When my grandmother, Chiyoko Yamashita, was 19-years-old, she was sent to the Gila River, Arizona with her parents and 4 siblings. I grew up listening to my grandma (known as “Grandma Chokes” to those who watch my stories on Instagram) talk about life at camp. It was commonplace to hear about Executive Order 9066, packing belongings into one suit case, and leaving everything behind.
For many of us JAs, this is a story we’re intimately familiar with and in many ways, it defines our family and cultural history. So when my family heard there was a new exhibit that sought to honor those who were incarcerated during World War II, we knew we wanted to participate.
What is the Ireichō?
“Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration is a multi-faceted project to address the erasure of the identities of individuals of Japanese ancestry who experienced wartime incarceration and to expand the concept of what monument is through three distinct, interlinking elements: a sacred book of names as a monument (Ireichō), a website as a monument (Ireizō), and light sculptures as monuments (Ireihi).”
Yes, that is a direct quote from the website. I tried to summarize it myself but I couldn’t come up with anything as poignant as “erasure of…identities.”
In my own words, the Ireichō itself is a huge book that compiles the names of over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated during WWII. To my knowledge, it’s the first of its kind. And while the book acts as a historical source, it dually serves as a piece of art. The pages of the Ireichō are actually made from soil samples collected from seventy-five former incarceration sites all across the United States. (In the pictures that list the incarceration sites, you can see small containers above the katakana; those are also soil samples taken from each camp.)
Stamping the Ireichō
On February 11, 2023 – almost 61 years to the date after Executive Order 9066 was issued – my family made our way to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo. Shortly after we arrived, we were ushered into a small room the size of a long hallway. Situated dead center was the Ireichō.
A research assistant opened the book to the page that displayed my Grandma Chokes’ name. She then instructed Grandma Chokes to place the blue-inked hanko (Japanese stamp) below her name. I followed suit, followed by my mom, aunt, and husband. When we were done, five small, blue circles bordered my Grandma Chokes’ name. We repeated the process for my Grandma Eiko and a few others as well. And that was that. Within 20 minutes, we were done.
Who can stamp the Ireichō?
Anyone is welcome to stamp the Ireichō. Though most people who provide a stamp are survivors or relatives of incarcerees, you certainly do not have to be.
In fact, when we arrived the research assistant asked if we would be willing to stamp the names of other incarcerees as well. Many of the individuals who were older when they were incarcerated have been deceased for decades and even their descendants have since passed. It is the project’s goal to have a stamp next to every name to honor and remember those were wrongfully incarcerated.
How can I stamp the Ireichō (AKA logistics)?
The Ireichō is located the Japanese American National Museum (100 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012) and will be there until September 24, 2023. Reservations are required and can be made here. I wanted to go with my family on a weekend so we had to book about 2-3 months in advance. The exhibition room itself is on the smaller side so they only allow up to 6 people per visit. You can also only stamp up to 6 names so if you have a lot of family members who were incarcerated, you may have to make multiple reservations. The stamping itself is free but if you want to visit the museum afterwards, you’ll have to pay the entry fee.
What should I do to prepare for my visit?
My goal was to place a stamp next to both of my grandmother’s names. When I got to JANM, the research assistant asked for each incarceree’s name, date of birth, and incarceration location. (They need this information to locate the page in which the incarceree’s name appears.) Luckily Grandma Chokes is incredibly sharp for her age and was able to provide that information for herself. However I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know all of the answers for my father’s late mother, my Grandma Eiko Iida. I quickly called my dad who filled in the blanks. But when I provided the information to the research assistant, she couldn’t find her in the book. That’s when Grandma Chokes said, “You know, they probably can’t find her because you told them to search for Eiko Iida. But she wasn’t Eiko Iida when she was in camp.” My 100-year-old grandma is 100x smarter than I am. So again, I called my dad and asked for Grandma Eiko’s maiden name. Once I provide the information for Eiko Nobuyama, they located the page right away.
TL;DR: Make sure you have the incarceree’s name (maiden name, if married), date of birth, and incarceration locate.
Why should I stamp the Ireichō?
From a practical perspective, visiting the Ireichō has significant historical value. If you find that a family member’s name is misspelled or if their birth year is inaccurate (which was the case for my Grandma Chokes…unless she’s really 109), you can provide the correct information. Or if a name is simply missing, you can add it to the record.
To me personally, the importance of stamping the Ireichō has more to do with honoring my family and community. No matter how many times I ask my Grandma Chokes what it was like to be incarcerated, I will never fully grasp what she endured as a Japanese American during wartime. So to be able to acknowledge her name, as well as my Grandma Eiko’s, as survivors is incredibly special to me. As always, okage sama de.
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