With art and new cherry trees, exiled students to be honored

A collaboration between Mukai Farm & Garden, VISD and the Vashon Heritage Museum will commemorate and honor the 30 VISD students who were forcibly removed from their homes on May 16, 1942.

“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. 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.”

With these words in March 1932, Mr. Ujiro Nishiyori, the President of Vashon Island’s Japanese Society, gifted 100 cherry trees to be planted on the Vashon High School (VHS) grounds as a sign of appreciation for the education the Japanese American community enjoyed on Vashon. Throughout the years, as the new buildings were built and old buildings were torn down, the cherry trees slowly but surely dwindled in their numbers. Now, just four trees remain on the campus.

But now, thanks to collaboration and partnership between Mukai Farm & Garden, the Vashon Island School District (VISD), and the Vashon Heritage Museum, an interpretative sign is being installed on the VISD campus to commemorate and honor the 30 VISD students who were forcibly removed from their homes on May 16, 1942.

What’s more, the Vashon Fruit Club is now in the midst of a process that will ultimately return up to 100 new cherry trees to the school grounds.

The interpretative sign will be previewed at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 15, during Mukai Farm & Garden’s Day of Exile 80th anniversary — an event that will honor the high school students whose lives were uprooted and traumatized in the wake of Executive Order 9066. This order, signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, authorized the exile and imprisonment of Japanese Americans along the west coast.

“In making this sign, we want the students at Vashon High School, in particular, and the rest of the community who views it to know that the children who were exiled had names,” said Friends of Mukai Board President Rita Brogan. “We worked hard to make this as personal as possible.”

A sign years in the making

The groundwork and research for the sign were laid several years ago during the Vashon Heritage Museum’s 2018 special exhibit “Joy and Heartache: Japanese Americans on Vashon,” which chronicled the evolution of the Japanese American presence on Vashon Island, from immigration in the early 20th century, through the trauma of World War II incarceration, their recovery, and beyond.

Part of the exhibit involved identifying the names of the Japanese American students in the classes of 1942-45, whose lives were disrupted by Executive Order 9066. John Stanton, the Chief Technology Officer at VISD and one of the drivers of the sign project, said it seemed important to create a sign to honor and remember Vashon’s Japanese American community and the few cherry trees remaining.

In 2021, the district was awarded grant funding through the Kip Tokuda Washington Civil Liberties Public Education Program and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and embarked on finding an artist to help create the sign. The district eventually chose Chantal Uto, who was born in Japan and grew up on Vashon. Chantal is an alumna of Vashon High School, and also volunteers for Mukai Farm & Garden.

As Uto spent hours at the Heritage Museum, studying old yearbooks and annuals, taking pictures of the students, and connecting with Vashon’s past, she began to realize how expansive and involved the Japanese American community was on Vashon.

“I knew there was a history of Japanese people on Vashon, but I never had faces to put to it,” said Uto. “Because so few of the individuals removed came back, there is an erasure of that history, of sorts. Few people, outside of me or maybe someone who is writing a book, are going to take the time to sit down in a history museum and look through old yearbooks.”

Perusing the old class photos helped Uto find the inspiration needed for the interpretive sign. The finished product, which measures two feet by six feet, features digitally illustrated photos of the 16 students forcibly removed from VHS, almost in a graphic novel style, Uto explains, to reflect the primary audience of the sign–high school students.

The signage will be installed near one of the few remaining trees standing, visible from the sidewalk on the west side of the high school campus.

For many of those involved in the project, it is easy to cite the importance of creating and remembering the lives of the students removed because of Executive Order 9066. Considering the state of Washington’s large Japanese American population, it is a painful piece of history that is impossible to ignore.

Vashon Heritage Museum Board President Bruce Haulman noted that the current political climate places even greater importance on recognizing the original gift of the 100 cherry trees as well as the lives of the students and families who were uprooted during World War II, emphasizing their rich history and contributions to the Vashon community throughout the decades.

“Particularly at this time in the world when we see what is going on with refugees, borders, and the rise of white supremacy and nationalism all around the world, we need to remember this country was built on bringing diverse people in,” said Haulman. “Back then, the Japanese American community and the Vashon community recognized that. We all need to recognize that line of thinking is still who we are today as a community.”

Incorporating current students

Part of the grant focused on involving students in researching the history of the Japanese American students who were interned. For U.S. history teacher Heather Miller, it was the perfect chance for her students to learn historical researching skills and engage in a different type of learning.

With the help of Haulman, Miller shared the names of the 30 pupils and tasked her students with constructing short biographies.

“The students quickly had to discover how to engage in research of a real person in the community,” said Miller. “It was a new challenge because oftentimes they work from established sources. This project asked them to find information on their own.”

Using historical materials gathered by Haulman, the students waded through a variety of historical documents, including census data, draft cards for those who entered the military, city records, internment camp records, and many more, to paint a picture of who these students were, what their lives were like, and how their lives changed after internment.

“One day we accessed the Heritage Museum’s yearbooks from the 1930s and 40s, and the students spent ages flipping through them, seeing what was the same, what was different, comparing the fight song, et cetera,” said Miller. “I think being able to identify places on the island, recognizing where these students lived, made a much more tangible connection than if they were just studying something that happened across the United States.”

Another cherry tree gift for the island, 80 years later

In the spirit of Nishiyori’s original gift, VISD used part of the OSPI grant to fund the purchase of 100 cherry tree rootstocks and collaborated with Emily MacRae and Laure Jansen of the Vashon Fruit Club in order to graft them with samples from the remaining cherry trees on campus.

Because of the stewardship and hard work of MacRae and Jansen, these new trees will help continue the tradition and bring renewed visibility to the long history of Japanese American contributions to the Vashon community.

MacRae, the orchard manager of the Fruit Club’s Dr. Bob Norton Memorial Orchard, was excited to steward the young cherry trees and educate the community of Vashon Island at the same time.

“It is important for us, as a democratic society, to acknowledge the things we can be proud of, but most importantly the things we aren’t proud of,” said MacRae. “If this can help raise awareness of the Japanese American Vashon citizens who were incarcerated and help confront that history, I’m all for it.”

The young cherry trees will be tended by volunteers and members of the Vashon Island Fruit Club, and will eventually be permanently transplanted once they are mature.