B.D. Mukai with farm workers and children at his farm in about 1915.

B.D. Mukai with farm workers and children at his farm in about 1915.

New museum exhibit will feature Japanese-American history on Vashon

The history of Japanese Americans on Vashon from 1900 to the present will be featured in a new exhibit at the Heritage Museum opening this Friday.

The realities of this portion of United States and island history are reflected in the title of the exhibit, Joy and Heartache, and will be portrayed throughout the exhibit to which more than 80 people contributed. The exhibit, which includes photos, art, artifacts and poetry, as well as online information and oral histories, encompasses farm workers and picture brides at the beginning of the 20th century, incarceration during World War II and life on Vashon for Japanese Americans today. Organizers say they want people to learn about this history and to have some empathy for what Japanese Americans endured.

“I would like people who come to the exhibit to feel something, to get a sense of what it was like for people on Vashon during all these times, including for people of Japanese ancestry today,” said Alice Larson, one of the curators.

The exhibit is divided into five timeframes: Hope, 1910 to 1920; Struggle, 1920 to 1942; Trauma, 1942 to 1945; Resilience, 1946 to 1960, and Identities, 1960 to present.

Recently, four of the show’s five curators — Larson, Bruce Haulman, Joe Okimoto and Rita Brogan — gathered at the museum, where they provided a preview of the show and the history behind it. Text and a photo montage will tell the story of the first Japanese Americans who came to Vashon: seven single men who arrived as laborers in the early 1900s. Those numbers grew, and picture brides also arrived; the new families that resulted became fully part of Vashon’s community and economy. They would go on to become the backbone of the island’s farming community during the 1920s and 1930s.

The events of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changed that and will be depicted as well, as will FBI raids two months later, when agents visited each home of Japanese Americans on Vashon and throughout the West Coast, Haulman said. In May 1942, the island’s Japanese residents, more than 120 islanders, were ordered to leave Vashon. Several of them were strawberry farmers, with ripe strawberries ready to be picked, left behind in the fields.

Those who were forced to leave were taken by train to the Pinedale Processing Center in California then to Tule Lake Relocation Camp, also in California. The exhibit will include an example of the barracks there.

“We are trying to replicate the feel of being in a prison camp in the midst of the desert,” Haulman said.

Most of Vashon’s residents were eventually sent on from that camp to others, widely dispersing the community of Japanese islanders.

Some of what occurred on Vashon while the Japanese families were gone will be depicted as well. In a situation that affected many of the families, an island sheriff had stepped forward to manage 11 of the farms that were left behind, but he did not follow through on his promises.

Also, several Japanese families were victims of arson, when two teens and a man in his early 20s, all reportedly drunk, burned down four houses, one of which was storing the belongings of several other families.

Brogan said that before the fires, members of the Remember Pearl Harbor League had come to the island from the Auburn area and leafleted, trying to recruit new members. One of the fliers instructed: “Burn them out,” she said, adding: “They weren’t that successful in recruiting people.”

Following the war, only about one-third of the residents who had been forced to leave returned.

Today on Vashon, there are about 50 island residents of Japanese ancestry, and the exhibit includes many of their photos, although Okimoto said that while they tried to locate everyone, he believes they likely missed some. The final wall of the exhibit will display current residents’ photos, and with the help of technology — scannable barcodes — each picture will be linked to a webpage sharing that family’s story.

“There will be a lot of stories of being not a white person on a white island,” Brogan said.

She noted that the Japanese-American presence on Vashon is diverse and mirrors the population of Japanese Americans nationally, particularly on the West Coast. Okimoto agreed.

“The history of Japanese Americans on Vashon is a reflection of the struggles and evolution of the community in America,” he said.

Haulman, a well known island historian who has been involved with many museum shows, says this exhibit is one of the most complex exhibits the museum has done. It has its roots in the Japanese Presence Project, which he and Larson founded in 2013 to recognize the contributions of the Japanese-American community on Vashon and the losses its members endured. They created that project after previously archiving nearly 150 years of Vashon’s census data — a project that provided a glimpse into the history of Japanese Americans on the island.

“We had a sizeable population (of Japanese Americans) at one time, and we don’t anymore. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that,’” Larson said previously in discussing that work.

Their exploration, with the support from many others involved, led to this exhibit, which they hope to share beyond the Heritage Museum. The exhibit is fully transportable, Haulman and the other curators say, and the Mukai house will become its permanent home. Part of it will likely find its way to the Land Trust, as Haulman said a collaboration is underway to tell the stories of the Matsuda and Mukai farms. Also, the curators are reaching out to see if there is interest in the exhibit from Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum and the Densho Project, which has preserved the war-time history of Japanese Americans.

Additionally, next September, a grassroots U.S.-Japan summit will convene in Seattle. Several communities were named host communities, including Vashon. Those guests are expected to tour the exhibit as well, Brogan noted.

The history of Japanese Americans will be featured in other ways coming up. The Voice of Vashon is planning on producing two 30-minute documentaries about Japanese Americans on Vashon; those will likely be aired at the Vashon Theatre later this year, Haulman said. On May 3, through the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau, Mayumi Tsutakawa will speak about the 100-year history of Japanese Americans in Washington at the Land Trust Building.

But first, this exhibit will open this Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. with a short program scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The curators say it carries a timely message.

“People were denied their civil rights,” Brogan said. “We were considered the other, less than human. That is what is happening now.”

Haulman agreed.

“When you have a president who demonizes immigrants and wants to build a wall, this is a story that needs to be heard.”

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