The Japanese American Memorial: A Monument to Reconciliation

August 18, 2020

The history of the United States is preserved in archives, books, and the collective memory of the American people. It is also preserved in monuments, memorials, and statues made from marble, granite, bronze, or plaster.

Our nation’s capital is home to some of the world’s most recognizable and frequently visited monuments. This blog series will explore the events and people they commemorate, devoting particular attention to the spiritual themes depicted. By shedding light on our nation’s deep religious heritage, this series aims to inspire the next generation to emulate virtues and merits from America’s past that are worth memorializing.

FRC’s blog series on monuments is written by FRC summer interns and edited by David Closson, FRC’s Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview. Be sure to read our previous posts on the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Joan of Arc Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial.

Many visitors to our nation’s capital are unfamiliar with the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, a monument recognizing the oppression that hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans experienced during World War II.

Around 120,000 Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 that permitted the secretary of war to remove any resident aliens from parts of the western United States identified as military areas. This executive order disproportionately affected Japanese Americans, mainly because the United States was deeply distressed after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

We now know as a nation that the United States’ treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II was anything but decent. Former President Ford acknowledged the United States’ wrongdoing in 1976. Then in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and said, “Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.” Later, in 1992, President Bush signed a law to start the building of the memorial. The Japanese American Memorial symbolizes the United States’ desire and commitment to never again commit such an act of injustice.

In 1988, after the country realized it had wronged the Japanese American people, internees were granted $20,000. This reparation could never bring complete healing to all those hurt by the executive order, but it was nevertheless an intentional action the government took to show remorse in addition to simply apologizing.

Many of the internees selflessly donated their reparations to the building of a memorial in 1999. On November 9, 2000, Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon and United States Attorney General Janet Reno spoke at the dedication of the Japanese American Memorial.

The memorial is comprised of a wall and a sculpture of two cranes. Davis Buckley and Nina Akamu designed the memorial. Nina Akamu, a third-generation Japanese American, dutifully sculpted the two cranes. Since Akamu’s grandfather had been in one of the internment camps, crafting the sculpture was especially personal for her. Akamu’s grandfather was of Japanese heritage and had been arrested in Hawaii. He later died of a heart attack while in the internment camp due to his diabetes.

With her grandfather’s story in mind, Akamu designed the two red-crowned cranes to be entangled in barbed wire. The cranes’ ability to persevere amidst the wires represents their commitment to patriotism. They remained loyal to the United States, even though they were experiencing unnecessary hardship. The cranes symbolize the body and spirit of these Japanese Americans. The cranes are also pressed up against each other, representing Japanese Americans’ need for each other during such a difficult time. The birds’ wings are sculpted to look like a torch symbolizing freedom, as well as the 442nd freedom torch, which symbolized the 442nd regiment, a regiment comprised of Japanese Americans.

The memorial “Honor Wall” honors more than 800 soldiers that died fighting for the United States. Norman Y. Mineta’s and Akemi Dawn Matsumoto Ehrlich’s poem “The Legacy” are both featured. The 10 concentration camps and the number of internees at each camp are listed on the wall.

The memorial wall also honors Mike M. Masaoka, a civil rights activist and a staff sergeant of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Robert T. Matsui, an internee at Tule Lake, and Daniel K. Inouye, a U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, and captain of the 442nd Regional Combat Team, are also remembered on the wall. Finally, U.S. presidents Reagan and Truman are quoted.

This memorial showcases the diligence of the Japanese Americans and honors their sacrifice, but this memorial is also a reminder of humanity’s inherent brokenness. It is a reminder that our sin never just affects us, but those around us as well. When we recognize sin, we are called to turn from our wicked ways. Acts 3:19 says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

By God’s grace, He calls us to become more like Him by fleeing from evil, and He, in turn, blesses us. Matthew 3:8 says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” When we turn from evil, God calls us to seek justice and glorify Him with our lives. Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” By God’s grace, we can learn from our mistakes and chart a course that is more honoring to Him.

With Scripture in mind and an understanding of the memorial’s history, we can live with a commitment to seek healing and restoration. The Japanese American Memorial serves both as a reminder of our country’s past sins against the Japanese American people and a symbol of progress, revealing just how far the United States has come as a nation.

Hayden Sledge is a Coalitions intern at Family Research Council.

edge is a Coalitions intern at Family Research Council.