[Reprinted with updates from May 2003, Volume 53, Issue 5, Nisei Veterans Committee Newsletter]
An imposing 21-foot column of rainbow granite quarried from Cold Spring, Minnesota stands quietly at the north end of Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. An American shield with the outline of breadfruit and pomegranates, symbolic of the South Pacific and Italy, form its crown.
Carved into the column are the names of 56 American soldiers of Japanese ancestry from Seattle and vicinity who gave their lives during World War II. Etched above are the names of some of their major campaigns: Rome, Arno, North Apennines, Po Valley, Rhineland, Naples, Foggia, Ryukyus, Leyte, India, Burma, the Aleutian Islands and Guadalcanal.
Beneath is an inscription of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ode to Americanism:
Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart;
Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.
This is the Nisei War Memorial Monument, and it is dedicated to American soldiers of Japanese ancestry from Seattle and vicinity that died in the service of their country.
Interestingly, the dedication of this monument occurred on Memorial Day 1949, and it preceded a national Japanese American monument by more than fifty years. It was groundbreaking given the context of the times. Many individuals were just returning to the area, merely establishing roots on which to raise families. Some had come straight from the incarceration camps. None were okanemochi (wealthy). Racial bigotry, while partially dispelled by the sacrifices of the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans), was still evident in Seattle. The social and economic environment of the Japanese American community was very different from the stability we enjoy today.
The move to erect a monument was driven by concerns of returning war veterans. The U.S. Army planned to return the State of Washington Nisei War Dead. David Hirahara, Lefty Ichihara, Shiro Kashino, and Richard Setsuda were among the core leadership of the newly formed Nisei Veterans Committee.
Yoshito Fujii recalls, “It was late 1947 when Mr. Shiro Kashino, then Commander of the Nisei Veterans Committee, approached me and asked me this question, ‘Is the Japanese Community in Seattle planning to do anything for the Nisei War Dead who are coming home soon?’ His concerns touched me deeply, as I too had been thinking seriously for quite some time... I felt that something must be done to welcome home these brave young Nisei who died for their country and for us… I felt the need perhaps more keenly than anyone else because while serving as Chairman of the Community Council in the Minidoka Relocation Center, it was my painful duty to cooperate in recruiting the Nisei Volunteers… With this in mind, I felt it was my personal responsibility to appeal to the Japanese Community and launch on a community-wide expression of mutual appreciation and gratitude.”
In January of 1948, under the leadership of Yoshito Fujii and with strong involvement of the NVC, the Nisei War Memorial Committee was formed to raise the necessary funds and to organize a suitable memorial service for the returning war dead. A massive fund raising campaign took place in March of 1948. An all-out, door-to-door campaign to raise $5,000 was launched in March with volunteer solicitors covering the Japanese communities in Seattle, Thomas-Kent, Auburn, Sumner, Tacoma, Bellevue, Vashon and Bainbridge Island.
The response was tremendous, and the original goal of raising $5,000 was surpassed and doubled. The final tally showed $10,040 donated by 1,565 individuals. Most donations ranged between $1 and $5. A year later the plot on which the monument now stands was donated by Lake View Cemetery, and the Nisei War Memorial Monument was dedicated on May 30, 1949.
Today, the names of an additional nine Japanese American soldiers have been added to the memorial’s base, those who have given their lives in Korea, Vietnam and Granada. Memorial services are still held annually by the Nisei Veterans Committee and NVC Foundation each Memorial Day at Lake View Cemetery.