by Zachary Matsumoto
“My mom told me that an old deaf man, Mr. Wakasa, was walking his adopted stray dog around the perimeter of the camp,” recalled Patrick Hayashi. “His dog caught in the barbed wire fence and Mr. Wakasa went to save him and release him. The sentry ordered him to back away from the fence, but because he was deaf, he couldn’t do it, and so the sentry shot and killed him.”
This is the story of James Wakasa’s murder, which Patrick Hayashi’s mother told him when he was growing up. Wakasa was one of over 100,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated by the US government during World War II. In the incarceration camp of Topaz in the desert of central Utah, an armed US soldier shot and killed Wakasa. His death sparked outrage among Topaz’s incarcerees. Although individuals in the Japanese American community contest some of the details of Wakasa’s death, it remains a key, painful moment in the incarceration experience that Japanese Americans have passed down to their children.
The story of Wakasa’s death certainly remained an important memory for Hayashi, a Sansei—or third generation Japanese American—who was born in Topaz while his parents were unjustly imprisoned there. Hayashi discussed his life and career with the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. His interview was conducted as part of the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project, which explores trauma and healing across generations for Japanese Americans whose families were incarcerated during World War II.
As a young boy, after their release from the prison camp, Hayashi grew up with his parents in Hayward, California. His mother maintained ties to the Japanese American community, largely through church. However, when he was still young, Hayashi’s mother passed away of heart failure. This deeply saddened Hayashi’s father, who now carried the responsibility of raising a family as a single parent. Additionally, according to Hayashi, his father must have felt the guilt and shame from his incarceration experience in World War II. Nonetheless, Hayashi’s father exhibited resistance. He was a “no-no,” meaning he said “no” to two questions in an infamous loyalty questionnaire the US government forced upon the imprisoned Japanese Americans during WWII. The questions asked if one would be willing to serve in the US Army, and if one would swear loyalty to America and rescind loyalty to Japan. This sparked outrage among the Japanese American community, who were asked to serve a country that imprisoned them, and rescind a fealty to Japan that they didn’t have. Hayashi’s father’s “no, no” response was, as Hayashi believed, a “principled stand” against these unreasonable questions.
But his father never mentioned this resistance until Hayashi was an adult. Like many post war Japanese American families, Hayashi’s family did not often discuss their incarceration experiences.
Similar to his father, Hayashi also recalled feeling shame and guilt around incarceration and the war. In high school, he felt particularly ashamed of his identity when his class discussed WWII and the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that time, Hayashi later recollected, “I was preferring not to be Japanese.” He also experienced a disconnect with the Japanese American community, largely due to his mother’s passing.Nevertheless, Hayashi shared many fond memories of his childhood, from reading Sherlock Holmes and science fiction books as an elementary schooler to becoming a star tennis athlete in high school.
If Hayashi felt shame due to his family incarceration, he channeled it into his work, starting in the 1960s. When reading his oral history, I noticed a theme of activism exhibited across his career in a near continuous fight for justice. After dropping out of college and working as a mail carrier, he found his calling in literature and became a UC Berkeley professor in the newfound Asian American Studies Department—one of the first such departments ever created. These developments for Hayashi came at the time of 1960s social movements in America. In one such movement, student protests in California universities led to the creation of an Ethnic Studies program at UC Berkeley.
Hayashi later became involved as a UC administrator, first working for Cal as the head of Student Conduct. After an investigation revealed that UC admissions were discriminating against Asian American applicants in the 1980s, Hayashi was appointed Associate Vice Chancellor of Admissions and Enrollment. In this position, and later as Associate President in the University of California, Hayashi worked on policy development and acted as an advocate for student applicants. He played a key role in fighting unfair admissions policies, such as the National Merit Scholarship Program (for discriminating against marginalized groups) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT (for not only explicitly favoring privileged students, but for also being, as Hayashi noted, a “bad test”).
