11th grade history courses should be finishing up with World War II about now. If the course covered the material planned, it included a discussion of the internment of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during World War II. The discussion should have included questions about whether the internment was just, and whether the reparations paid and apology made later by the U.S. government adequately compensated the victim internees.
Eugene, Oregon, hosted a “civic control station” where Japanese-Americans were forced to register. Most were later sent to internment camps — from Oregon, many were sent to Tule Lake, California. Oregonians, especially those who were interned and their families, are working to honor the internees and pass on the stories of the events. They want to highlight the fact that many of the interned citizens served gallantly during the war.
A memorial is being built in Eugene, featuring a statue of a young Japanese American girl sitting atop her luggage on the way to internment, reaching for a butterfly.
Below the fold I copy the editorial from the Eugene Register-Guard about the memorial — I’ve taken the liberty of copying the entire piece, as well as including a link (free subscription required). If the Register-Guard wishes I not promote their work this way, they know where to find me. It’s a good editorial on important issues, and it deserves broader circulation and preservation.
A stirring memorial
Published: Wednesday, February 21, 2007
The space for the memorial is small – a few hundred square feet tucked between the Hilton Eugene and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, an oasis of calm just paces away from four lanes of traffic on 6th Avenue. But there’s a lot packed into it. So much, in fact, that it takes a while to realize what’s missing. There’s no bitterness at the Japanese-American Internment Memorial.
The absence of bitterness rises from a generosity of spirit that is a national trait when Americans are at their best. The memorial, dedicated Monday, is a reminder of an injustice that occurred exactly 65 years earlier when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, resulting in the roundup and internment of 100,000 Japanese-Americans. The memorial is somber and stirring – but not bitter.
Causes for bitterness could easily be found. German-Americans and Italian-Americans weren’t ordered to leave their homes and businesses, and imprisoned for years in some of the country’s most desolate regions. Only Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast – boys wearing their Scout uniforms, parents of active-duty military personnel – were put behind barbed wire. And it happened in Eugene. Blocks from where the memorial now stands was a station where internees boarded trains bound for the camps.
Rather than bitterness, the memorial expresses three explicit ideas: justice, perseverance and honor. Justice came slowly, as political and legal battles brought compensation and reparations to the surviving victims of internment. These decades-long battles tested the perseverance of those who fought them, and those who waited for justice. Honor prevailed in the end – not just the honor of Japanese-Americans, many of whom served their country with valor in wartime, but more importantly the honor of the nation, which found the fortitude to admit that its actions had fallen short of its principles.
Most of those affected by the internment are gone now. The remaining few with direct experience of the camps are in their seventies or eighties, and they were well-represented at Monday’s dedication. Soon there will be a generation of Americans who will not have the privilege of meeting such people. Yet the central artistic image of the memorial is not of age, but of youth. Idaho artist David Clemons has sculpted a girl in coat and scarf, sitting atop her trunk, smiling at a butterfly that has alighted on her upraised hand.
The success of Clemons’ work can’t be fully evaluated until the bronze is installed by June; a clay version was unveiled at Monday’s dedication. It will add to what is becoming a collection of representational bronzes in downtown Eugene – including Pete Helzer’s homage to Ken Kesey at Broadway and Willamette Street, Jim Carpenter’s seated Eugene Skinner in front of the main library and, best of all, Gabriel Ponzanelli’s likeness of Wayne Morse in the free-speech plaza in front of the Lane County Public Service Building. The memorial will become part of a larger outdoor gallery.
By drawing attention not just to an injustice but to the struggle to overcome it, the memorial gains lasting power. Sixty-five years ago, fear led the nation down the wrong path. That can happen whenever Americans forget that their strength lies in such ideals as equality before the law. The memorial teaches more than history – it’s a timeless lesson in civics.
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