by by Katie Okamoto

illustration by by Galen Broderick

The way we name official holidays is political; little is ever just a matter of words. When November 11 changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954, the US Congress reinforced the idea that words have the power to define how memory lives on and what histories are included in that memory. The official recognition of Veterans Day and Asian American History Month in November--for example--communicate very explicitly what we value remembering and in so doing, construct a particular American history.

Every year on the second Monday in August, Rhode Island is alone in observing Victory Day, which celebrates the end of World War II marked by Japan's surrender. This is a surrender that came just days after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By excluding the memory of nuclear atrocity, and by reinforcing a US vs. Japan relationship, some opponents of Victory Day believe Rhode Island endorses a limited historical narrative about America while supporting--however implicitly--anti-Japanese stereotypes. A number of people have worked to change the name of Victory Day to something that would honor Americans who fought in World War II, but which, like Veterans Day, would expand the boundaries of memory to be more inclusive. But so far, Rhode Island's small political stage has confounded their efforts.
After the Allied victory, several states, including Rhode Island in 1948, formally declared Victory Day a legal state holiday. The day came to be popularly known throughout the US as Victory Over Japan Day, shortened to V-J Day. In the years following, however, state after state repealed V-J Day out of sensitivity to Japanese Americans and to the new Japanese government, as well as from a queasiness about the implicit condoning--even celebration--of the atomic bombings.
But Rhode Island still observes Victory Day, closing state and municipal offices, schools (including Brown University), libraries and some businesses. While the number of public celebrations has declined in recent years to include only a few small veteran events, the holiday remains in public profile: Victory weekend is one of the biggest beach-going weekends of the summer season.
Rhode Island's holiday is officially Victory Day rather than 'Victory Over Japan Day.' Nonetheless, 'V-J Day' is often used interchangeably. The RI Department of Labor and Training refers to "V.J. Day / Victory Day" on its online calendar. Local newspapers routinely refer to "V-J Day," as do numerous retail stores advertising sales. It is clear that Victory Day refers to defeating Japan.
A small population of Rhode Islanders--2.7 percent--are Asian, according to the 2006 Census; fewer have Japanese heritage. But the clear association of Victory Day with Japan "has had the effect of stigmatizing and victimizing Asians and Asian Americans" in Rhode Island, at least in the view of Steve Rabson, a retired Brown professor of East Asian Studies who has worked to change the holiday's name. "During World War II, each side demonized the other with racist propaganda that engendered intense hatred," Rabson wrote in an email to the Independent. "In the United States, anti-Japanese sentiment [was] exacerbated...on the anniversaries of...the attack on Pearl Harbor and 'V-J Day.'"
To the RI Japan Society Language & Culture Center (JSLCC), Victory Day wrongly associates Japanese Americans with Japan's wartime Imperial government. In 1990, a survey of JSLCC members showed that the majority favored litigation against the state for "injuries and wrongs [to the] character" of Japanese and Japanese-Americans due to Victory Day's name, in violation of the Rhode Island Constitution, according to a paper published by Rabson through Japan's Sofia University.
Rabson's paper recounts verbal abuse and violence against Asian Americans in Rhode Island that occurred on Victory Day in the late 80s and early 90s. Among these incidents were assault accompanied by racist epithets and the vandalizing of an Asian food store in Providence. One resident of Japanese descent told the Providence Journal in 1989 that although she had not been the target of these incidents, she had "felt really awkward just to step out of the house" and stayed home on Victory Day for years.
Rabson was not aware of such incidents in recent years. But the symbolic power of Victory Day has not waned simply because hate crimes targeting Asians have dropped off. "Symbolic power [is the] power...given through utterances, of making people see and believe, of confirming or transforming a vision of the world," the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote. In this case, "Victory Day" confirms a vision of the world that excludes US culpability in causing mass trauma, while implicitly marking contemporary Japan as inferior. Even with the best intentions to honor American sacrifices in a critical war, the name "Victory Day" is political, denying some memories while institutionalizing others.
