Empty Chair Project recognizes Juneau’s Japanese WWII internees

Seventy-two years ago, more than 50 Juneau residents were forced to leave their homes. It was World War II, and the United States was forcing Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans all over the West Coast into internment camps.

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The Empty Chair Project supporters blog about history, the memorial and more at http://emptychairproject.wordpress.com/.

The Juneau-Douglas City Museum is hosting an exhibit on Juneau’s interned Japanese until Oct. 26.

Juneau filmmaker Greg Chaney’s documentary “The Empty Chair” premiered Friday.

That included John Tanaka, who was shipped out of Juneau in April 1942 with dozens of other Japanese. Tanaka was the valedictorian of Juneau High School that year, but didn’t get to graduate with everyone else. On Saturday, like at the graduation he couldn’t attend, an empty chair was dedicated as a quiet memorial to the interned.

More than 200 people attended the dedication ceremony at Capital School Park for the bronze sculpture that recognizes the 53 people from the Juneau area sent to camps.

Chains made of a thousand brightly colored origami cranes draped the Empty Chair memorial. It’s a bronze reproduction of a simple folding chair, like the kind Juneau High School used in the 1940s for graduation ceremonies. It has a spartan aura, sequestered in the park with a jagged chunk of planked flooring.

“And the irregular edge of the floor was intended to represent a section of the gymnasium floor that had just been ripped out of the gymnasium as a metaphor for the way that the people were ripped from their homes and their community,” said Peter Reiquam.

Reiquam is the Seattle-based artist commissioned for The Empty Chair Project.

The names of the 53 people forced to leave their homes for internment camps during World War II are etched into the floor planks. The communal, military-style camps were ringed by barbed wire and guard towers.

Mary Tanaka Abo, one of John Tanaka’s sisters, teared up during the dedication ceremony. She was surrounded by her extended family, and said seeing her young relatives understand what her generation went through is particularly important.

“You know, our family history? People kind of roll their eyes. The kids, you know. But, you know, when they see the community here, (then) they really think it’s important. Then, it kind of validates everything,” Abo said. “And you know, people (are) nearing the end of their lives. So it’s just really tremendous to share this moment, you know, of our home town, with our families.”

After being interned, John was drafted into the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a Japanese-American Army unit that fought in Europe.

His family returned to Juneau after the war. The lease on the family business, the City Café, had lapsed, but the community helped the Tanakas and others reestablish themselves. The café eventually became a 50-year institution.

John worked summers in the café while going to college and medical school. He became an anesthesiologist and settled in Spokane, Washington. He died in 1977.

His widow, Jeanne Tanaka, says they rarely talked about their internment or the war. But she said John spoke fondly of his hometown.

“I feel it’s a wonderful tribute to him, and to the community that really helped him out so much,” she said. “I’m very grateful.”

Amid some words and music, the sculpture was unveiled by a procession of the youngest members of the extended Japanese families. Each child delivered a chain of the origami cranes to an elder.

Most of the Juneau residents sent away during World War II have died, but a few attended the ceremony.

Eighty-nine-year-old Walter Fukyama was one of the high school students who was detained. After the dedication, he stepped into the gym where he had played basketball as a youth, where he should have graduated in 1943. The hoops are still there, but the space has been converted to makeshift offices for Capitol workers. It was the first time he’d been back. He didn’t want to pose for photos, and said he wasn’t sure how he felt. He said he just wanted to reminisce.

Jeremy Hsieh

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I dig into questions about the forces and institutions that shape Juneau, big and small, delightful and outrageous. What stirs you up about how Juneau is built and how the city works?

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