Portland’s cherry Blossoms and Japanese History

Many people went to see the cherry blossoms, despite the sketchy weather.

Since I had recently been in the wintery, stick-like cherry trees at the Portland waterfront, I was keeping my ears tuned to word that the trees were in bloom. All of a sudden, posts from friends on Facebook and Instagram were popping up with cherry blossoms. It is a late spring here in Portland. Sometimes, we can be awash in blossoms and warmth in February. This year, not so much. Though the average temperature is slowly eeking into the 40s, and even 50 degrees (10 C) now and then, I saw snow at my house over the weekend, and Pedro and I were out in Troutdale, Oregon on Sunday where there were several inches of snow. Spring is determined to take her sweet time this year.

It all means that THIS year, in Portland, it is April before the blossoms are really going. With more snow and sleet and hail forecast, as well as a Winter Weather warning, Pedro and I thought we should try to see the blossoms sooner rather than later, because all that nasty weather could easily knock the pretty pink to the ground. He was trapped at the conference in Troutdale, so I went to the cherry blossoms alone.

Portland’s Steel Bridge rises above cherry trees in blossom, on April 2, 2023.

Cherry blossoms are linked to Japanese culture, as they are the most important flower and the act of cherry blossom viewing has been a thing to do in Japan about as far back as records go. It is apt, then, that Portland’s cherry trees are co-located with the Japanese American Historical Plaza. The West, and Oregon in particular, has a painful history to face with regard to Japanese Americans. This plaza, dedicated in 1990, with its cherry trees are a way to make sure the conversation continues.

A panoramic view.
The Japanese American Historical Plaza incorporates landscape.

The shape of the plaza incorporates landscape elements reminiscent of the Japanese use of landscape. There are sculptures, poetry, and a Bill of Rights memorial that follow curves and hills beside the river, and invite visitors to engage with the landscape. Sculptures by Jim Gion mark the Western gateway to the Plaza, and twelve granite stones featuring poetry by Hisako Saito, Lawson Inada, Masaki Kinoshita, and Shizue Iwatsuki can be seen beneath the trees.

The plaza honors Japanese immigrants who began coming to the Western shores at the end of the 19th century. Paths of immigration changed and were blocked, so the movement of Japanese to the U.S. nearly stopped and by 1942 the people who lived here included the children and grandchildren of the first wave. It then honors the Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during WWII.

I had heard brief references to Japanese internment, but didn’t know much about it, nor did I take the time to look it up, until 2009 when our offices at Department of Veterans Affairs in Portland invited a couple of speakers to come and talk to us. We met Kennie and Ruth Namba, who were survivors of these internment camps and residents of Oregon. Mr. Namba was the one who explained to me why Portland should care so much. It’s because many families imprisoned came from our area, especially from the fruit orchards out in the Columbia River Gorge, like Namba’s family.

Kennie Namba in Portland, Oregon in 2009. He talked about his experiences as a member of the 442 Regimental Combat Team.

Kennie Namba, who died in 2012, was born near Troutdale, Oregon and his family farmed some property. His father had to lease the land because first generation Japanese were prohibited from owning land. As soon as Kennie’s oldest sibling, his sister, turned 18, she purchased ten acres and their parents managed those acres in addition to the larger portion of land that they leased. In 1942, the US government began posting notices on homes and businesses belonging to people of Japanese descent, and mailing letters, instructing them that in a couple of days they would be forcibly removed. Most of those people dutifully packed, and dressed in traveling clothes, and on the date named, they stood waiting for vehicles to pick them up and take them away. That part is incomprehensible to me; that they were compliant. Under what circumstances were they living, that peaceful compliance was the best choice?

I passed this man who was in the midst of making a TikTok video.
Cherry blossoms with a University of Oregon building in the background.

Kennie Namba said, “Why didn’t we challenge the United States court, relative to relocation? I like to relate it to Japanese history. I was taught while growing up that our society is made up of people. And within a society there are governing rules. You have to obey every rule. So when this edict came out and said that Japanese Americans and their native moms and dads will be relocated, who was to say that they didn’t have the right? But sometime afterward, we studied the law, and realized they didn’t have a right to do that.”

In an amazing interview for the Library of Congress, Namba brings up another important point. “Even though we were also at war with Germany and Italy, and there were certainly many people of German and Italian descent living on the West Coast, why were the Japanese people the ones affected?”

Mr. and Mrs. Namba educated us about their lives.

