Empty Chair Project Update

After taking a holiday from the blog, I realized there were a number of things which have occurred in the last three months that need to be acknowledged and recorded. Below you will find a compilation of notable events. Please excuse the delay.

The Esther Billman Certificate of Excellence awarded to the Empty Chair Project by the Alaska State Historical Society.

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Margie and Mary gratefully admiring the Empty Chair Project’s award in a window of Shattuck and Grummett’s Insurance Agency on Seward Street in Juneau, Alaska.

At the bottom of the plaque it reads: “Making the important story known of the removal and resettlement of Juneau’s Japanese people.”

Here’s the text from the awards ceremony:

The Esther Billman Certificate of Excellence recognizes a state or local society, museum, government agency, or an organization that has completed a project contributing to the preservation and understanding of Alaskan history during the past year. Esther Billman’s efforts to preserve Alaska history and develop the Sheldon Jackson Museum are commemorated by the award given in her name. The Empty Chair Project, that involved many individuals in Juneau, is being recognized this year. This project made the important story known of the removal and resettlement of Japanese people who lived in Juneau before and after World War II. In 1942, valedictorian John Tanaka was not at his high school graduation ceremony because he and his family had been moved to Minidoka, Idaho. The community had an empty chair on the stage that year, and this year the community had a bronze chair made and placed as a memorial at Juneau’s Capital School Park. In addition, there is a publication and a documentary film, and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum had a special exhibit”.

Thank you so much Alaska Historical Society for this unanticipated honor. We are awed.

Greg Chaney’s documentary wins recognition at its World Premiere in the Anchorage International Film Festival.

anchorage poster

Congratulations to director Greg Chaney for winning an Honorable Mention at this year’s Anchorage International Film Festival. Greg’s documentary won one of the three awards given in the “Made in Alaska” category.

We’re very proud of Greg’s accomplishment and happy for his success. We’re also grateful that he elevated the Empty Chair story and helped to preserve this important piece of Alaskan history in the world of film.  Due to his efforts,  this story of a community’s humanity will be available to a much wider audience.

Thank you Greg for your passion, sensitivity and insight.

Below is a link to the latest Juneau Empire interview of Greg talking about his documentary. I think you’ll find it very interesting.


The ECP White and Blue Hat Hero and Heroine Awards


Roger Grummett, recipient of the ECP (Empty Chair Project) White Hat Hero Award, displaying his amusement and his Certificate of Recognition.


Roger joined by his wife, Karleen Grummett, the gleeful recipient of the ECP Blue Hat and White Gloves Heroine Award.

A self-selected ad hoc subcommittee of the Empty Chair Committee presented Roger and Karleen Grummett with their “White Hat Hero” and “Blue Hat and White Gloves Heroine” awards for their dedication to the goals and aspirations of the Empty Chair Project.

Roger excelled at the art of fund-raising, tirelessly taking the message of the Empty Chair to various service organizations and businesses in the Juneau community. He artfully convinced a circle of his friends and acquaintances to donate their time and energy to developing the site which the Empty Chair Memorial now occupies in Capital School Park. He spent countless hours overseeing the completion of the site up to cutting sod, reseeding grass, pruning roses and covering beds with mulch near the site. This is a man for all seasons.

Karleen spent endless hours writing a dedication booklet which included a wonderfully detailed history of the Juneau Japanese community. Add to that the brochures she developed for the Empty Chair Project and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum; an invitation and program she designed for the dedication ceremony; flyers created to advertise events put on by the committee; publicity and press releases in various newspapers; conversations on the radio and finally, editing this blog (thank you very much)!

So, as you can tell, the Grummetts are very worthy recipients of their awards. Together they became  principal movers and shakers of the Empty Chair in Juneau. Congratulations and best wishes to them both.

May the Empty Chair Project be ever grateful for their heroes and heroines.

Letters of support from the Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School in Bainbridge and the Bainbridge Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.

Sakai Intermediate School:

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Johanna Vander Stoep, Margie Shackelford, Mary Tanaka and Kathleen Ellison at Sakai Intermediate School.

