Annual Conference: Opening Worship Remembers Japanese-American Internment in Puyallup

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Photos by Jesse N. Love

By Scott Klepach and Pastor Karen Yokota

Early Friday morning the people gathering into the worship area before opening worship were greeted  with peppy jazz tunes. The Minidoka Swing Band, donning black clothing and red vests, performed lively songs such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Moonlight Serenade” for a 30-minute set.

As festive as the start of the day was, the band – and the ensuing service — reminded some Japanese-Americans in the audience of incarceration in the internment camps in WWII.

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Bob Watanabe, a Seattle resident, said the morning worship brought back the nostalgia of his time in Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Wash. While he spent about six months in Camp Harmony, Watanabe was then sent to the permanent Minidoka camp in Idaho.

“It brought back memories,” he said, of when there was a swing band in Camp Harmony, which “tried to copy Glenn Miller a lot and well-known bands every Saturday night.”

“What an amazing service,” says Alice Uchida, a Whitney Memorial UMC member. “The service was well put together tying in the education around Camp Harmony and the importance of covenant. I was moved by the service. And the Minidoka Band — that swing music brought back so many memories for me.”

Many still do not know much about this part of U.S. history. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered a forced removal of all Japanese-Americans living west of the Cascade mountains and all along the West Coast.

People were given a week’s notice and were forced to live in internment camps at various American locations during WWII, including Camp Harmony in Puyallup.

Choichi Shimizu from Blaine Memorial UMC (Seattle) read a chapter out of his newly penned book, “Cho’s Story."
Choichi Shimizu from Blaine Memorial UMC (Seattle) read a chapter out of his newly penned book, “Cho’s Story.”

In light of this history, the opening worship for this year’s Annual Conference on June 20 — held at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup — recognized those who were incarcerated. Some were able to share their stories.

We heard from two people who were personally incarcerated in Camp Harmony and later went to Minidoka. Suma Yagi read aloud her original poem about solitude and lack of privacy in the camp during the service. Choichi Shimizu from Blaine Memorial UMC (Seattle) read a chapter out of his newly penned book, “Cho’s Story.”

Cho read a chapter out of his book about his personal experience at Camp Harmony. “Our home was in Area D which, today, is the Blue Parking Lot at the fairgrounds,” says Shimizu.

The Blue Lot happens to be the same lot that Conference attendees are parking their cars and entering in and out of the gates.

Bishop Grant Hagiya compared this story with the journey of The United Methodist Church as a play having three acts – mirroring the theme of Annual Conference — and how we must examine where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going as a church.

The Rev. Derek Nakano of Blaine Memorial bought this narrative together during communion when he talked about the incarceration of the past. Nakano referred to Blaine’s story, and how when the Japanese were forcibly removed out of their homes they had to give up their property, which they entrusted to Edward Blaine. He kept that land for them. Nakano connected this story with how we are all in covenant together, in our anger, struggles and joys.

Suma Yagi read aloud her original poem about solitude and lack of privacy in the camp during the service.
Suma Yagi read aloud her original poem about solitude and lack of privacy in the camp during the service.

There are 3,000 colored cranes adorn that are hanging from the altar space. They were made by the three churches that are known congregations of people of Japanese-American ancestry. These churches are Blaine Memorial UMC (Seattle), Highland Park (Spokane), Whitney Memorial UMC (Puyallup). The crane is a symbol of long life as an old Japanese folklore believes that the crane lives for 1,000 years. The crane is also a symbol of happiness, good luck and peace.

All of the communion servers were Japanese-Americans who were interned in one of the 10 oncentration camps. A number of others interned were present during opening worship.

Watanabe’s daughter, Linda Watanabe, was impressed by the opening worship and presentation.

“It was inspirational and entertaining, and made you want to stay awake,” she said. “The bishop is a dynamic speaker.”

The worship also left an impression on some of the youth in attendance. Amanda Tobey, a youth delegate from Gig Harbor United Methodist Church, said she appreciated the variety of Japanese-American speakers.

The Rev. Derek Nakano of Blaine Memorial UMC.
The Rev. Derek Nakano of Blaine Memorial UMC.

“I liked hearing the perspectives of all the people who were there,” said Tobey. “You don’t often get that in history classes.”

Cho is the main speaker at the inter-ethnic dinner on Saturday, and he will be extending the conversation further to reveal what the internment camps were like.

Displays with photos and other information about the internment camps are available at the conference. There will be an exhibit Saturday, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. with guest living artist, Mizu Sugimura, who will share her work inspired by the WWII era.

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