The Wakasa Monument: What It Is and Why It Matters
by John Ota with statements by Masako Takahashi and Nancy Ukai. Posted Dec. 22, 2021
Introduction: Recently, a controversy has emerged concerningthe Wakasa Monument, a large memorial stone built by Japanese Americans at the U.S. prison camp in Utah known as Topaz to commemorate James Wakasa, who was unjustly shot and killed there by a guard in April 1943. The following backgroundarticle and the two statements delivered recently in Utah discuss issues in this controversy.
Who was James Hatsuaki Wakasa?
James Hatsuaki Wakasa was born in 1880 in Takahama, Japan. He graduated from Keio University in Japan before emigrating to the U.S. in 1903. In the U.S., he studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During World War I, he was a cooking instructor at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. In 1942, he was living in San Francisco and, along other Japanese Americans, incarcerated first at the Tanforan racetrack, and then the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah.
What were the circumstances of Wakasa’s death?
On the evening of April 11, 1943, Wakasa took his dog for a walk near the barbed wire fence surrounding Topaz, as was his custom. Although he was three to five feet from the fence, he was shot by a guard and died on the spot. The government falsely claimed that Wakasa was shot while trying to crawl through the fence, a claim contradicted by the fact that he was killed by a shot through his heart and spine facing the guard tower. The guard, Gerald Philpott, who shot Wakasa was acquitted at a court martial, but the more than 8,000 inmates at Topaz were never informed. The uproar of anger and shock at Wakasa’s killing was so strong that the military was put on alert and machine guns, tear gas and riot gear were brought in. A teacher at Topaz said, “It looked for a while like there might be a revolution within the camp.”
Inmates at Topaz demanded a public funeral at the site of Wakasa’s death, but government officials denied the request and the funeral was held a half mile away. Over 2,000 people attended Wakasa’s funeral, which featured several large wreaths made of paper flowers made by the women of Topaz. The government also prohibited any monument to Wakasa. Defying this order, a large stone monument to Wakasa was built by Issei (first generation Japanese Americans). The monument is estimated at about five feet long and 1,000 pounds. When Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy heard of the monument and saw photos, he demanded that all evidence be removed. The Issei buried the monument in 1943 but left a small part of it showing. It lay undisturbed for 77 years until it was rediscovered in 2020.
When and how was the Wakasa monument found?
In Fall 2020, U.S. Park Service archaeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell located the buried Wakasa monument at the site of the Topaz incarceration camp, using a map drawn in April 1943 by George Shimamoto showing the exact location of James Wakasa’s body after he was shot. Nancy Ukai had found the map in the National Archives and published it in her article, “The Demolished Monument: James Wakasa and the erasure of memory.”
Soon after Burton and Farrell located the top of the Wakasa Monument — an approximately 14-inch-long stone raised a few inches above the ground — a 14-member committee formed and met on Zoom to discuss the proper handling and treatment of the monument and the memorial site on the west side of the Topaz camp. The 14 members included the Topaz Museum Director and Board President Jane Beckwith, two Board members, four National Park Service representatives, three archaeologists, a historian and three Topaz community members. Burton and Farrell wrote a 42-page article about Wakasa, the monument and possible ways to treat the artifact and site. They invited the Museum to read it and make comments. On Jan. 29, the Museum submitted three pages of revisions, including a clarification of the monument’s location. Burton and Farrell announced their discovery in the July 4, 2021 publication of Part 4 of their piece, “The Power of Place: James Hatsuaki Wakasa and the Persistence of Memory” on the Discover Nikkei website.
Composite of two photographs of the Wakasa funeral at Topaz. Photos from the National Archives.
When and how was the Wakasa Memorial Monument excavated?
On July 27, 2021, a contractor hired by the Topaz Museum, dug up the monument using heavy machinery. No archaeologists or persons trained in archaeological methods took part in the excavation, despite many suggestions to the contrary and even offers of funding for archaeologists. No religious ceremonies or customs were observed and no members of the Japanese American community were present. According to the Topaz Museum, the monument was moved to the Topaz Museum courtyard. The Museum’s sudden and unprofessional actions shocked community members, historians and archaeologists.
Wasn’t there a fear of vandalism of the monument?