Margie, Mary and Karleen Grummett  visited Sakai Intermediate School where we were greeted by Johanna Vander Stoep, a former principal at the school, and Kathleen Ellison, the present librarian. Their current principal, Jim Corsetti, also joined us.  We were introduced to their literature based curriculum for educating students about the internment and they graciously shared their materials with us. They have followed our progress over the past two years. Mr. Corsetti came to Juneau for the memorial dedication and brought the following letter with him:

Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School
July 12, 2014
Empty Chair Project
Juneau, Alaska

Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School sends its congratulations and appreciation for your hard work and success in the Empty Chair Project. This project brings the story of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps to a place in the community where it needs to remain, up front. Thank you for providing the Juneau community, and all of us, with this beautiful memorial.

As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 70’s and early 80’s, I don’t recall learning of the forcible removal of Japanese Americans to concentration camps. If it was covered in school, it was not covered very well, evidenced by no lasting impression on myself and my classmates. I did not begin to really learn of this injustice until I became a teacher at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School in 1999. At Sakai, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community and the dedicated teachers and principal made sure this became part of our curriculum. It is our goal to continue to teach this story. We also want students to feel that they are part of the story. It is important they recognize that they are the sequel in which the story is not forgotten and will be retold for generations to come.

The Empty Chair Memorial is a beautiful piece of art. It is such a fitting memorial. In my understandings of this chapter in our history, and in my conversations with so many other who lived through this, I continue to be awestruck by the overwhelming capacity for grace in those that were incarcerated. This grace is enduring strength. Thank you for all of your work. The Empty Chair is not just a reminder of the shameful injustice brought upon those incarcerated, but also honors the strength and dignity represented in the past and present by those who endured this chapter. This memorial also sets a high standard for generations that follow. Thank you, thank you.

Jim Corsetti
Principal, Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School
Bainbridge Island, Washington

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial:

Clarence Moriwaki, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association, was very helpful in the beginning stages of developing the Juneau memorial. Mary Tanaka met with him to find out how they had approached funding and designing the Bainbridge memorial, which we had visited more than once, and was inspirational in the development of Juneau’s memorial. We are very grateful for his advise and support. He sent the following letter to the committee via Mary:


The Bainbridge Island Memorial which follows the pathway to the docks of those who were rounded up and sent to Seattle by boat and subsequently interned at Minidoka.

Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Assn.
July 12, 2014
Empty Chair Project
Juneau, Alaska

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association is delighted to offer our heartfelt congratulations to the Empty Chair Project on this special day of celebration dedicating the unveiling of the Empty Chair Memorial.

The sad chapter of the unconstitutional incarceration and exclusion of more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II must forever be retold and must never be forgotten, and perhaps one of this shameful period’s most overlooked stories is the forced removal of hundreds of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the Alaska Territory.

With beautiful grace and powerful imagery – the empty single chair representing the absence of Juneau High School’s 1942 valedictorian John Tanaka, placed upon a floorboard recreation with the stories, memories and names of those forcibly removed from their Alaskan homes permanently inscribed for perpetuity – this memorial successfully shares this significant yet relatively unknown story in American history; honors the Japanese and Japanese American community; and recognizes those who supported their Japanese and Japanese American friends, business associates and neighbors and welcomed them home.

Ironically, also in the spring of 1942, thirteen empty chairs were left on the stage at Bainbridge Island High School’s commencement ceremony, honoring their beloved classmates who were missing on that special day, banished a thousand miles away behind barbed wire in an American concentration camp.

We were humbled and honored when Mary Tanaka Abo reached out to us years ago and asked for our advice and ideas at the early idea stages of the Empty Chair Memorial. We’ve followed your progress with earnest, and we applaud your hard work making your dream a reality.

Our warmest and sincere congratulations to the Empty Chair Project Committee for your vision, energy, passion and leadership; Seattle artist Peter Reiquam for creating a beautiful and moving piece of art; and to all of your partners including the Juneau Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, Juneau School District, Juneau City Museum, Juneau Community Foundation, Juneau Historical Resource Committee, North Pacific Erectors and all of your generous donors and supporters.

