Washington's Bells: Japanese American Memorial Bell

Hysteria and prejudice gripped nations on all continents during the bleak years of World War II, casting a long and dark shadow across humanity. It was a time when Americans, fighting against oppression and fanaticism, stood as standard-bearers for the inalienable rights of freedom, equality, and justice. But even when championing the greatest good, our steps faltered. 

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that sent 120,000 Americans with Japanese ancestry to internment camps. 

The justification for such an act was the perceived threat that Japanese Americans might hold greater allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, who sat squarely opposite the United States in the theatre of war that raged across the Pacific. It was also an act that ignored the decades of service the Japanese American community had given to their nation, many of whom were American citizens by birthright and had never been to the land of their ancestors.

Cpl. George Bushy, left, holds the youngest child of Shigeho Kitamoto, center, as she and her children are evacuated from Bainbridge Island, Washington. Image credit: AP via WTOP.

Despite this injustice, some 20,000 Japanese Americans fought for the U.S. during the same war, driven by an honor, loyalty, and duty to their country. It is a chapter in American history when our government let our people and our principles down, and it should not be forgotten. It is therefore most fitting that in 1988, as President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, he said, “Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment to equal justice under the law.” That spirit of apology and reconciliation led to the creation of the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II.

An apology to those who suffered civil liberties injustices 

Tucked into a triangular grotto formed by the intersections of Louisiana Ave., New Jersey Ave., and D St. NW (adjacent to the U.S. Capitol and Union Station), an oasis of tranquility invites the passerby to stop and reflect in the elegant solitude of dimensional granite and sensitive landscaping. The memorial was designed by Davis Buckley Architects (whose D.C. work includes the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art) and commissioned by the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation to commemorate the patriotism of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, D.C.

An undulating stone façade surrounds a pool of still water which is punctuated by five monolithic boulders of Minnesota granite, representing the generations of Japanese Americans affected by the incarceration. Across the surfaces are engraved poignant quotations on the burden of injustice, the names of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war, and the names of the ten camps in which Japanese Americans were interred. These engravings pay tribute to the members of the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Military Intelligence Service, and other units who fought with conspicuous bravery. The entire arrangement creates a dynamic space of past and future, confinement and release.

Engraving at the memorial of a partial quote from President Ronald W. Reagan. The memorial is the only one in D.C., and perhaps the country, to contain an apology.

Crowned by cranes

Rising from the center of the memorial is a 14-foot sculpture by artist Nina Akamu, a third generation Japanese American, depicting a pair of golden cranes. Their wings and bodies press closely against each other, evoking the communal support of interred Japanese Americans, while a ghastly ribbon of barbed wire entwines them together. It is a meditation on both the corporeal and spiritual entanglement of Japanese Americans during the war.

Visible from beyond the enclave of the memorial, the cranes symbolize struggle through restriction (their beaks tug at the wire binding) and the eventual emergence to freedom. Viewed from behind, the cranes take on the shape of a torch – a potent symbol of liberty and the insignia of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The pair perch on a rough-cut column of green Vermont marble. 

Let freedom ring

Stretched across a length of granite that sweeps upward from the reflecting pool is an 18-foot long, 8-inch diameter tubular bell created by sound artist Paul Matisse (whose work includes “The Olympic Bell” for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, among others). The bell, crafted in aluminum and cradled in two bronze arms, was dedicated in June 2001 and tuned to resemble a Japanese call to prayer.

Visitors to the memorial are invited to sound the bell by pressing a bronze lever set into the railing. This action lifts the bell hammer, which then falls to produce a deep, solemn tone that resonates throughout the site. Unfortunately, this mechanism is currently rendered inoperable, but plans are afoot to set the bell ringing again. Since when has the National Bell Festival stood by when a bell hangs silent? Each toll is a reminder of the sacrifice of Japanese American soldiers and citizens who upheld American values of freedom and tolerance.

Visitors to the memorial sound the tubular bell. Image credit: Tim Evanson.

Want to visit the memorial?

The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II has been managed by the National Park Service since 2002, when ownership was turned over to the federal government. It is open to the public year-round, forming part of the sprawling National Mall complex at the heart of Washington, D.C. The National Japanese American Memorial Foundation continues to produce educational programming and events at the memorial. 

Japanese Americans fought not only the enemy, but also prejudice. Visitors to the memorial are encouraged to touch the wing of the central crane sculpture as a meaningful reminder of each citizen’s responsibility to hold themselves and the government accountable to our shared democratic tenets and civil rights.