Jane Beckwith of the Topaz Museum has said that due to the threat of vandalism, she felt the need to act immediately after the publication of the Burton/Farrell article on July 4, 2021 which disclosed the location of the monument. Beckwith produced photos of signs on or near the Topaz site that have been shot up by vandals. However, this concern was not noted in emails to the monument committee prior to the extraction. Also, Japanese American confinement sites and other historic sites experience vandalism yet are able to be protected using various safeguards and without destructive interventions that harm that which should be protected. It is unlikely that vandals would have seen the Burton/Farrell article, published online at Discover Nikkei. Even if vandals had seen the article, it is doubtful they could have located and identified the buried monument at the unmarked desert site of the Topaz camp. A sack of dirt could have covered what was showing of the stone and camouflaged it. Consultations with experts could have produced solutions to the preemptive removal. Far more harm was done to the memorial site and artifacts by construction equipment than vandals could have achieved.
Was the Wakasa Memorial Monument damaged during excavation?
There is still no public report, but Utah state photos show that the artifact was dragged across the earth using a strap and metal chain by an employee of a backhoe company. Earthen material was not sifted. If the Issei landscapers had thrown a memento into the hole before filling it up, that evidence is lost. It’s even possible that a portion of Wakasa’s ashes could have been scattered in the opening, but professional assessment to detect such evidence would have been necessary at the time of excavation. The site has been irrevocably disturbed and professional surveys or documentation did not take place.
The Wakasa Memorial Committee is very anxious to have the exact present condition of the Wakasa Monument determined, which is why one of the six requests in the Committee’s letter to the Topaz Museum Board is that “an independent and expert assessment of the memorial site and the Wakasa
Monument shall be undertaken and all unedited video, photos and other recordings of the July 27, 2021 excavation be released.”
Nancy Ukai delivering her remarks at the Topaz Museum in front of the Wakasa Monument on Nov. 30, 2021. Photo by Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina.
Did the Topaz Museum apologize for its actions?
Jane Beckwith of the Topaz Museum has apologized for not involving members of the Japanese American community in the excavation of the Wakasa monument, but she has not apologized for the unprofessional manner of the excavation, such as the failure to employ archaeologists using professional protocols in order to preserve the monument and potential surrounding artifacts to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the monument, the memorial site and the Topaz National Historical Landmark.
Why do some say that the Wakasa Monument site was “desecrated” during excavation?
“Desecration” is defined as violating the sanctity of or treating something disrespectfully. The Wakasa Memorial Monument was located at the spot on a 1943 map marking the exact spot where James Wakasa was shot and killed. Wakasa’s remains were cremated and taken to an unknown location. Thus, the place where he died is a hallowed place for those who wish to perform religious and cultural ceremonies to honor his memory. The idea of heavy equipment rolling roughly over this spot and digging up the monument without the ability to light incense, say a prayer or conduct a religious or cultural ceremony is considered by many to be disrespectful and violating the sanctity of the place of Wakasa’s death. “The unearthing … of the Wakasa monument is a deeply sacred moment for us — not unlike how Native Americans feel for and respect the lands of their ancestors. We had no opportunity to be there — to share in a moment of prayer and remembrance with the spirit of Mr. Wakasa,” said one Topaz descendant.
What is the significance of the Wakasa Memorial Monument?
The Wakasa Memorial Monument represents perhaps the most significant archaeological finding ever made in relation to the wartime Japanese American mass incarceration in the U.S. Built in defiance of direct orders from U.S. officials at the highest level, the monument is a bright beacon on the unjust murder of an unarmed man held in a concentration camp merely because of his race. As Masako Takahashi, who was born in Topaz, put it, “It is the most valuable physical evidence of the unfairness of our incarceration ever found.” The Issei immigrant voice in World War II history is the least understood and recorded so this symbol of protest, grief and resistance by our Japanese American immigrant ancestors is especially precious. Its importance is national, not merely limited to Utah, of Japanese American resistance against racial violence and the government’s intentional erasure of it.
What and Who Is the Wakasa Memorial Committee?
The Wakasa Memorial Committee is comprised of Topaz Survivors, Descendants, members of the Japanese American community and allies who came together in response to the sudden and unprofessional excavation of the Wakasa Memorial Monument on July 27, 2021 by the Topaz Museum. The Committee’s mission is to protect the Topaz memorial site, the Wakasa Monument, and the Topaz National Historic Landmark. New members to the Wakasa Memorial Committee and the Advisory Committee to the Wakasa Memorial Committee are constantly being added, but a list as of September 7, 2021 is listed on the Committee’s letter to the Topaz Museum Board, which can be found at: Wakasa Committee Letter.
