October 29, 2022

An Interview with Duncan Ryūken Williams

About His Efforts to Remember Everyone

Interviewed by Leonard Chan

The Ireichō book of names at the Irei Launch Event at the Japanese American National Museum

Photograph by Kristen Murokoshi ● September 25, 2022

Duncan Ryūken Williams is a professor (USC), author (American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War), and Buddhist Priest. He and a team of workers have created the Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration project.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why no one has tried to do what you have just done – create a complete list of everyone that was incarcerated in Japanese American internment camps and government facilities during World War II. Was that what you thought too? The US government had an opportunity to do it when they passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, but chose not to complete it. What finally got you to take on this truly monumental task and why?

There have been attempts to create lists of names for particular camps, but no one, including the Office of Redress Administration (ORA) that was created to process letters of apology and redress checks to camp survivors after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, has managed to create a comprehensive list of all persons of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during WWII.

The barrier to fully counting everyone has been the large number of camps run by different agencies and government entities including the Department of Justice, the U.S. Army, the Wartime Civil Control Administration, and the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Other than the 10 camps run by the WRA that produced ten camp rosters that purported to account for everyone in those camps, there were at least 65 other camps that never had comprehensive rosters.

The challenge, then, has been to create rosters by layering multiple government rosters and transfer lists together with internee-created directories (often in the Japanese language) and cross-referencing them. The other challenge any team working to create a comprehensive list of names has to contend with is the notoriously poor record of government attempts to render names (especially Japanese names). It’s one thing to create a list of names; it’s another to ensure that each name is spelled correctly. Accuracy is of the utmost importance: it is difficult to imagine any consolation being afforded any person much less their friends or relatives if their name has been misremembered. This required thousands and thousands of hours of research beyond camp rosters such as the 1940 U.S. Census, birth certificates, WWII draft cards, and so forth to verify the spelling of names. Our team came up with a complex methodology to verify names so that we could increase our certainty about authoritative name renderings and believe we have achieved a names list that is over 99% accurate.

Collecting the names was just one facet of the project. Describe the three parts and how your team came up with the idea of doing the project this way.

Even if one has a names list, there is the question of how to share that list in an appropriate and reverential manner. Just like the Vietnam War Memorial in DC, the so-called Lynching Memorial in Alabama, or the National September 11 Memorial in NYC honor individuals affected by meticulously listing out names, there is power in naming those incarcerated in WWII, especially because the U.S. government forcibly removed an entire community from their homes by conflating each person with the enemy and treating the group as a national security threat just because of their race and religion. By treating persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, as an undifferentiated mass – not distinguishing between little babies and infirmed grandmothers, U.S. citizens or foreign nationals, we believe that naming each individual is a way for our nation to repair the long history of viewing Asians as un-American or even anti-American and thereby excluding a community from American belonging that begins with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and continues to more recent animus and violence against persons of Asian heritage as perpetually foreign.

Irei Names Monument has three distinct, but interlinked elements: a book of names as memorial, a website, and physical installations. The term “Irei” or “consoling spirits” in the project title was originally inspired by the Manzanar Ireitō, a monument built by the incarcerated community in the Manzanar concentration camp (CA) during the first year of confinement as an act of remembrance for those who had already died and to ready the grounds for those who would ultimately never leave camp again. The concrete tower was formally dedicated by the Reverend Shinjo Nagatomi, whose calligraphy adorns it, and who would go on to officiate many ceremonies there, firm in his conviction that the chanting of scriptures followed by the recitation of names would help to bring comfort both to the spirits of those departed and to those left behind. An iconic symbol of the camps that still stands today, the Manzanar Ireitō was the first of several war-period monuments that focus on the community’s need for consolation that continues to this day.

The recent launch of the Ireichō, based on the idea of book as a monument, was conceived of by the project’s creative director Sunyoung Lee and is also inspired by the Japanese tradition of kakochō (literally, “The Book of the Past”), a book of names typically placed on a Buddhist temple altar and brought out for memorial services when the names of those to be remembered are chanted. It is through this ritual act that a community is made whole—the present recollecting the past, the past made present. Visitors will be invited to not only view the names, but also to contribute to the activation of the books by adding a Japanese hanko (stamp/seal) underneath each name in the monument book, a form of interaction inspired by a process called “kaigan” in the Japanese cultural tradition wherein an artifact becomes “enlivened” through ritual interaction.

