A life of service, conservation, and a vision of a better world.
Clarence Moriwaki taught himself to read at age three by watching Men Into Space, the short-lived 1959-60 TV series. “I really loved that show,” he says. “I kept bugging my mom, so she finally showed me how to look it up in the TV Guide.” Once he deciphered those letters and numbers, he continued with the rest of the alphabet.
Reading was just one outcome of his young fandom. The series protagonist, Colonel Edward McCauley, was decisive and dogged, overcoming the dangers of galaxy travel while serving on pioneering space missions to Mars and the Moon. Reading Moriwaki’s extensive bio of accomplishments and service suggests the sci-fi series may have influenced more than his early reading skills.
Moriwaki is a third generation Japanese American whose father, Nobuo Moriwaki, was drafted, serving as a U.S. military intelligence linguist during WWII. “My parents weren’t sent to internment camps because they lived and farmed in Eastern Washington, and the Columbia River was the dividing line for removing Japanese Americans from the West Coast,” he explains. “They never talked about that time when I was young. They believed in ‘gaman,’ a Japanese practice of restraint and perseverance, that their role was to make their children’s lives better than their own.”
He compares growing up in Moses Lake to another TV series, Friday Night Lights where school—and particularly football—was at the center of the community. As a student he was involved in everything—sports, theater, and as Student Body President. He has the distinction of being the first 11-year-old Eagle Scout in the state’s history. “I loved everything about Scouting,” he recalls. “Earning badges was based on merit with clear rules so it didn’t matter how tall you were or the color of your skin. If you did the requirements to earn an archery or government badge, the reward was earned on an equal playing field.” He credits Scouting with turning him into a conservationist and student government for his lifelong interest in policy and democracy.
It was in college at the University of Washington when he realized many of his fellow students knew more than he did about his own heritage, so he signed up for courses in Asian and Japanese studies. Later, he moved to Tukwila, Wash., serving on the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee, focusing on the area’s health services, childcare resources, and getting elected to the city council. “I wasn’t supposed to win that race,” he says. “I was running against three established community members and here I was, a 32-year-old renter.” But Moriwaki clocked in more than 50 walking miles in his campaign knocking on constituent doors and listening to them.
In the 1990s, he was a broadcast journalist and newspaper columnist before being tapped to serve as the Clinton administration’s spokesperson for the new Northwest Forest Plan, where he found himself the adversary of the logging industry. “Most people think we were only protecting the endangered northern spotted owl,” he explains, “when in fact, we were working to preserve millions of acres of old growth habitat.” That initiative became a global template for forest conservation and a personal career highlight for Moriwaki.
He continued working in communications and public policy positions for former Washington Governor Mike Lowry, then-Congressman (now Governor) Jay Inslee, the Washington State Senate, Sound Transit, and the ACLU of Washington. And he found time to volunteer on a variety of civic and government boards and commissions addressing conservation, childcare, health and human services, and justice. It’s a resume that could have landed high-paying jobs had he worked in the private sector. “But I chose a career of public service and giving back,” he says. “I want to make my hours count. I want to benefit those around me and feel their energy. It goes back to my Boy Scout days.”
Lately Moriwaki has fine-tuned his attention to two projects: Bainbridge Island where he lives and was elected to the city council in 2021, and his multi-faceted work to educate and memorialize the tragic WWII history of exclusion and internment of Bainbridge’s 276 Japanese American residents.
Those residents, many of them from farming and fishing families, were a thriving community when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the February 1942 Executive Order 9066 directing the removal of anyone with 1/16th Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Forcibly evicted from their homes by the military, loaded onto a ferry bound for Seattle and then transported by train and bus to a hastily constructed internment camp in Manzanar, Calif., the island’s Japanese Americans were the first of more than 120,000 U.S. residents to be forcibly relocated and confined. After the war a little more than half of them returned to Bainbridge Island.
When Moriwaki moved to the island in 1997, he says its Japanese community welcomed and involved him. He met some of the adults who were children when they were sent to Manzanar and heard their stories. Since his move he has served as the Executive Director of Seattle’s Japanese Cultural and Community Center, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, a trustee and speaker for Humanities Washington, and is a founder and former leader of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association.
It was during his tenure in the latter position that funding was raised to purchase 50 acres of land at the site where the island’s Japanese American community, their few allowed possessions in hand, boarded the ferry that began their journey to internment camps. Initially the site was marked by a simple plaque, but as Moriwaki says, “place matters and so does honoring.” It was important to him and others that the memorial remember each man, woman, and child who was the victim of racial fear.
Today, the centerpiece of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a poignant 276-foot cedar, basalt and granite wall embedded with images and quotes from the imprisoned families and the names every Bainbridge resident confined to the camps. Beyond the wall the Exclusion Departure Deck extends over the beach, recalling the last steps taken as families left their island homes and businesses. In 2008, the memorial became part of the National Park System.
In 2022, Moriwaki won a Bainbridge City Council race promising he would divest himself of his other elected and appointed positions to avoid a conflict of interest. That meant giving up his work with the memorial and its related organizations. “That was my life and my heart,” he says. “I loved the people. It’s like I’ve birthed a child and am abandoning it.” How does he let go? He reminds himself that he needs to get over himself. “It was Charles de Gaulle who said, ‘The graveyards are full of indispensable men.’”
“I’m in the third phase of my life,” he told the Chamber of Commerce during his campaign. “I have a Medicare card now and I want to work toward the future of what this island should be. What kind of things are we leaving for future generations?” His city council campaign ran on a platform of good governance, affordable housing, and protecting the environment, themes that have always guided his career choices.
Like his dogged childhood hero, Col. Edward McCarthy, Moriwaki has embarked on yet another mission.
Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant, and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India, and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus, and Dutch the Magazine