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Fundraiser puts Juneau’s Empty Chair project near goal

Empty Chair Big Check
The Gastineau Channel Historical Society presents a $5,000 check to organizers of the Empty Chair project in Juneau. On the far right are sisters Mary Tanaka Abo and Alice Tanaka Hikido, whose brother John inspired the proposed memorial to Juneau’s Japanese American internees. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

A proposed monument in Juneau to Japanese Americans interned during World War II got a big boost last weekend.

The Gastineau Channel Historical Society donated $5,000 to the Empty Chair Project, and a fundraising concert raised nearly $2,000. Organizers have been collecting funds for about a year and need about $6,000 more to meet their $40,000 goal.

Third generation Japanese American violinist Steve Tada and pianist Nancy Nash performed several compositions, including Michio Miyagi’s “Haru no Umi” at the Empty Chair benefit concert on Saturday.

Sisters Mary Tanaka Abo and Alice Tanaka Hikido sat in the front row as honored guests. Alice Tanaka was nine-years-old in 1942 when the entire family was taken from Juneau and placed into internment camps.

“We were identified with the enemy when we were not the enemy at all,” she said.

Brother John Tanaka, who died several years ago, inspired the Empty Chair project. He was valedictorian of Juneau High School’s class of 1942, but could not attend graduation after the family was taken from the Capital City. The school set up an empty chair at the ceremony to acknowledge that John Tanaka was not there.

The memorial will be a slightly larger than life-size bronze replica of the empty chair at Juneau’s Capital School Park, located next to the old Juneau High School. Project organizer Margie Shackleford has been friends with Mary Tanaka since childhood.

“We can’t always redress everything, but we can at least acknowledge that an injustice occurred,” Shackleford said.

The Tanakas’ father, Shonosuke, operated the City Café in downtown Juneau for more than 50 years. In the early 1940s, the territorial capitol was home to about 6,000 residents, and the restaurant was open 24 hours a day to serve miners, fishermen and other laborers.

Alice recalls that federal agents came for her father just a day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

“They took all the men, actually. It wasn’t just my father, but all the immigrant-born men,” she said. “Then shortly after that they were taken away from Juneau. We didn’t know where they were going to be taken to, so, there was a lot of unknown.”

While their father was interned in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Tanaka children and their mother were sent to Camp Minidoka in Idaho, where they would spend the next three years.

“It was a small room that we shared with a pot-bellied stove, and that was our home for the duration of the war,” Alice Tanaka Hikido said.

“And then we had all of our meals in the mess hall, did all of our showering and bathroom needs in what they called the laundry room. So, it was kind of communal living.”

Violinist Tada, whose family lived in the Seattle area, had relatives taken to Camp Minidoka as well.

“They published what was called a ‘Memory Book’ and it has group photos of everybody’s family in front of their barracks,” he said. “And it kind of reads like a school yearbook. They had social clubs, they tried to have dance bands, and morale builders, and they even had Boy Scout troops.”

After the war, the Tanakas returned to Juneau, where Alice says her father re-opened the City Café with community support.

“He had to take a loan out from the bank, and the bank gave him the loan unconditionally,” she remembers. “And suppliers were family friends who told my father that he didn’t have to pay his bills until he had a cash flow that made it possible.”

Seattle artist Peter Reiquam has a design concept for the Empty Chair memorial. Shackleford says it will include the names of all the Japanese Americans taken from Juneau during World War II.

“Plus a Japanese symbol for remembrance and memory, and a text telling a story of the empty chair,” Shackleford said.

With the funds raised at the benefit concert, organizers are confident they’ll be able to dedicate the memorial in the summer of 2014.

Juneau Empty Chair Project website

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