In 1988, the United States government issued a formal apology to all Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The apology was part of the Civil Liberties Act, which paid out $20,000 in reparations to survivors of the camps or their living family members.
But when Duncan Ryuken Williams, director of the University of Southern California’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, went looking for records of the camps’ prisoners, he came up short: No formal list of names existed.
“I had somehow presumed … that there was a list,” Williams tells Atlas Obscura’s Line Sidonie Talla Mafotsing. In reality, “nobody really knew how many people were incarcerated.”
Williams works with the nonprofit Tsuru for Solidarity, a group of Japanese Americans advocating to end modern-day migrant detention and family separation policies. The group had hoped to chant the World War II-era names at a protest.
When Williams couldn’t find a list of names, he began the painstaking work of creating one. For three years, he worked with a dozen researchers and some 100 volunteers, compiling files from 75 incarceration camps across the country.
The result of their efforts is the Ireichō, a sacred book of more than 1,000 pages and weighing in at 25 pounds. The hand-bound work contains the names of 125,284 Japanese Americans who were forcibly detained at the camps. It’s the first-ever list of its kind.
“The project is about repairing the historical record,” Williams tells the Guardian’s Taylor Weik. “Part of the work of repair is to honor those who were unjustly incarcerated, but it’s also simply to make sure that no one is left out.”
The project’s goal is to acknowledge “the erasure of the identities of individuals of Japanese ancestry” who were incarcerated during the war, writes the museum on its website.
The internment camps opened in 1942, following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent—the majority were American citizens—to leave their homes and move to so-called “relocation centers.” The bare-bones facilities were surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards; detainees remained in the camps for up to three years while World War II ran its course.
As part of the exhibition, the creators of the Ireichō are inviting visitors to place a Japanese hanko stamp next to a name in the book to acknowledge and honor each person’s history.
“It did feel good to see my name in there,” Kanji Sahara, a survivor of the camps who viewed the book at the museum earlier this year, tells the Guardian. “It was proof that I was there, and that this happened to me.”
“With a big book like this, people will have to know what happened,” he adds. “When we know what happened, we can make sure it won’t ever happen again.”
“Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration” will be on view at the Japanese American National Museum through September 24, 2023.