Clarence Moriwaki
President, Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Assn.
Bainbridge Island, Washington


One of many pieces of ceramic art embedded in the wooden wall that traces the pathway of internees. “Back home at graduation they had thirteen empty chairs on the stage that day. I felt empty and sad. I sat on my bunk and cried.” -Nobuko Sakai Omoto.

Living Voices presented “Within the Silence” at Harborview and Auke Bay Schools and the University of Alaska, Juneau campus.


Classes at Auke Bay School responding to “Within the Silence.”

Here you see storyteller Ruth Coughlin answering students’ questions after her mixed media presentation called Within the Silence at Auke Bay School in mid-October. It is a dramatization provided by Living Voices as one of their pieces on civil rights and financed by anonymous donors to the Empty Chair Project, whom we warmly thank.

In this performance, fifth graders at Auke Bay and Harborview followed the journey of one Japanese American family as it was sent from Seattle to an internment camp in Minidoka. As the hand-out to 5th grade teachers defined it:

“Ruth’s goal is to awaken the imagination and change the way people experience history, inviting audiences to walk in the shoes of the characters and go on their personal historical journeys with them.”

Ruth’s performance was magnetic and fascinating.


Ruth Coughlin’s interactive performance in “Within the Silence.”

Here are some excerpts from thank you notes sent to the committee from fifth graders at Auke Bay School following the performance which highlight Ruth’s wonderfully talented ability to capture students’ attention:

“I personally think these stories need to be heard about the internment of the Japanese community.”

“I thought it so good that I wanted to shout out loud, do it again!”

That was so unfair how they were taken to internment camps.”

“For so many people to be interned so harshly is very sad! For me, realizing this happened was surprising and did change my way of thinking.”

“Thank you for telling our community this story. I know that it will now be remembered and respected among the Juneau people.”

“I like to think that my generation will not even think about doing it again. So I thank you. I still can’t believe such a terrible thing even took place.

Art as a medium for expressing lessons learned through history.

Nancy Lehnhart presented an art lesson to 5th grade classes based on the lessons learned from the internment of Juneau’s Japanese community which is now available in kit form for following years. Her prompts for visualization were “Dreaming of….Missing…Wishing for.”


Student art reflecting lessons learned in classrooms and during the “Empty Chair” activities at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. Note the origami chairs in the blue and yellow pieces on the bottom shelf.

Ruth then repeated her performance for a third time as part of the Egan Forum lecture series at the University of Alaska Southeast’s Juneau campus where she was warmly received and spent additional time discussing the history of the internment and addressing audience questions and comments.


Advertising on a monitor in the Egan Library for the upcoming dramatization in the Egan Lecture Hall at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS).


Some of the cranes made to celebrate the Empty Chair were exhibited at the University of Alaska Southeast’s Egan Library.


The Egan Llibrary’s display of books, pictures, and documents pertinent to the Juneau evacuation. Thanks to Beatrice Franklin for arranging this colorful and informative collection.

The following night at the Egan Theatre, Greg Chaney showed his documentary titled The Empty Chair to an audience who missed its premiere in Juneau in July. What a magnificent contribution it is to Juneau history.

Student tours of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum’s exhibit titled “The Forced Removal and Resettlement of Juneau’s Japanese Community, 1941-1951.”


A very pertinent quote.

In addition to the dramatization by Ruth Coughlin, tours were arranged to the exhibit at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum for 5th grade students. Buses were financed by the Empty Chair Project and entrance to the museum was free.

Marjorie Hamburger, the museum’s educational consultant, prefaced her lesson on the Juneau internment by having students use paper and pencil to “pack their one suitcase” as the internees had to do before they were taken away.

She then pointed out the experiences of specific Juneau Japanese people who were featured in the exhibit and ended the students’ field trip with a walk to the memorial and a discussion of its symbolism .

Thank you, Marjorie, for your sensitive interpretation of the exhibit to the student attendees.