Even though it was unconstitutional to imprison American citizens because of their ethnic background, the Executive Order was put into place under the premise that it was an emergency, because of the war. In total, 125,284 people of Japanese descent were forcibly interned and imprisoned. Never before had a people ethnically related to a military opponent of the United States been singled out from all other people in the nation and deprived of their rightful protections under the Constitution. The people were imprisoned for 3 to 4 years, till the end of the war. While they were gone, opportunists stole their land, their businesses, their cars, their homes, their possessions. Some families were able to hang on to their things when Caucasian friends and neighbors stepped up and protected their property for them in their absence.

Mr. and Mrs. Namba spoke to employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009.

Kennie Namba explained how difficult it was for everyone, and especially the young men trapped in this cage. He was 17 when he was sent to the Minidoka camp in Idaho. His wife Ruth spent time at the Tule Lake camp. At some camps, the interned could look through the fence to see other Americans going about their daily life with no restrictions. It was maddening. The boredom, he told us, was the worst of all. People in the camps had to create new infrastructure. They pooled resources and formed mini-schools and sewing groups to repair clothing. They had to gather in the tiny makeshift sleeping rooms, because the government did not provide schools or community buildings, only community showers and toilets, where you did your personal business in full view of everyone else. For years, people just existed in flimsy temporary shelters, waiting to see what their government would do to them. There were no jobs for them to stay busy at, and no one was ever allowed out. When the young men realized they could join the military, they jumped at the chance to escape.

We asked Namba how he could have joined the Army and served the very government that was oppressing him, but he said they were desperate, simply desperate to get out. The men learned that if they volunteered for the Army, they could not be prevented from leaving the camp, so they volunteered. Further, Namba reminded us that he was an American, and he loved his country as much as any American.

Engravings in the stones say: “Rounded up in the sweltering yard. Unable to endure any longer, standing in line, some collapse.” and “Sure I go to school. Same as you. I’m an American.”
Ruth Namba in Portland, Oregon in 2009.

In a segregated regiment of only Japanese Americans, dealing with the world war on the international horizon, and searing racism on the domestic horizon, the 442 Regimental Combat Team adopted the motto of “Go For Broke.” Namba told us an insane story from 1945 when the 442nd was assigned to make the final push into the Po Valley. They came to a knoll that equipment couldn’t climb, only people, and at the top of this hill were snipers with high powered guns that were keeping the entire unit pinned down. His sergeant asked if the men would be willing to try and sneak up the hill by a back way and take out the machine gun nest. Some men remained at the bottom and created a distraction by attacking from a different side, while Kennie and about six others crawled up the hill under constant barrage of hand grenades. One landed close to him and sent 16 pieces of shrapnel into Mr. Namba. He received both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for that particular battle. The 442nd eventually captured the knoll. Today they are remembered as the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the US military.

Because all of us employees worked to give veterans disability benefits, we asked of Mr. Namba to make sure that he was receiving some. “Oh yes!” he replied. “I asked one day if there might be a little help that I qualified for, and VA sent me to some doctors and right away they said, ‘Well we are going to give you 50% disability.’ I was so happy and grateful. Then one day they sent me a letter and said, ‘Mr. Namba, we are going to increase your disability payment to 70%.’ I don’t know how sick they thought I was, but it would help and I was pleased and told them thank you! And wouldn’t you know it, a few years later they sent me another letter and said, ‘Mr. Namba, we are going to increase your disability payments to 100%.’ I said, ‘Why, thank you!’ I am very grateful to the VA,” he said. “They have always taken good care of me.” Just so you know, that is not how VA works. They don’t just randomly increase benefits without the veterans having any knowledge of it. But I do love the way he remembers events, humbling himself and praising the VA.

He spent 60 days in a hospital and was then asked to remain in the military, but he wanted to go home and had earned the right to do so. He found Ruth again, a woman he had met when she came to the Minidoka camp, and they got reacquainted. He soon asked her to marry him. After a long life with children and grandchildren, and the loss of her husband, Ruth died in 2016.

Though their lease was good for seven years, after the Namba family returned to their home, they were prevented from going back to the farm that they had worked for years and still had a valid lease on. Even more, all their farm equipment that they had put into storage before they left, had been stolen, as well as all their personal items, like Namba’s medals that he had earned in high school Judo and Track & Field competitions. His mother had brought items from Japan when she immigrated, that were dear to her. Those things were stolen as well. They blessed their fortune that the eldest daughter had purchased 10 acres, and with that tiny piece of land, the family of seven somehow survived as farmers, but it was tough.

An approaching woman (you can see her) spotted me taking a selfie and graciously offered to take photos for me. Hers turned out better and I gushed my thanks.
Me, basking in the profusion of pink blossoms. All along the waterfront path I could smell the blossoms.
Me, standing in front of the Steel Bridge.

