By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum sits inside a small building just a few minutes’ drive from the island’s ferry terminal. Inside, it’s a little hard to get around. The museum houses more than 100 years of island history. But the dinging of the bell at the front door does not drown out the voices of Japanese Americans from a video one room over.
On the walls hang handsome black-and-white prints of Japanese Americans at play, at work, and at rest. They play volleyball, read newspapers, cook, clean, and generally go about the business of everyday life.
Only a certain wariness on the faces of people photographed alone, or in small groups, suggests that anything is wrong outside the frame.
The photos come from celebrated American photographer Ansel Adams, and his subjects were internees at the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, which operated from 1942 to 1945. During those years, the U.S. government forcibly relocated American people of Japanese ancestry to Manzanar and nine other camps resembling it. Many of the Manzanar internees came from Bainbridge Island.
In fact, Bainbridge Island was the site of the first Japanese American relocation, conducted on March 30, 1942. On that day, 227 residents on the island were transported to Manzanar, the first step in a program that would eventually extend to ten camps housing roughly 110,000 people.
Bainbridge Island resident Lilly Kodama was a small child at the time. Now, almost 70 years later, she gazes up at a large photo of the internees being led down a dock onto a ferry. She’s holding her brother’s hand and wearing two barrettes in her dark hair.
Many of the Japanese Americans on Bainbridge are interrelated. One of the most iconic photos taken that day is a shot (not by Adams, who wasn’t on Bainbridge) of a young mother and her baby, both wearing internee identification tags, which make them look like merchandise for sale in a store. The mother, says Lilly Kodama, is her own aunt, Fumiko Hayashida, who lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Hayashida is now 100 years old. The baby in the photograph, Lilly Kodama’s cousin Natalie Hayashida, is now 70. The mother and daughter journeyed to Manzanar in 2011, for the first time since the camp’s closure. It is now called the Manzanar National Historic Site and is managed by the U.S. National Park Service.
A video about Manzanar plays at regular intervals throughout the day. The voices of internees, both old and young, ring out against footage that was shot at the camp.
They remember both Japanese and American food, the “cold Jello on top of hot rice.” They remember dancing to an internee swing band called the Jive Bombers, whose theme song ironically enough was “Don’t Fence Me In.” They remember being upset about not being given an American flag to salute at assemblies. Eventually, someone hand-drew a flag.
The exhibit, which includes the video, Adams’ photography, and archival material including excerpts from the internee-run camp newspaper, creates a vivid and unsettling portrait of dislocated people. Yet underneath it all, Lilly Kodama remembers that the people at the camp strove to make it as normal as possible. Manzanar was modeled on an American small town, not a Japanese town, she reminds museum-goers.
The internees faced intolerance, hostility, and destruction of their property, both during and after the camp experience. And yet, Kodama remembers, not all non-Japanese were hostile.
She points toward the ceiling, from which hangs a sign reading “Bainbridge Gardens,” from a Japanese American business. On the back of the sign, readable if you crane your neck, are two crudely hand-painted words, “Welcome Back.”
The painter of the sign has never been identified. But those words, and other subtle signs like it around the island, showed that even during an intolerant era, compassion and support were not entirely snuffed out. The exhibit stands as a testimony to hardship, and also to courage and caring. (end)
“Ansel Adams: A Portrait of Manzanar” runs through Dec. 7 at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, located at 215 Ericksen Avenue N.E. on Bainbridge Island. For more information, call 206-842-2773 or visit bainbridgehistory.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.