Uncover the inspiring story behind the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial and discover its significance in American history and inspiration for the future.
Bainbridge Island is a beacon of resilience and remembrance in the shadows of an unsettling chapter in American history. On this small island, nestled in the serene waters of Puget Sound, WA, you will find the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial (BIJAEMA). This powerful memorial not only tells the story of the Japanese-American community’s endurance during dark times but also serves as a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It is also a testament to the kindness of those who call Bainbridge Island home.
I had no idea of the history of Japanese-Americans on Bainbridge Island until my visit. BIJAEMA is a moving testament to the resilience of people. It is also a stark reminder of what prejudice can do when left unchecked.
The Japanese Heritage on Bainbridge Island
When Captain George Vancouver sailed into Puget Sound in 1792, he was as inspired by the beautiful waters and tall Douglas fir forests as were the Suquamish people who had long called this region home. The Europeans arrived on Bainbridge Island and brought industry, specifically lumber. The deep-water harbors at Port Blakely quickly became the world’s largest lumber mill.
Port Blakely Mill and lumberyard. Photo courtesy Bainbridge Island Historical Society, credit John E. Kelly, III
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The lumber industry also brought immigrants to work in the mills. Scandinavians, Japanese, Pacific Islanders, and African Americans flocked to the area for lumber jobs. After World War I, the Port Blakely mill closed. The Japanese immigrants quickly returned to their roots—farming, fishing, and shopkeeping.
After the lumber industry died down, Bainbridge Island became a hub of agricultural innovation. The Japanese-American farmers were at the forefront of a burgeoning strawberry industry.
Visitor’s Tip: One of the best ways to understand the history of Bainbridge Island is with a visit to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. This small museum—once a schoolhouse—expertly tells the history of the cultures that came together on this island.
As farmers, fishermen, and shop owners, they formed close-knit networks. They lived and worked alongside their neighbors—the native Suquamish people and other immigrants who came to work in the area.
Akio Suyematsu is the lone Bainbridge Nikkei who farmed into the twenty-first century. Photo courtesy Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community
Yet, the dark cloud of war would soon cast its shadow over the tight-knit community, threatening to tear apart the bonds that had been painstakingly woven together.
Note: Nikkei (used in the photo above) refers to people of Japanese ancestry, including first-generation immigrants (Issei), their immediate descendants (Nisei), and all later generations. Nikkei is usually used to refer to the Japanese American citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
War Tears a Community Apart
In 1942, about 275 Japanese residents lived on Bainbridge Island. The government’s decision to forcibly relocate Japanese Americans during World War II disrupted their lives and shattered the harmony they had worked so hard to establish.
With the implementation of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, Japanese-American residents on Bainbridge Island—including those born on US soil—were forced to relinquish their beloved farms, leaving behind everything they owned. They had six days to pack what belongings they could carry and find someone to tend to what they left behind. It was a heart-wrenching decision that tore families apart and uprooted their lives, forever altering the landscape of their community.
On March 30, 1942, 227 Bainbridge Island residents boarded a ferry at the Eagledale dock and became the first Americans to enter the concentration camps. The Bainbridge Island folks left the lush, wooded shores of the Pacific Northwest and found themselves in Manzanar’s arid, high desert, about 225 miles north of Los Angeles.
Japanese Americans evacuated Bainbridge Island for internment camps on March 30, 1942. Photo courtesy MOHAI
Note: The other Japanese-American residents who did not board the ferry as one of the 227 on March 30, 1942, were either imprisoned earlier or were serving in the US military, fighting for the country that imprisoned their families.
The residents spent more than three years imprisoned in the desert, wondering if they would have lives to return to on Bainbridge Island. When they returned, many were fortunate enough to have loyal friends and neighbors who were there to welcome them home.
Creating a Memorial
After they returned home from Manzanar, the Japanese-American community knew it had to do something to preserve the memory of what had happened. In 2002, then 95-year-old Fumiko Hayashida, the oldest survivor of Manzanar, testified before Congress. She supported a bill directing the National Park Service to set aside the old Eagledale dock area as a memorial.
After the study, Congress voted in 2008 to include the site as part of the Minidoka National Historic Site. Through community support and fundraising efforts, a memorial wall was dedicated in 2011, and the departure deck opened in 2021.
