As part of the National Monument for the World War II Japanese American Incarceration, soil collected from former incarceration sites will be used to create special ceramic pieces.
To memorialize more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were held in incarceration camps in the U.S. during WWII, the Irei Project collected soil from 75 incarceration camps across the U.S.
Among the jars of soil is one from Portland’s Chinatown, which was previously known as Japantown, or Nihonmachi, for more than 50 years. By the early 1920s, first-generation Japanese immigrants had become the forefront of Oregon’s agriculture industry and comprised around 60 percent of Oregon’s Japanese population.
However, when former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, authorities forced Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans into incarceration camps.
“That really took away the gains that Japanese Americans had made up until that point,” Chisao Hata, the creative director of the Living Arts program at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “An entire Japantown which included about 300 businesses, cultural institutions, doctors, dentists, schools, churches were obliterated overnight.”
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People of Japanese descent were held at the Pacific International Livestock and Exposition Center before being transferred to Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Hata explained that the livestock exhibition halls became makeshift living quarters for the internees.
“There are horrific stories about spending the summer in stalls that were built on top of the horse stalls,” Hata said. “They built human stalls right on top.”
Hata collected soil from the Portland Assembly Center and brought it to the Irei monument in Los Angeles. Along with survivors, descendants and clergy, Hata marched in a procession during a Japanese American National Museum ceremony in Little Tokyo on Sept. 24. They carried long wooden slats that were painted with the corresponding internment site names. Attached to the slats are the soils placed in a small jar from each incarceration site.
The Irei Project, funded by Duncan Ryuken Williams, director of the University of Southern California Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, also managed to help complete the first official list of Japanese internees. The list covers 125,284 internees and is written in a large book named Ireichō, which weighs 25 pounds.
In the Ireichō, Hata located the names of her mother, father, grandfather and uncle. She placed stamps next to their names to acknowledge and pay tribute to them.
“It was monumental,” Hata told OPB. “It was emotionally cathartic, and it was a historic endeavor that I was honored and proud and thrilled to be part of.”