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List of all 125,000-plus WWII Japanese American internment detainees nears completion

  • March 17, 2022
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

LOS ANGELES (Mainichi) — A list of the names of all Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during the Pacific War after being considered “enemy aliens” in the United States is set to be completed as early as this coming June, finalizing the exact number of victims of the segregation policy for the first time.


The roster project is led by American researcher Duncan Williams, 52, chair of the University of Southern California’s School of Religion and a Soto Zen Buddhist priest born in Japan.


While the U.S. government retains the list of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during the war, many of the names on the list are spelt wrong or contain blurred characters.


A 12-member team led by Williams collected public records such as the national census, birth certificates and draft cards from those days, and checked them against the names of over 110,000 people on the U.S. government’s list, thereby correcting data in it.


Williams said with a wry smile, “The work was much harder than I’d expected. I can see why no one else had done this before.”


After the war broke out between Japan and the U.S. following the former’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 (Dec. 8, 1941, Japan time), Japanese Americans, primarily influential figures, were detained in many parts of the U.S. as they were deemed likely to cooperate with the Japanese military. Then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, which authorized the U.S. military to evict residents in specific regions. As a result, all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and in southern Arizona were forcibly relocated to internment camps.


It was not until 1988 that the U.S. government officially apologized for the internment policy, when then President Ronald Reagan admitted it was a grave mistake. His administration paid each survivor $20,000 (about 2.3 million yen at the current rate) in compensation.


Until now, the number of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps has been put at “more than 120,000.” According to Williams, the U.S. government produced a list of detainees held at 10 major internment camps, but those who died at detention facilities before being sent to those camps or those who were born inside the camps were not included on the list. For the upcoming list, the names of 125,000-plus internees are expected to appear in the order of their birth date.


Once completed, the new name list will be put on public display at a special exhibition titled “Faith and the Japanese American World War II Incarceration” that is underway at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The list will also be included on the new website “Ireizo,” and will be projected onto the side of a 4.6-meter-high, five-ringed tower named “Ireihi” to be erected on the museum’s premises in 2025.


According to Williams, these plans were inspired by the Buddhist practice of placing books containing the names and other information on deceased individuals at temples and Buddhist altars.


Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and British father, Williams grew up in a family with mixed nationalities, languages and religions. His mother was a Buddhist and father a Christian. From his mid-teens, Williams started to ask himself, “Who am I?” He eventually grew interested in Buddhism and became a Buddhist priest when he was 20. He received training at Kotakuji temple of the Soto sect in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and was given the priest name “Ryuken.” He earned a Ph.D. in religion at Harvard Graduate School.


Behind the name list project lies Williams’s belief that “recording the names of internees correctly will lead to not only protecting their dignity but also preventing the negative aspect of American history from being swept under the rug, and keeping the lessons learned from it alive.”


About the surging hate crime incidents targeting Asian Americans, Williams said, “Unless people keep reminding themselves that each and every person is important, tragedies in which certain races or whole groups are considered enemies or threats could happen anytime.”


(Japanese original by Hojin Fukunaga, Los Angeles Bureau)

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