One example of his advocacy came through at a meeting he attended soon after becoming Associate Vice Chancellor. In this meeting, Harold Doc Howe, Lyndon B. Johnson’s former Secretary of Education, communicated views with which Hayashi disagreed. Despite feeling nervous, Hayashi publicly challenged Howe in front of his colleagues. “My hands are actually trembling visibly in front of me and I said, ‘Howe begins with the assumption that a person’s writing ability reflects that person’s thinking ability. I don’t begin with that assumption. Instead I turn it into a question, and the question is to what extent does a person’s writing ability reflect that person’s ability to think?’ I said, ‘When you pose it as a question, the answer becomes obvious, it depends. If a person is new to the country or if the person is poor and has attended poor schools where the quality of education is low, then it’s incorrect and unfair to think that a person’s writing ability reflects that person’s thinking ability. Because oftentimes people just haven’t had the opportunity and the assistance to develop writing ability.’”
This, to me, demonstrates Hayashi’s sense of right and wrong – a fight against prejudiced assumptions in the admissions process.
Over time, too, Hayashi started to come to terms with the incarceration experience that his family hardly discussed and loomed over him like a cloud. One key moment for him occurred during his work as a UC professor. After reading James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, in which Baldwin discusses his experiences with racism and understanding the good his overbearing father did, Hayashi felt a better understanding both of his own father and his emotions. According to Hayashi, “[Baldwin] helped me understand my rage. And how if you’ve been suppressed constantly by racism, that goes somewhere and then it explodes. That was my pattern, and then it made me realize that it must have been my father’s experience as well. He was a proud man, he was smart, but it was clear, the injustice was clear to him and so it must have gone somewhere.”
To me, Hayashi’s understanding of Baldwin speaks to the emotional scars of incarceration that burdened many Japanese Americans. After experiencing racist injustice during World War II, anger would seem like a reasonable response. Perhaps the silence of many Japanese Americans after the war was the product of the internal, bubbling anger that people of color have felt throughout American history.
As Hayashi continued to come to terms with his family’s incarceration experience, James Wakasa’s story reemerged as an important moment. In the late 1980s, Hayashi visited an art exhibition from the incarceration camps, filling him with emotion. He recalled, “I choked up more and more and then the fourth painting I saw was Chiura Obata’s sumi-E sketch of James Wakasa falling over after he was shot, and I started to sob. It was terribly embarrassing, but everyone around me was mainly Nisei, they were crying too. That’s when I started revisiting the camps in a systematic way.”
Hayashi held true to his word. Later in life, he became more and more involved in the memorialization of Topaz, the camp of his family’s imprisonment. After retirement from Cal, Hayashi played a role in the creation and work of the Topaz Museum, located near the site of the former incarceration camp. He taught workshops at the museum for teachers in Utah, served as the keynote speaker at a 2016 Day of Remembrance event, and interviewed the Topaz class of ‘45—high schoolers who graduated in 1945 as Topaz incarcerees. Hayashi also took up painting as a major passion and a creative expression of his identity.
Hayashi’s life story is a reminder that one does not need to be defined by internalized pain of the past, but can instead come to terms with that pain and tell its story. The interviews and life stories told throughout the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project illuminate themes of memory, belonging, and healing. Hayashi’s life fully demonstrates each of these themes and serves as an inspiration for Japanese Americans pained by the past but who also want to make a difference.
To this day, he remains active in preserving the memory of incarceration. In 2016, Nancy Ukai, an activist who fought the auctioning of incarceration art, approached Hayashi with a request to create a painting for a Day of the Dead altar at a Japanese American cemetery. The request? To paint James Wakasa’s soul. His story, a source of intergenerational pain and important in Hayashi’s own life, now lay in the hands of Hayashi: a man who healed.
Zachary Matsumoto is a sophomore at UC Berkeley currently studying History and participating as an Oral History Center URAP apprentice. He was drawn to the Oral History Center after attending a Bancroft Roundtable presentation about the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. American history is a current academic interest of his, including the histories of communities relating to his background as a Chinese and Japanese American. In his free time, Zachary likes to go for runs, watch sports, and play taiko.