History of the Internment
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered WWII. In the ensuing panic, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 sending 120,000 persons of Japanese descent to ten relocation camps without the benefit of due process. Over 200 pioneering Japanese men, women, and children were evacuated from all over Alaska in April of 1942. All were escorted to a military transport ship destined for Seattle and then moved by train to desolate camps where they were held for the duration of the war.
Amidst this furor, a decision was made to hold a special graduation ceremony for Juneau High School’s 1942 Valedictorian, John Tanaka. Subsequently, when his class graduated in June, 1942, an empty, wooden folding chair was left to symbolize John’s absence, and by extension, an entire community of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Marie Darlin, who witnessed the graduation, recalls this event as, “One of the saddest things that ever happened in Juneau.”
When Shonosuke Tanaka, John’s father, returned to Juneau after the war, Katsutaro Komatsubara and Sam Taguchi became partners in the City Cafe. Local businessmen extended them credit, the bank gave them a loan, and they took up their lives anew. Loyal customers, who had frequented the cafe for 34 years before the internment, returned. As Mr. Tanaka put it, “They all came back!” The City Cafe once again became a meeting place for fishermen, governors, local business people, legislators, families, and friends.
The Empty Chair Memorial
The Empty Chair Committee is establishing a memorial to honor those Juneau Japanese who were forcibly removed during the war as well as to recognize the loyal Juneau friends who welcomed them home and helped them pick up their lives again. This project is sponsored by members of the Juneau High School Class of 1958 and their friends, with the support of the Juneau community.
The Empty Chair Memorial will take the form of a bronze folding chair of the era at one and a half times normal scale. As the sculptor, Peter Reiquam describes it, “The increased size of the chair gives it greater presence and stature and invites interaction from visitors to the park. Sitting on the over-sized chair gives the viewer an opportunity to reflect on the history and the people the sculpture is intended to memorialize.”
The memorial will be installed on a bronzed base of simulated floorboards, similar to the gymnasium floor where the graduation ceremony took place. Etched onto the surface of the floorboards will be a narrative describing the event; the Japanese symbol for memory, recollection and remembranc; a title commemorating this project as a World War II memorial to the Japanese and Japanese-Americans who were taken from their Alaskan homes; and the names of all the internees. The Fukuyama, Taguchi, Komatsubara, Kito, Kanazawa, Akagi and Tanaka families will be among those remembered.
Other Significant Information
- The Juneau Historical Resource Committee endorsed the project on May 2, 2012.
- The Juneau School District Superintendent approved the project in July of 2012.
- The Juneau Parks and Recreation Advisory Board gave their endorsement for the memorial to be placed at Capital School Park because of its connection to The Empty Chair event on August 7, 2012.
- Director of the City Museum, Jane Lindsey, has offered to host a reception when the memorial is dedicated and will work with the Empty Chair Committee on an educational component.
- Jim Williams, owner of North Pacific Erectors, has volunteered to ship and place the memorial.
- The fundraising goal is $40,000.
- The Juneau Community Foundation will administer all fundraising for the project. They can be contacted at http://www. juneaucf.org.
- Seattle artist, Peter Reiquam designed the memorial.
- Project completion is scheduled for the spring of 2014.
- Complete the memorial contract with the artist.
- Finalize the site at Capital School Park.