Although traditional Buddhist book of the past records names in order of their passing, in the case of the Ireichō, the names are sequenced by the incarceree’s date of birth. Not only will this ensure that those seeking to interact with the book will be compelled to linger over unfamiliar names as they search for specific ones, the book as a whole will also serve to show the contours of a community—starting with the eldest individual who entered camp in his 90s and the youngest, a baby girl born in one of the American concentration camps just before it closed—contours that were largely obscured in the aftermath of the war when Japanese Americans were sent back to re-establish themselves and their fractured communities.

The second element of the Irei Names Monument is the Ireizō (Consoling Spirits Storehouse), an interactive website that honors all incarcerees. In Buddhism, the “Storehouse” (zō) is the repository of memory from which those who are absent can be made present again, a locus for the teachings of liberation. The website version of the monument is thus meant to serve as a long-term archive of all of the people in the sacred book—showing aspects of their lives that extend beyond their names.The third element of the Irei Names Monument—Ireihi (Spirit Consoling Structure)—is a dynamic physical reflection of the acts of remembrance and repair constituted by public engagement with the book and website monuments. The goal of the Ireihi is to encourage pilgrimages to the former sites of confinement around the nation and to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). Seven small-scale (seven feet in height) monuments—dubbed “Mini Ireihi”—will be installed on a long-term basis at various museums/interpretive centers located at the former camps, which will be free to the public during normal business hours. Additionally, the large-scale monument (fifteen feet in height) will be permanently housed at JANM. This Ireihi art installation brings together traditional Japanese cultural notions of memorial monuments with cutting-edge technology engineered by a collaborative team of artists, including ceramicists and light technology designers. We aim to light project 125,000+ that will cycle through the full set of names in approximately one hour.

Describe the difficulties that you had, the process that you used to verify the names and avoid duplications, and the steps you took to make sure you found everyone. I’ve read that you found 125,267 names, more than 99% of the people. How are you sure of this and what can you tell us about the ones that are still unknown or in doubt? Note that I’ve always been careful to write that the number was more than 110,000 because I’ve read some criticisms about the number 120,000 was unverified. I’m glad that you finally settled this.

I noticed that your list also include non-Japanese people, like Ralph Lazo. Were there others like him and did the government even track them? Did you consider leaving them out?

The main way we developed confidence in achieving a names list that is 99% accurate is not only because we believe our methodology is sound about accounting for 75 incarceration sites, but by being precise with the parameters of who should be included – namely “all persons of Japanese ancestry and their families incarcerated in the WWII era in camps run by the U.S. Army, Department of Justice, the WCCA, and the WRA.”

Museums, media outlets, scholars, and others have variously thrown around numbers like 110,000, 120,000, or 125,000, but part of the problem is that these numbers are based on different parameters of who is to be included. For example, the lower numbers only account for those on the West Coast forcibly removed in the spring and summer of 1942 under Executive Order 9066 issued in February of that year and do not include community leaders arrested under the custodial detention program in the days and weeks after Pearl Harbor nor the thousands of babies born in camp.

We use the phrase “persons of Japanese ancestry” rather than “Japanese Americans” to ensure that the Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens as residents of the United States are all included. Furthermore, we wanted to make sure that the thousands of Japanese Peruvians, Bolivians, and other Latin Americans kidnapped in those nations and forcibly placed in U.S. internment camps are also included. By using the language of “persons of Japanese ancestry,” we aim to have the broadest and most inclusive list of names, regardless of citizenship.

The wish to be inclusive extends to the project’s criterion of “and their families.” There were several hundred “mixed marriage families” (the terminology used by the U.S. government at the time) where persons of White, Black, native Alaskan, Filipino, Chinese, and other ethnic or racial backgrounds were also incarcerated together with their Japanese spouses and/or their mixed race/roots children. Though not large in number, our project decided to include such individuals. So we did include Ralph Lazo (a Mexican American teenager) – who voluntarily accompanied a Japanese family to Manzanar.

Our project scope also hinges on the word “incarcerated.” We believe we have accounted for every person who spent even a single day in any wartime incarceration camp. As such, we have a different criteria than the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which included in its eligibility criterion those who were affected by Executive Order 9066, such as the several thousand people who managed to escape to so-called free zones east of the Western Defense Command zone prior to having to report to a Civil Control Station. In a future project, we may expand the project to name those individuals as well, but for now our project is delimited to those incarcerated in the camps run by the Army, DOJ, WCCA, and WRA, which also means our project doesn’t include individuals who may have been already incarcerated prior to WWII in a state prison or federal penitentiary nor those who may have been serving in the U.S. Army prior to WWII or who lived under martial law on the Hawaiian islands if they never experienced incarceration in a confinement site under the auspices of the four agencies named above.

