But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
2 Corinthians 4:7
I have been pretty negligent in connecting with the Japanese-American community, but thanks to family connections, I was invited to participate in a moving experience this last Saturday. Actually, about 200 of us were there, including clergy like Mariko Yanagihara, Steve Yamaguchi (we were the only Presbyterians), a couple Episcopalians, several Methodists, and a whole lot of Buddhist priests. The group also included a handful of internment camp survivors, many descendants of those who had been sent to the camps, and others who have been impacted by or who are helping to tell the story of the Japanese-Americans in America, including several US Park Service rangers and a few Native Americans, because some of the camps were established on US Park lands and Native American reservations.
While the “Sutra and the Bible” exhibit is still open at the Japanese American National Museum, its co-curator, USC professor Duncan Ryūken Williams, has undertaken a multi-level project to collect and raise the name of every person of Japanese descent who was incarcerated by the United States government during World War II. This effort has resulted so far in one massive book and a website, https://ireizo.com/, listing 125,284 persons by year, from Helen Yuriko Tanaka, who was sent to the camps at age 91, to a baby girl who was born at Crystal City, Texas, a Department of Justice camp that was the last to close. The “Sutra and the Bible” exhibit closes in February 2023, but the Ireichō book will be at the museum until September 2023; everyone is invited to come and make a mark in the book to acknowledge the lives of these individuals, most American citizens, as we continue to honor their memory by standing up for any other group that is being persecuted in this nation.
What struck me on Saturday is how this was a lens into a kaleidoscope of experiences, emotions, and stories that were held by the people in the group. This started in the morning, when the ireizo.com website went live, and my family and countless others started searching to find relatives and family friends in the listing. Since you have to scroll through each year starting at 1850 with Helen Tanaka, I ran across relatives I hadn’t thought about for a long time, such as my grandfather’s older brother Masumi Tajima, whom I remember seeing every year on his birthday, New Year’s Day. As I scrolled, the sheer number of names gave me a more visceral experience of what 125,000 people feels like.
The day was also a reunion of sorts. I hadn’t seen Steve Yamaguchi since he left for Japan, where he is now pastor of Tokyo Union Church. He was representing Santa Anita Assembly Center, which was at the racetrack in Arcadia. I represented the assembly center at Tulare-Kings County Fairgrounds, where most of the Pasadena Japanese were sent until the Gila River camp in Arizona was completed. (My family assumed they weren’t sent to Santa Anita because it was so close that they could escape.) Mariko Yanagihara represented The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, which is now a luxury resort. Another small detention center was at Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat center which is deeply loved by many Presbyterians and somewhat troubling to others. Click HERE for a detailed account of Montreat’s role in the war effort as a holding center for German and Japanese families being sent to Germany and Japan as part of a wartime “prisoner exchange.”
And there were so many stories. One of my fellow Tulare descendants is a very dedicated member of Lake Avenue Church, whose strong Evangelical faith was troubled by the strong Buddhist presence (most of the ceremony was accompanied by Buddhist chants). She shared how her grandfather was a World War I veteran, so when he had to report to be incarcerated, he did so in his US Army uniform. Right before us was the Topaz camp delegation, with Rev. Michael Yoshii, a Methodist pastor who once advised me back when I was in seminary. His calling was amplified through his activism in the movement for redress and reparations, as he came to see how the Methodist churches worked for justice as an integral part of living out their faith. He told me that when coming to this event, his mother told him why she had said the camps was the best thing to happen to their family: because his grandfather was an alcoholic who didn’t get sober until meeting a Christian pastor at Topaz. Not only did he stop drinking, but they found the Christian faith as a source of healing and strength.
During the ceremony, Duncan Williams, who is a professor and Zen Buddhist priest, born and raised in Japan of British and Japanese parents, talked about the healing he hoped would be offered through this project. He spoke of kintsugi, which was described by Kirsten Weir in a 2020 article on post- traumatic growth for a publication of the American Psychological Association:
In the traditional Japanese art of kintsugi, artisans fill the cracks in broken pottery with gold or silver, transforming damaged pieces into something more beautiful than they were when new. Post-traumatic growth is like kintsugi for the mind.
I have reflected before about us Presbyterians and our penchant for perfectionism. While it is good to be diligent, it is through our brokenness that we are amazed by God’s healing grace, and through our humility that we allow Christ’s light of hope to shine. And as we see others who are being demonized in society, it is crucial that we remember the stories of our own people, because all of us have been the “other” at some point, for some reason. In our recognition of our own human frailty and recovery, may we best share the healing power of God to a hurting world.
In peace and hope,