk erected in 1943 in the camp cemetery at Manzanar to commemorate those who died there. “Ireito” means “Soul Consoling Tower” in Japanese.)

“We want to think of the monument as dynamic,” said Williams, adding that typically they’re valued for being static and permanent. “What we want to do is kind of flip that and say it’s actually in its dynamism, in its interactivity with community, in its constant repair and improvement—that’s what actually gives it value.”

The author’s daughter placing a stamp near the name of her great-grandmother and namesake, Sakiyo Grace Yamamoto (photo by Oliver Wang, courtesy Sharon Mizota/Hyperallergic)

On a Saturday afternoon in October, my sister and I, with my husband and daughter, visited the museum to stamp the names of our parents and grandparents. Arriving at our appointed time, we headed to the museum’s library where we were greeted by three staff members who had already looked up our family’s names. We were then shown into a small blue alcove lined with sotoba, Buddhist wooden grave markers, each inscribed with the name of one of the incarceration sites and bearing a small vial of soil collected there. The massive book stood open on a plinth and an assistant carefully turned the pages for us, helping us find each name. The sheer heft of the book lent new gravity to the knowledge that this cruel, dehumanizing thing had happened to people we love. Seeing their names in print among so many others and touching them with the stamp suddenly made history very specific and very personal. And then we stepped outside, blinking, into the sunshine.


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