A Private Tour
I toured the site with Lilly Kodama, a Bainbridge Island native born in 1935. At age 7, she was one of the 227 who marched down the street and boarded the ferry headed to Manzanar. She remembers feeling excited at first. Her mother told her they would get to ride a ferry and a train. She thought they were going on vacation.
Lilly Kodama at the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Lilly explained that the soldiers helped them, and she thought it was a grand adventure to ride a train and eat meals onboard. She explained that she grew tired of this adventure after a while. She was ready to go home. Alas, that wasn’t to happen for a long time. Lilly and her family spent more than three years imprisoned, first at Manzanar and then in Minidoka, in Idaho.
Lilly remained upbeat and never angry as she walked me through the site. She spoke of the compassion of the soldiers. As we explored the site, she pointed out photos of her walking with her grandmother as her mother carried Lilly’s little brother. Lilly says they were among the lucky ones. They returned to a mostly intact farm, thanks to their Bainbridge Island neighbors who cared for it during the war. After retiring as a nurse, Lilly and her husband returned to Bainbridge Island, and she has been active in preserving the Japanese-American history in the region.
Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Preserving Japanese-American History: Let It Not Happen Again
Today, the memorial wall is a poignant reminder of the importance of inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. The memorial is a testament to resilience and a catalyst for change, inspiring us to preserve Japanese-American history and its enduring legacy.
The memorial’s motto says it all: Nidoto Nai Yoni—Let It Not Happen Again. The memorial helps ensure we never forget the stories and that future generations can learn from and be inspired by these experiences. I recommend walking with a docent through the site. It paints a vivid picture of the Japanese-Americans’ struggles and triumphs, capturing the essence of their strength in the face of adversity.
Departure Deck at Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial marks where passengers boarded the ferry. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
While the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices inflicted on the Japanese-American community, it also left me with a feeling of hope.
By preserving Japanese-American history, we honor the individuals who endured unimaginable hardships. It also gives us a greater understanding of the broader issues surrounding racial discrimination and the importance of social justice. We continue to learn and grow by preserving this history, constantly striving to create a more inclusive and compassionate society.
Lessons for the Future
One crucial lesson that Japanese-Americans’ resilience teaches us is the power of community and mutual support. Despite the discrimination and hostility they faced, Japanese-Americans banded together, forming tight-knit communities that provided emotional and practical support. These communities became a source of strength, resilience, and hope during dark times.
Additionally, the resilience of Japanese-Americans teaches us the significance of cultural preservation. We see the importance of cherishing and preserving our cultural heritage, as it enriches our lives and strengthens our sense of self and belonging.
The last glimpse of home the Japanese-American residents would have had as they looked back just before boarding the ferry bound for Seattle and on to Manzanar. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Perhaps most significantly, the experiences of Japanese Americans encourage us to recognize the dangers of prejudice and to actively combat systemic discrimination. The internment of Japanese Americans was fueled by fear, prejudice, and a failure to uphold the principles of justice and equality. By reflecting on this dark period in history, we see the consequences of allowing prejudice and discrimination to go unchallenged. It reminds us that we must actively dismantle oppressive systems and promote inclusivity and fairness for all.
In exploring the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial, you discover a powerful narrative that preserves Japanese-American history and offers valuable insights into resilience in the face of adversity.
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Visiting the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial
BIJAEMA is on Bainbridge Island’s southern shore at the entrance to Eagle Harbor. It is part of Pritchard Park, about 3.7 miles from the Ferry Terminal. The memorial is open daily from dawn to dusk, and admission is free. Planning for a visitor center is in the works, and the community is raising funds for construction.
On some occasions, docents are available to talk about the memorial, and occasionally, a park ranger is on-site to answer questions. You can arrange a guided tour of the memorial before your visit.
As I wandered past the memorial wall, reading the names and ages of those forced to leave the only homes they had ever known, I felt heartsick for this dark time in American history. And yet, it also gave me hope that despite injustice, the resilience of those who persevered is a beacon of hope.
Paper cranes hang on the memorial, symbolizing honor, good fortune, loyalty, and longevity. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial prompts us to examine our own biases and prejudices, challenging us to create a more inclusive society. It is our responsibility to take the lessons we have learned from the resilience of Japanese-Americans and apply them to our own lives. Let us strive for a future where understanding, empathy, and compassion are the guiding principles, where diversity is embraced, and where no one is excluded.
In the words of Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more to see during your visit to Bainbridge Island or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial: A Lesson for All Time