Finally, we use the phrasing “WWII era” so that babies born in the last months of the operation of camps like the Crystal City Internment Camp – which did not close until 1947 – are not left out of the names listing.

Ultimately, our name monument is not just a project of remembrance, but of repair – a kind of reparation initiative where we are engaging the community to alert us to anyone missing or a misspelling so that we can repair the historical record. To increasing move us from 99% to 100% accuracy of the names list, we have launched a year-long campaign to invite the community make amendments to the names list.

I took a quick look at the website with the names (ireizo.com) and found some issues with it. The search tool has problems if the name you are looking for doesn’t completely match with what you have for that person – it seems to have difficulty with near misses. Plus there’s the issue of needing to know the original names of people that may have changed it. Here are some examples: the poet, writer, and actor, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, requires his middle name, his birth year, or the camp he was at in order to find him. I think author Yoshiko Uchida has her name spelled as Yoshi Uchida in your database. I had to use the maiden name for the head of our organization. Browsing by name from the home page is difficult because you need to know the birth year of the person that you are looking for and there’s no fast way of getting to that year without going to the search tool. Being able to quickly display the names alphabetically and jump to a particular letter would be nice. At least for the people that I look for so far, the list of camps for a particular individual doesn’t include the assembly center that they were at. Are you planning on any improvements to the website? I read that it is going to be connected up with the Densho website. When is that going to happen and what are some of the additional things that we will be able to find at the ireizo.com website?

The ireizō website will formally launch in May 2023 and we have a beta version that we are constantly improving prior to the official release. For example, just last week, we went live with the search function so that one can search the site by name and filter by camp (as well as view names alphabetically within a camp) so that one no longer needs to know the birth year of an individual to find them. We are still building the more refined search functions like being able to look up individuals by aliases or alternate names. Also by the time of the official launch date, we will have completed our inputting of all the camps an individual was incarcerated in (including the WCCA Assembly Centers).

And in the fall of 2023, we will be further enhancing the website through a collaboration with Densho. Each individual plaque will be linked to additional information about the individual as found in the Densho Archives/Digital Repository, the largest collection of historic photographs, documents, newspapers, letters, oral history transcripts, and other primary source materials related to the WWII incarceration. In addition to materials from Densho itself, our joint efforts will engage the community in a campaign from 2024 onward to invite the public to enrich the stories of each individual behind each name by uploading photographs from family collections. We believe this collaboration between the Irei project and Densho will establish the Ireizō website as the authoritative resource to learn about the wartime experience through the names of those incarcerated.

During the collection of the names, you must have found much more information than what is currently given on the ireizo.com website. Are you going to have your data available in some other format like in a spreadsheet file that researchers can use? I’m particularly interested in learning when people were at certain camps, the exact location of where they were within the camp, family relationships, where they may have gone after leaving camp, lists of the people that died and were born in camp, statistical data, and much more. I’ve seen government data that has some of that information. I would very much like a central repository that you could use to find everything. Will ireizo.com become that? Are there privacy issues that you have to consider because some of the people in the list are still alive?

Since the Ireizō is primarily conceived of as a monument where we want to reverentially honor the names of those who experienced incarceration, as a general approach, we don’t want the names to be treated as if they were a dataset to be mined. In designing the site, we are therefore being careful about not displaying the names in a spreadsheet form or for statistical data visualizations per se. We are also very cognizant of privacy issues, especially since we still have thousands of camp survivors who are still with us. For example, while we have full dates of birth we only display the birth year because we don’t want our site to be a source for problematic identity theft.

So to achieve the right balance of what to display – what survivors, descendants, researchers want versus what we have information on for each person – is likely to be an ongoing discussion. For now, we are erring on the side of minimalism, but will likely release more information as we become more confident about what is appropriate to provide public access to. In the meantime, anyone can send an email through the contact page if it’s about a particular individual.

What is left to be done and is there anything we can do to help?

We have a wonderful team of researchers and volunteers that have gotten us to this stage. We can always use a few more detail-oriented volunteers to join the team on the backend to further input information (one big task is working on the alternate names column). So if there’s anyone moved to join us, we have periodic trainings in our methodology and standards.

Thank you very much Professor Williams.