Is it time to reframe Victory Day?
State legislators vow to try again to rename state holiday marking the end of World War II
The Jamestown posts of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars arranged for flags donated by the families of Jamestown veterans who have passed away to fly at East Ferry in observance of Victory Day Monday. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
Since she took office in 2018, Providence Democratic Rep. Rebecca Kislak has created a holiday tradition of sorts on the second Monday of August by tweeting out a call for Rhode Island to rename Victory Day.
Monday Aug. 14, was no different, when she tweeted out that she’s herself “a fan of summer holidays! But it’s time to #RenameVictoryDay.” Kislak was referring to the Rhode Island state holiday that marks the occasion when Imperial Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allies on Aug. 14, 1945.
But she almost didn’t this year.
“I have noticed that Victory Day is sensational in a way I wish it wasn’t because I think it’s common sense that we should be honoring holidays that make everyone feel welcome,” Kislak said in an interview.
“I think that that removes the very real and complicated conversations about the price of that victory. That victory came at the cost of unleashing nuclear weapons on the world and on civilians and it’s an incredibly complicated conversation about whether that was necessary or not.”
Rhode Island first made Victory Day a holiday in 1948. In 1968, the state switched the observance from Aug. 14 to the second Monday in August. Though legally called Victory Day, it is often colloquially called Victory Over Japan (VJ) Day as it falls close to the anniversary of the surrender and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
State and municipal offices and services close in observance of the holiday. Those in favor of the name change say they want to keep the holiday, but its timing makes it clear what the holiday is about.
“Its associations with Japan are inescapable,” said Rep. Jennifer Stewart, a Pawtucket Democrat, who introduced a bill during the 2023 General Assembly session to change the name to Annual Peace & Remembrance Day. The House Committee on Special Legislation voted to hold Stewart’s bill for study after a hearing on April 5. Kislak had been a co-sponsor.
Stewart vows to try again next year.
“As a society, we can engage that and we should engage that and reflect on it and question, assess, and maybe even do something differently depending on the conclusions we arrive at,” Stewart said.
Debate over the holiday’s name grew in the 1980s during a period of economic growth in Japan in contrast to recession in the U.S. and a corresponding rise in anti-Asian sentiment and harassment.
Kislak, who moved to Rhode Island to study at Brown University in the early 1990s, said she saw the sentiment it could generate firsthand.
“I think the first I realized that we celebrated this holiday was on that day when a white man came up to me and pointed at an Asian student and said something pretty horrible about how in his days he was killing them and ‘oh is he a student now,’” Kislak said.
Veteran organizations though continue to support the holiday. The American Legion of Rhode Island held a flag raising and flag lowering ceremony in Jamestown Monday. The Rhode Island Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) dedicated a World War II monument in Woonsocket.
The American Legion did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Victory Day is about our Nation coming together in the eyes of tyranny,” said Joseph Janeiro, state adjutant for the Rhode Island VFW, adding that one in 10 Rhode Islanders served in war. “Rhode Island was a pillar of support for WWII.”
Opponents of the name change will often point to the between 5 million and 10 million civilians killed between 1937 and 1945 by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan as one justification for the holiday.
“This wasn’t the first time Rhode Island stood up against tyranny,” Janeiro continued. “We must always remember and never forget. This day shows the world and reminds us how we came together after a day that destroyed so many lives and how we persevered over that day and came together as a nation to fight as one nation, one people.”
Yet Stewart said many East Asian Rhode Islanders feel unsafe on the day and the name needs to be updated to reflect contemporary sensibilities.
“The 1948 understanding behind the holiday in the first place is not the widely-shared understanding anymore,” Stewart said. “We need to update our policy to reflect that today and also, I think to, reflect the kind of people we are and want to be.”
Her position does not negate the fact that Allied victory in the Second World War was a good outcome, she said.
“I do think it connects to a larger issue around how these symbolic policies like holidays and how they actually bring people together or split people apart,” Stewart said.
Kislak said she is confident that Rhode Island can change.
“It’s been a long time, she said. “Sometimes it takes a long time for the right things to pass.”
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