Consoling spirits

A visit to the sacred Ireichō at the Japanese American National Museum.

I can’t remember when I first learned about it; it was just something in the collective of our family history, something in the air the Nakadas breathed. There were books with photos on the living room bookshelf, and Dad spoke casually about life in “camp.” Whenever his sisters and brothers were around, if there were questions about when something occurred, it was either before or after camp, this bookmark in their lives of the war and of removal. I bore witness directly from the generation who lived the experience of incarceration. But now, a generation later, I wondered how my kids would learn about this scar that marked our family and our country’s past. 


Last October, I heard about a new display at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles: “The Ireichō: A Sacred Book of Names.” In a moving ceremony in late September, to the pulse of taiko drumming and Indigenous voices, the museum formally received and installed this huge and beautiful hand-sewn book, which contains the first comprehensive list of the more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated in the U.S. during World War II. For the first time, their names were all gathered on paper. Anyone can visit this sacred book, but the descendants of the formerly incarcerated were invited to honor them by stamping their names and recognizing them. I made an appointment to do so. 

On a winter afternoon, my two kids, my husband, and I carved our way through LA traffic to the museum. I wished my dad was healthy enough to travel to see this. He was the last surviving member of the family, and we were visiting the day before his 92nd birthday. But even though his parents and brothers and sisters have all passed over, we could still honor them and honor him.

“It was important for me to visit these places, to honor their names and lives, to console their spirits, and to fight for reparations for their descendants”

We arrived early for our appointment to stamp the Ireichō. So we visited the exhibits. We stood in dilapidated barracks that had been disassembled in the Wyoming desert and brought here to Los Angeles. I was surprised it wasn’t a barracks from Manzanar, the camp at the base of the Sierra where so many from Los Angeles were incarcerated. It was quiet as we took in the spaces, the weathered wood, the emptiness. We stared at black-and-white photographs of children and families, at baseball gloves and broken toys, at the instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry required to report. My 10-year-old asked, “If this happened today, would we be ... ?” 

I nodded. “Anyone who had 1/16 Japanese ancestry was removed.” 

We listened to old recordings of the house committee hearing on reparations. When a Black representative spoke of his impassioned solidarity with his Asian brothers and sisters, my 7-year-old noted, “He’s on our side.” 

And then we waited to stamp the Ireichō. I had submitted Dad’s name when I made my reservation, but the museum historians had located the other Nakadas. In all, there were nine: my grandparents, six of my uncles and aunties, and Dad. Dad’s four other brothers were in the military, serving in the 442nd or in special services. They weren’t in Wyoming, unless they were on leave and were able to visit their relatives at Heart Mountain. Later, they helped move the family to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.

The docent helped us practice stamping so that we wouldn’t soil the sacred book. The kids worked to find the right pressure, not wanting to mess up the small dot of a stamp.

ONCE WE WERE READY, we walked from the resource center to the small exhibit space. We gazed up at glass jars holding soil gathered from every site where our ancestors were held. Some of the 75 cite names were familiar, the eight War Relocation Cites: Heart Mountain (Wyoming), Jerome (Arkansas), Manzanar and Tule Lake (California), Poston and Gila River (Arizona), Minidoka (Idaho) and Topaz (Utah). But other names were new to me: Greenbrier (West Virginia), Haiku Camp (Hawaii), Leupp (Arizona), Nyssa (Oregon). And others were a surprise: Griffith Park (California), Moab (Utah), Portland (Oregon). 

The jars of soil took me to another honoring, another museum erected to honor the lives of so many lost to injustice. I have not yet visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor those lost to the violence of lynching in the American South. I have not peered up at the 800 slabs of steel, one for each county, etched with the names of those lost to racial terror. Nor have I stood inside the Legacy Museum beside jars of soil from known lynching sites, each glass vessel marked with the names of known victims. But now I reminded myself that it was important for me to visit these places, to honor their names and lives, to console their spirits, and to fight for reparations for their descendants. 

The docent tells us about the sacred book, its many pages, its organization by birth year, and the ceramic plates made from the soil of the different sites that are embedded inside the book. We don’t touch the book or its pages. We stare and scan the thousands of names as the docent flips through the pages. 

When we are ready to stamp, we start with the eldest, my grandfather, Ginzo Nakada. We each stamp his name, just one on a page of so many. Four small stamped circles hover above his name. Then it is Kagi Nakada, my grandmother, and we stamp her name with our four dots, just one more name on another page of so many. Next is Yoshio, their oldest son. Four stamped circles. Then there is Minoru, who left camp, enlisting as soon as the government allowed it. Four stamps. James left as well, finding a sponsor who enabled him to study in Illinois. Four more stamps. Then there is Grace, Dad’s older sister, and then there is Dad, the only one whose spirit is still here, amongst the living. I stamp his name and honor him. His son-in-law and grandchildren stamp the Ireichōand console his spirit. Four more stamped circles. Finally, it is Dad’s two younger siblings, Hannah and Stephen.

When we are done, we stand beside the Ireichō for a photograph. We breathe in the presence of our family’s names and the presence of all the others. The 7-year-old struggles in the gravity of the moment, but even that feels like a kind of honoring. As we stand with the ancestors to honor and console them, my children learn directly from those who lived this experience. We honor our familial and historic past, and, in honoring them, we both heal and repair.   

The Ireichō will be housed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles until December. An online version of the list of names can be found at

Noriko Nakada is a multi-racial Asian American who creates fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art to capture the hidden stories she has been told not to talk about. Publications include her memoir series: Through Eyes Like Mine, Overdue Apologies, and I Tried. Through Eyes Like Mine was shortlisted for the 2040 Book Award. 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.