What does the Wakasa Memorial Committee want to see happen?
The Wakasa Memorial Committee has proposed to the Topaz Museum Board six measures aimed at remedying the problems that the sudden and unprofessional unearthing of the monument on July 27, 2021 has given rise to. The proposed measures include an independent archaeological assessment of the monument and the excavation site, release of all photos, videos and other recordings of the July 27 excavation, an apology for the unprofessional nature of the excavation, agreement that the Museum and the WMC work together to develop a plan for the stewardship of the monument, and that a public commemoration be held on April 11, 2023, the 80th anniversary of James Wakasa’s death. The full letter can be found at: Wakasa Committee Letter
The Committee’s proposal was supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national, nonprofit organization chartered by the US government in 1949.
John Ota is a member of the Wakasa Memorial Committee and a descendant of Japanese Americans who were able to leave the West Coast before Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to prison camps in 1942.
S.O.S. – Save Our (Wakasa) Stone
By Masako Takahashi
I was asked how, as we walked over here from our cars, how it felt to be walking on this land. And I am filled with mixed emotions about that, because on the one hand I’m thrilled to be here, and yet enraged to have to be here– And thankful that you are here with me. Anyway, I wrote a few words because I thought I might be too emotional to remember what to say. So forgive me, I’m going to read.
We are here today to mourn the murder of James Wakasa. And we are here to rejoice at the discovery of the Memorial Stone. We are here because the stone, which our grandfathers buried, was shoveled up and dragged away by the Topaz museum.
Masako Takahashi delivering her remarks on Dec. 1, 2021 at the site where the Wakasa Monument was discovered. Mark Izu performed music during the remembrance ceremony for James Wakasa. Photo by Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina.
We are here today to share our outrage and to offer our support to all Japanese who have suffered this insult.
The thousand pound stone is concrete evidence of the injustice and the daily threat of wanton murder our families faced every day they were confined at Topaz and other concentration camps.
As some of you know, James Wakasa was just out walking his dog as he did every night, when he was shot and killed by a guard.
The memorial stone was mounted on a cement base and erected as a memorial to him. Thousands attended his funeral. When the government heard about it they commanded that the stone be destroyed, but the stalwart inmates buried it instead. Right here.
One of them drew a diagram of the burial site, and last year almost 80 years later, the map was discovered by Nancy Ukai Russell while doing research in Washington DC.
Nancy published her story on an online site where two archaeologists read it, saw the map and decided to look for it. John Burton and Mary Farrell, both archaeologists, drove on their own time, to Topaz, here, from Southern California. And following the diagram, discovered what they thought to be the tip of a stone peeking out from the desert floor. This desert floor. They photographed, and made a five part article about it with the photos, and here we are today.
The professional people here, we thank you for being here. There are videos of the museum excavation and I think it’s essential that they be turned over and made available to the national professional people who are here to make an assessment so that they can have something to compare it to, and see what was done.
Will we find remnants of the base, the cement base? Will we find evidence of incense or offerings or photos? We don’t know what is still left here scattered around in this rubble. We are here today to find out.
We thank you all for being here with us. Especially, we thank the Topaz Museum for cooperating with this assessment. Most of all, we thank our friends and families for having left us this evidence.
We look forward to the results of the assessment.
Masako Takahashi was born in the Topaz, Utah incarceration camp.
Remarks by Nancy Ukai, Wakasa Memorial Committee, at Topaz Museum, in Delta, Utah, Nov. 30, 2021, before the NPS assessment of the Wakasa monument. ***
The buried history of the Wakasa Memorial by Nancy Ukai
How do you remember a friend? How do you grieve a murder? How do you express pain and outrage over the cold-blooded killing of an innocent man who was shot through the heart while walking his dog?
That’s what this stone represents: outrage, grief, courage and a sacred message from our ancestors to us — never forget James Hatsuaki Wakasa. Never forget the danger and humiliation that we lived under the guard towers of Topaz.
That’s why the builders chose a giant memorial stone. It is said to measure 57 inches tall and weigh 1,000 pounds. We’ll learn more after the National Park Service professionals examine the memorial stone today.