There is a searchable list at the Ireizo website, in case you want to look up the name of someone you know who was imprisoned in one of the camps.

23 thoughts on “Portland’s cherry Blossoms and Japanese History

  1. I am glad to see even more of Portland this week
    And the cherry blossoms are beautiful – enjoyed them and reminds me of DCs rows and rows
    Also / kennie namba sounds like he was a wonderful person

    1. Oh yes! I have wanted to see the cherry blossoms in DC for so long. I caught the very end of them once, years ago, with just a blossom here and there. One day I will make an effort to really see them right. I’m glad you are happy to see more of Portland. I just love this city and am pleased to have opportunities to boast its virtues. Kennie and Ruth Namba were both so gracious, and so funny. Do you see the necklace around Ruth’s neck? It’s a pig clock. She collected pigs, isn’t that fun? They were both wonderful.

      1. hmmmm – not sure – I guess I have a small collection of art. Maybe 70 to 100 pieces – or more – some are in the attic (wrapped nicely)
        and I also have a lot of the greeting cards and letters that came my way – going back a long time – and hope to digitize them someday –
        what about you? any collection???

  2. Thank you for this very personal take on the cherry blossoms. The exquisite blossoms are a strange juxtaposition to our shameful history. I’m grateful Portland has this monument and reminder.

    1. Thank you for pointing out the juxtaposition, Nancy. I had that thought as well, as I made this post. Such beauty, and so many happy faces I saw there on Monday, the joggers and children and tourists. But we were all standing within this monument to pain and cruelty and some of the worst of humanity, and an embarrassment for modern Americans. I put this much effort into the post as a sort of atonement for enjoying the cherry blossoms.

  3. I just read a post on the Cherry Blossom Festival in Tokyo, Crystal. I was hoping to go to the festival in Washington DC but the weather here has been weird as well. Friends of Tasha’s went and said it was cold, raining, and crowded. We have plenty of trees blooming around here, however, and the roadsides are filled with daffodils. Spring seems to be arriving!
    I’ve visited the Manzanar National Historic Site east of the Sierra’s which was one of the main Japanese internment camps and they did an incredible job of telling the story. Another sad time in American history. Great post. Thanks. Curt

    1. While writing this, I recalled that you had visited Manzanar. I also recalled that Pedro and I were near Tule Lake on the same trip when we visited you guys. Next time I’m down there I will try to visit the place. It is so sad. And also shocking. Just so hard to believe, but humans really are capable of horrible things when we let ourselves succumb to fear, and politicians who stoke our fears.

      1. I had Japanese friends in college whose parents had been incarcerated in WW II. And whose land had been confiscated. A neighbor had come in and taken one property, and saved it for the family when they returned.

  4. I love the contrast of those cherry blossoms against the dramatic sky, Crystal. And what a powerful story of a slice of American history you tell in this post. I am always shocked and speechless when I hear these stories. Thank goodness for the triumph of the human spirit over these incredible challenges it has to sometimes face.

    1. I believe that human cruelty will always be with us, and what makes things better is to know – like you say – that human spirit will always triumph. There will be people like Kennie Namba who saw so much difficulty and ugliness, but became a joyful, loving, generous person despite it all. I believe that most humans are good, and some humans are simply amazing. ❤

  5. I knew about this and all the other atrocities humans perpetrate on one another. I should not have read this. It sends me into a downward spiral that is so hard to climb out of for me. The tears start again and I can’t turn off the faucet for quite some time. My soul aches and no amount of cherry blossoms makes it better. We will do it again here. I feel it coming. We just never learn. We did it to the native people here, the black people and it just never ends. It’s been going on since the beginning of humans. I was a mess just driving by Dachau. Every hair on my body stood straight up and I risked a speeding ticket to get away from there. Visiting it was impossible. I’m glad you got to see the blossoms before the weather took them though.

    1. I am so sorry that my post hurt you. The story must be told, for the people who haven’t heard it, and for me, to remember (because I like to repress and forget). I am proud of Portland for making the Japanese American memorial so prominent.

  6. Everything about this post is stunning and incredibly powerful. I love how you go a step beyond and beneath what is seen. You are like the Paul Harvey of my blogosphere! You inspire me to dig a little deeper when I think I understand a story or issue. Thank you for that. And for these stunning photos ❤️🌸❤️

    1. And now you know…the rest of the story. What a compliment, Bonnie. Thanks for appreciating the story and the photos. I love how much I have learned as a result of researching stories for my posts.

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