RI Senator Rhoda Perry wants to change the name. "I know that some constituents of mine and...anyone who is of Asian descent at all feels a little uncomfortable on that day, because it is the only day...that really mentions another group, another country," she told the Independent. "We don't have Victory Over Germany Day." She added, "I definitely think it has to do with racism. And if it doesn't have to do with racism, it brings it up. It makes people think, 'Victory Day? Victory over what? Oh, Japan."
RI Representative Elizabeth Morancy was the first to submit a name change to the RI Assembly in 1986, objecting to "what she viewed as a celebration of war and the dropping of atomic bombs," according to Rabson. Since then, a similar bill has been introduced three times. Efforts have not aimed to abolish a World War II memorial day altogether. "The issue is HOW to commemorate and memorialize wartime events," Rabson told the Independent.
Working with Rabson and others, Perry twice proposed to change the name in the 1990s. But despite support by a range of Rhode Islanders, bills to change Victory Day have failed four times. Perry cited the state's small size as a major reason. In particular, veterans groups have held sway over the legislature. "[At the veterans] committee hearing...all the World War II veterans came and lobbied against the bill...and it was poignant. People felt bad. They were recounting the stories about fighting the Japanese and it was very uncomfortable. One of them said, 'Please, if you're going to change this holiday, wait until the rest of us are dead.' And I think people who were listening were affected by that."
Leaders of local posts for the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars formally oppose a name change, despite assurances that the holiday would be preserved to honor veterans in general. They believe that changing Victory Day would cause people to forget the specific sacrifices made during World War II by American soldiers.
The Rhode Island members of Veterans of Foreign Wars with whom the Independent spoke were unwilling to talk specifically about their position on Victory Day, other than their support of it. John Alneida, who enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1941 when he was 19 and fought in the Pacific, told the Independent, "I do support Victory Day, because I believe in liberty and I believe that everybody should be free."
It is important that the memories of veterans be honored. For those who fought against Japanese forces, there are many reasons to fear forgetting. Saburo Ienaga's The Pacific War describes in sickening detail the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan not only against American troops but against its own citizens. "Since human rights were totally ignored within Japan," he writes, "it was not likely that they would be respected on the battlefield."
But an incomplete memory of the war experience is inexcusable, given the wrought history the American government shares with its Japanese Americans--Japanese internment camps especially--as well as with Japan. While Japan has attempted to sugarcoat its war crimes, the US government also censored accounts of the atomic bombs' impacts. Victory Day has the power to sugarcoat, to oversimplify Japanese culpability and to ignore the contributions of Rhode Island's own Japanese Americans.
Largely because of veterans groups' influence, nobody has proposed an alternative name for at least five Senate terms. "I couldn't even get a vote out of a committee because of the veterans," Perry said.
Rabson agrees. He said the bill failed four times because of intimidation at the Assembly, as well as "harassing telephone calls to its sponsors...and hate mail sent to its supporters." While he says prospects for passage are bleak, he continues to believe that changing the language of the holiday is important.
Not everyone remains convinced that the battle is worth it. JSLCC President Hiromi Ima--who has lived in Rhode Island since moving here from Tokyo in the 1960s--has resigned himself to living in a state that celebrates Victory Day. "We used to think it was important to change the name," he told the Independent, but continued, "We're not going to win."
Though foiled, Ima has found a zen-like approach to Victory Day. "You can't fight when people don't understand, so what we're trying to do is kill with kindness, and try to make people understand about others besides the war. That's why [the Japan Society] does a lot of volunteer work, public service. We go to schools, talk about Japan. And Japanese people's image has changed."
For people who continue to equate Japanese Americans in Rhode Island with the Imperial government, Ima thinks the best approach is ignoring them. Referring to businesses who advertise sales on "V-J Day," he said, "Those people are stupid enough to not know that the name of the holiday has changed to Victory Day, so that means they're ignorant. It's not even worth for us to be upset by it."