By Susan McCabe
For Vashon Island School District
March, 1932. It’s early spring on Vashon Island, a Thursday afternoon.
Ujiro Nishiyori, President of the island’s Japanese Society, speaks to a small crowd at the new Vashon High School about the Japanese American community’s deep appreciation for the educational advantages the community’s children have enjoyed on Vashon.
As a symbol of their appreciation, Nishiyori, on behalf of the Japanese Society, is presenting 100 blossoming cherry trees to be planted on the Vashon High School grounds.
In Japan, the cherry tree is considered the most beautiful of all the blossoms of the “Flowery Kingdom,” he tells the crowd.
“The trees, which we present today are our gift to a community which has treated us and our children as neighbors and friends rather than people of another race and country,” he says. “It is our hope that in the years to come these trees, symbol of the land of our birth, may grow and flourish, making more lovely our Vashon Island.”
This lavish gift, while presented in a simple ceremony, was emblematic of the vital role Japanese American farmers and businesspeople had played in Vashon’s society and economy since 1907. In fact, it could be said the Japanese American farmers and innovative food processors, particularly the Mukai family, had helped to get Vashon through the Great Depression.
Vashon High School’s 1940 basketball team won the state championship with Jimmy Matsumoto as team leader. Japanese American students were leaders in the school’s honor society, tennis team, track team, baseball team, the student newspaper and student government. The island’s successful Japanese American entrepreneurs had invested significantly in the schools’ material growth over the years as well, to support all Vashon children.
Vashon’s Japanese American residents were thriving — and sharing their good fortune – despite US laws that prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens or owning land. They leased farms until they could purchase land in their American-born children’s names.
They grew berries, currants, vegetables, flowers, chickens, eggs, stone fruit, apples, and wheat, despite discrimination at the public markets and from wholesalers. The Mukai family invented a revolutionary process of preserving and shipping strawberries that was implemented nationwide in the 1920s. The island’s Japanese Americans shared their success by contributing significantly to the building of the first island high school and by funding libraries and extracurricular activities at the island grammar schools. They were truly living on the island as “neighbors and friends rather than people of another race and country.”
Then came May 16, 1942.
Imagine it’s your senior year at Vashon High School (VHS). You and your best friend have grown up together, attended Vashon schools together. You’re making college plans together, filled with excitement for your future. Then, one day, almost without warning you are arrested for your race and taken away to a concentration camp of unknown location. Your life is forever scarred. And all your best friend gets is a furtive goodbye.
That is the experience Vashon’s Japanese American students had when they were exiled and imprisoned by the U.S. Government and sent to concentration camps scattered from Arizona to Idaho and Arkansas. Most never returned to the island. Daigo Tagami was to be the valedictorian for Vashon’s class of 1942, but he was imprisoned on that day in May, just two weeks before he was to speak at the scheduled high school graduation ceremony. One of many lives interrupted.
Anti-Japanese hysteria had seized the national stage after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared all Japanese nationals “enemy aliens.” California Attorney General Earl Warren, later U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, testified before a House committee that Japanese were strategically poised for “sabotage, collaboration and spying” — despite the fact that there were no verified reports of such activity.
Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066 that mandated the removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States. The Western Defense Command defined the Pacific Coast Exclusion Zone and developed the plans that ultimately removed all persons of Japanese descent from the zone. The images of Japanese persons, wearing tags, lined up in Seattle to board trains to the temporary prisons are not unlike those lines of Jews captured and sent to death camps all over Europe led by Nazi Germany.
In a matter of weeks, an entire community of Vashon Islanders was gone — erased by mania turned into government edict. The cherry trees at Vashon High School stood in memory of joyous friendships and a community enriched by Japanese culture.
Japanese internment lasted a brutal four years until the end of WWII. Only about a third of Vashon’s Japanese community members returned to the island.
Over the decades since, Vashon has built several new high schools on the campus grounds, losing most of the cherry trees to expansion. Only three remain as clear emblems of the other Japanese symbolism attached to the cherry tree – that of the ephemeral nature of life. Mukai Farm & Garden president, Rita Brogan, puts it this way: “The cherry tree represents beauty and strength, but the beauty of its blossoms is fleeting and temporary.”
Brogan and Vashon historian Bruce Haulman are working with VHS Technical Director John Stanton to revitalize the message of the cherry trees at VHS. Brogan and Haulman are developing an interpretive sign for placement on the high school grounds that will tell part of the story of the trees. Stanton is working with VHS Principal Danny Rock to create something larger inside the school building to remind students of the importance of vigilance around racial equity.
Stanton said his aim is to connect this story to a future that’s always in question.
“Some of the things we’ve taken for granted aren’t set in stone,” he said. “They have to be contested again and again, and we want our students to think critically about those things.”
In the face of extremism these days, the story of the cherry trees at VHS can help islanders recognize how fragile our society can be.
Haulman also brought that point home.
“Our great, harmonious community was open and mutually beneficial, and it was gone in a matter of two days, he said. “Unimaginable! Social structures are fragile and require eternal vigilance.”
Community is a living work in progress.
“We’re in a moment where we’re ready to listen,” said Stanton. “These trees can be a symbol of the aspiration of how we wish to live.”
At 1 p.m. Sunday, May 16, Friends of Mukai will commemorate the Day of Exile with an event at Mukai Farm & Garden at 18017 107th S.E. The public is welcome to attend, but to assist with planning, please register for the event at forms.gle/P92Nkt1zLHV2CP7D9. Those who cannot attend in person will be able to see the ceremony on Mukai’s Facebook live page.