But the sacred stone was too big, the builders’ voices of resistance too powerful. After Wakasa’s friends erected this monument near where he died on his back, bleeding into the ground, camp authorities and the U.S. War Department ordered it destroyed.
But our defiant Issei builders buried it, leaving a small part showing so that we — future generations — could find it. And that’s why we are here today, 800 miles from our homes in California, in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents.
We are outraged that, in the words of Karen Korematsu, our sacred ground was “violently assaulted” and the monument shoveled out and hauled here on a pallet by a local contractor who was pulled off his job clearing garbage from another part of the camp — even though three archeologists who were working with the museum advised that it be left in the ground.
No archeologists were present to survey the landscape and record the conditions of a crime scene whose exact location had not been known for 78 years. Professionals were denied the ability to look for traces of writing, to screen for artifacts, to analyze the orientation of the stone while it was still in the ground. Important information was lost forever.
And Japanese Americans, whose history this museum is dedicated to preserve, were not told about this historic event until after it was over.
On Dec. 1, 2021 Wakasa Memorial Committee members placed flowers and a flower covered cross on or near the barbed wire fence near where the Wakasa Monument was discovered. Photo by Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina.
This stone represents not only the most sacred object ever found at Topaz, historians are calling this memorial the most significant historical artifact of all the US WWII concentration camps for Japanese Americans. That makes the Wakasa Monument a national monument, a symbol of racial violence, justice denied and the literal burying of history.
The Wakasa Monument informs us about the past, the present and the future.
The past. Did you know that before Wakasa was killed, Army records show that eight shots had been made from guard towers in the preceding months? Wakasa was the victim of the ninth shot.
That Wakasa was an optimist about the United States, arriving here when he was 23 years old, freshly graduated from Keio University and that he kept a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in his barrack? He was not an old, deaf man trying to escape. That was the lie spread by our government to justify his killing. Most newspaper headlines said: “Jap killed trying to escape” but one Pennsylvania newspaper may have got closer to the truth. Its headline: “Target Practice.”
The present. This monument and its excavation took place in secrecy. That must stop. We survivors and descendants and all Americans deserve to know the truth. We have requested that the Museum release the video taken the day of the excavation to the National Park Service so it can understand what happened on July 27 this summer, when the stone was excavated.
Release of that video by the museum on its website would show that it is accountable and transparent about its actions. Reconciliation requires trust, accountability and transparency. A baseline assessment requires all available pre-destruction images and information about the site to be evaluated. That is normal procedure upon which all archeologists agree.
The future. We look forward to a day when future generations will read poems and research, see films and watch plays about the Wakasa murder, the monument and how protest took place in 1943 and even now.
Chizu Omori, a survivor of the Poston incarceration camp, pays her respects to James Wakasa on Dec. 1, 2021 in a ceremony organized by the Wakasa Memorial Committee. Photo by Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina.
Restrictions on Japanese American grieving have gone on for too long. The inmates wanted to hold a funeral at the site where Wakasa died; they were denied. They wanted to build a memorial where Wakasa died; they were denied. They built it anyway and were forced to take it down, but buried it instead.
Thanks to archeologists Jeff Burton and Mary Farrell who rediscovered the top of the monument last year using a diagram I found at the National Archives, we have been given the joyous gift of this artifact from our ancestors. Tomorrow we will return to the hallowed ground where Wakasa died and the monument was built and buried. Why do we know where Wakasa died? Because the monument is evidence that points the way.
Today, we thank the National Park Service professionals for studying this stone and the Topaz Museum Board for inviting them to do so. We are interested in knowing:
Is there any trace of writing on the stone?
How do the concrete remnants, which were found at the site, fit with the stone memorial?
How can it best be preserved as winter approaches and it is outside in the courtyard?
What other items of interest might be buried or scattered at the site?
Thank you to all who are here today to witness and be present in this his- toric and spiritual moment in which we pay our respects to James Wakasa and the anonymous builders who erected this memorial.
Nancy Ukai is a Topaz descendant from Berkeley, CA. Twelve of her relatives, including her parents and grandparents and a half-sibling who died at childbirth, were incarcerated at Topaz.
Group photo at the Topaz site where the Wakasa Monumnet was discovered 78 years after it was buried by Topaz inmates in defiance of a government order to demolish it. Photo by Kiyoshi and Akemi Ina.