A rededication to civil rights, and righting wrongs
By Carolina Hidalgo, The Oregonian
PORTLAND, Ore. - On the west bank of the Willamette River, between the Burnside and Steel bridges, stretches a 100-year story. Through poems engraved in granite stones, it chronicles decades of hard work, injustice, new beginnings and, finally, hope.
The stones tell the story of Nikkei -- Japanese immigrants and their descendants -- in Oregon.
Portland native Henry Sakamoto, 83, has related the story countless times, leading diplomats, schoolchildren, politicians and tourists through Tom McCall Waterfront Park's Japanese American Historical Plaza.
Twenty years ago, he played an instrumental role in founding the plaza, serving as the first president of the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, which was set up to support and raise money for award-winning architect Robert Murase's memorial proposal. Today, Sakamoto will lead a 20th anniversary rededication ceremony for the plaza.
As in his tours, Sakamoto will emphasize the lesson behind the history.
"The theme is the preservation of the Bill of Rights," Sakamoto said. "I tell students: Be aware of what your government is doing. Because of what happened to us."
The story starts at the southern end of the plaza, at a bronze cast of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Sakamoto starts his tours there, pointing out the string of civil rights violated in the wake of Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"But the story itself," he said, "is the story of positive transition from immigrant status to citizen status."
It's his own family history that follows, etched into the plaza's stones and bronze sculptures. Sakamoto was 15, a sophomore at Lincoln High School, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, setting the framework for 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans to be forced from their homes and sent to internment camps.
"We were a culture, back then, of being subservient to authority," he explained. "Whatever the law said you had to do, you did it."
So on April 28, 1942, when posters went up on telephone poles ordering Portlanders of Japanese ancestry to report to the Expo Center, Sakamoto and his family gathered their belongings and joined nearly 4,000 others in detention.
Five months later, they boarded rail cars to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. The coal-burning locomotives' black smoke is described in a haiku on one of the plaza's stones. It's followed by a break in the memorial wall, designed to represent the interruption internment caused in Japanese Americans' lives.
"It was a sad page in America's history books," said Willamette University professor Linda Tamura, who presents workshops on Japanese American life during World War II. "The wartime experience was wrenching for immigrants who came and raised American citizens and were then told by their country that they had no rights."
At the wall's break, landscape architect Murase installed jagged tiles. They reflect the nature of life during internment, Sakamoto said. "Upheaval, uncertainty, a very disorganized life."
The memorial was personal for Murase, who died in 2005. A third generation Japanese American who taught at the University of Oregon, Murase spent three years as a child in a Topaz, Utah, internment camp.
For decades, he planned a memorial to serve as a tribute to World War II internees and as a reminder of the importance of civil liberties.
After two failed attempts, Murase teamed up with well-connected Portland real estate developer Bill Naito, who helped shepherd his proposal through city processes.
"It serves as a place of hope," said Jeff Selby, president of Portland's chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, which originally presented Murase's proposal to the city. "It's a look at the lessons we can learn from the past to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone again, from any community."
After citywide debate, the memorial was completed and dedicated in August 1990 with backing from then-City Commissioner Mike Lindberg and money from the Oregon Nikkei Endowment. It came on the heels of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged and apologized for the "fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation and internment" of Japanese Americans.
A cast bronze copy of the 1988 legislation sits on the final granite stone, where Sakamoto ends his story.