By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was a project that began in May 2009. The Seattle Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) needed more parking space at its location at 1212 South King Street in the International District. The challenge was coming up with the funding.
After some thought, members toyed with the idea of selling bricks for a memorial to pay for the expansion.
“It really just took on a life of its own from there,” said NVC Commander and President Keith Yamaguchi.
“The project just flip-flopped. We went from a parking lot expansion to a memorial project.”
For the most part, the project went off without a hitch.
“We were fortunate to have a front page article in The Seattle Times on Memorial Day a year ago,” said Steve Finley, the NVC Memorial Wall campaign leader. “So a lot of people found out about it. We also did a lot of direct mailing. It was fairly easy [to receive support] because people really wanted to honor their parents or their grandparents. Considering the tough economic times, I was really surprised at how generous people were.”
Last Sunday, Sept. 5, the Seattle NVC held a ceremony dedicating the memorial wall to Japanese Americans.
The program included musical performances by Seattle Kokon Taiko and the Minidoka Swing Band. It also included a poetry reading by Larry Matsuda. Speakers included Congressman Jim McDermott and former Washington Gov. Mike Lowry.
“The turnout from the community on Sunday was more than anything we expected,” said Yamaguchi. “Since then, the response has been great — we’ve even had a response from Thailand. We knew that there would probably be a little bump in the orders, but the response so far was totally unexpected.”
The wall is split into two sections. One section is dedicated to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II. The other section is dedicated to Japanese Americans who have served in the U.S. military, notably those in the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
The wall contains bricks that have the names of internees and the camps or prisons they were forcibly relocated to. It also contains names of veterans, their branch of service, and the wars in which they fought.
In some instances, names appear on bricks in both sections. Approximately two-thirds of the bricks honor World War II veterans.
“This is a unique memorial,” said Yamaguchi. “You know, throughout the nation, you will find memorials for either [Japanese American] vets or those who were in camps. Well, this memorial encompasses everybody. The veterans [it honors] aren’t just World War II vets. It’s veterans of all conflicts, war time, peace time — it doesn’t make a difference. If you serve your country, this is a tribute to you.”
About 2,800 names are carved into black granite bricks that are stacked to create a wall that is 12 feet high and roughly 90 feet long.
The wall’s lead architect was Jay Deguchi, a partner at Seattle architectural design firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi. The wall was designed by Deguchi and Sean Kakigi, also from Suyama Peterson Deguchi.
“We positioned the wall so it’s a backdrop for the NVC clubhouse,” said Deguchi. “It’s not necessarily something that is very noticeable, but something where its presence is always felt.”
The overhead concrete beam identifies the entrance of the memorial and is referential of Japanese torii gates. The trees around the wall are Japanese maples with clumping bamboo and scotch moss.
“There’s an individuality to each brick, but they’re also in this continuous whole,” added Deguchi, explaining that he aimed to convey the common experiences that tie Japanese Americans together. “We tried to keep [the design] as subtle — in keeping with the Japanese culture — as possible. We didn’t want something ostentatious. The most powerful thing about it is seeing the number of names.”
“I believe it is important to understand that the relevancy of this memorial is not just to Americans of Japanese ancestry, but to all Americans of all ancestries. It is a reminder that being American is not based on the color of your skin or religious background, but on what is in your heart and mind relative to freedoms we enjoy and the willingness to defend those freedoms for all Americans,” said Bryan Takeuchi, co-chair of the memorial campaign. “This is so evident, as my father’s generation was challenged, imprisoned by the nation they loved, and still fought to defend these freedoms and to claim their right to be called Americans.”
Roughly $1.1 million was raised over the past 15 months through the sale of memorial bricks and in-kind donations. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Seattle) secured $200,000 more for the project through a federal earmark.
The minimum donation per brick is $260. The NVC states that there is currently no donation limit.
Organizers hope to sell and add 700 to 800 more bricks in the next year.
“I think this is a nice tribute to the Seattle community,” said Yamaguchi. “The Seattle community is open to a lot of different racial groups and ethnic backgrounds, and we are truly a melting pot. While we were cleaning the night of the ceremony, we had people driving into the parking, using their headlights to illuminate the bricks. There were several people that just walked in off the street who wanted to see the memorial wall. And these weren’t just Asians. These were Caucasians. These were Blacks. You name it. It crosses ethnic lines.” ♦
For more information, visit www.seattlenvc.org.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.