Cherry Blossom Alumnae’s conference considers incarceration and its legacy

SPECIAL GUESTS — Jana Katsuyama, Lane Nishikawa and Tamlyn Tomita (from left to right) participated in the event. Nishikawa and Tomita spoke about their film “Only the Brave.”

On Oct. 3, the Cherry Blossom Alumnae (CBA) held its third annual CBA Conference at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown. Panelists representing four generations of Japanese Americans came together to discuss the theme, “Internment’s Impact on Generations of Japanese Americans.” Nikkei actor Tamlyn Tomita and filmmaker, actor and performance artist Lane Nishikawa served as the event’s keynote speakers. Jana Katsuyama of local station KTVU emceed the event, leading the panel discussion and interviewing the keynote speakers.

Attendees participated in breakout sessions in the middle of the program to discuss their own thoughts on the conference theme.

“Having multiple generations discuss internment is a great way to provide relevance to the younger generations, and for all participants to learn something new that they might not have heard of before,” CBA President Gail Tanaka explained.

The panelists began by talking about the economic losses suffered by Nikkei.

“When Pearl Harbor happened, Japanese Americans were on the verge of making great strides economically,” Sansei panelist Chizu Omori, a film producer and writer, said. “The flower industry, oyster farming, agriculture — Nikkei were a major economic force that was wiped out by the incarceration.”

The camps also had the effect of stigmatizing use of the Japanese language.

“I remember my grandfather after seeing me on TV [as a news anchor] for the first time, told me ‘you speak very good English, just like a white person,’” Katsuyama reminisced. “I think it really reflects the pressure placed on people coming out of camp to not speak Japanese… to assimilate.”

“Most Issei were Japanese speaking, particularly women,” Omori added. “When [the Nisei didn’t teach their children Japanese] we lost access to the older generation because of language barrier… There are novels written in Japanese by Issei in the camps, that most Japanese Americans cannot read.”

A culture ‘worth preserving’

Nisei panelist Chizu Iiyama, a community activist, noted that it wasn’t until the advent of the Asian American movement, part of the broader civil rights and counter culture movement, that ideas began changing.

“It was then we started questioning the notion of assimilating and realized that we had our own culture, that wasn’t either completely Japanese or American, that was worth preserving,” she explained.

All the panelists agreed that the incarceration politicized Japanese Americans.

Issei panelist Ruth Okimoto noted that encounters with Mojave Indians at Poston sensitized her to the struggles of other minorities and creating lasting bonds between communities.

NIKKEI ON CAMP — Jana Katsuyama led a panel discussion about internment with four generations of Japanese American women: Issei Ruth Okimoto, Nisei Chizu Iiyama, Sansei Chizu Omori, and Yonsei Cindy Sakai Kim (from left to right). photos courtesy of Cherry Blossom Alumnae

Personal reflections

While the speakers all discussed the broad implications of incarceration, many of the day’s most moving moments came from personal reflections on the nature of the incarceration and its legacy.

“In camp, we couldn’t have dogs or cats so we found scorpions and rattle snakes and kept them as pets,” Okimoto recalled. “My pet scorpion stayed with me next to my cot the whole time we were in camp… and to this day I keep scorpions as pets… and use them as models for my art.”

She added that art became her way of confronting her incarceration, as her family never openly discussed the war.

“I was in an art class and we were given an exercise: we threw paint on the paper and we were asked what we saw… I saw the camp,” the Issei artist said. “It was the first time in 30 years I had thought about it and I began to cry. I cried and I painted and then I cried some more.”

Nishikawa, who wrote, directed and starred in the 442nd film, “Only the Brave,” explained that he felt the incarceration was a separate film in itself, but he did include scenes set in the camps to give context to the story of the Nisei soldiers.

“I’ve got relatives on my mom’s side who were in Stockon at the time of the war and they were all incarcerated,” Nishikawa, who was born in Hawai‘i, explained. “I was visiting an aunt [talking about the war] and she brought out items that belonged to my [late] uncle [who was in the 442nd] — insignias and other items, including a senninbari belly band, with 1,000 red stitches.”

His aunt explained to him that the belt was a protective amulet made in camp, that was passed around the women in camp until 1,000 people had put a stitch in.

“The band was supposed to allow you to bring the strength of 1,000 loved ones with you into battle,” Nishikawa said. “That concept had so much [resonance], I knew it would be in something that I wrote someday.”

The band would become a key scene in his film.

Tomita, who also starred in “Only the Brave” and whose father was incarcerated, said that her career in film, particularly the concentration camp movie, “Come See the Paradise” gave her access to other people’s stories.

For instance, she learned that sugar had been scarce in Manzanar, so to ensure there would be manju come New Year’s, everyone went without sugar for the whole month of December and gave their supply to the Kito family, who ran the sweet shop Fugetsu-do.

“Those pink and white striped ones,” she joked, “if the kids don’t have it at New Year’s it won’t be a good year.”

She also explained that, while shooting “Paradise,” she got a very small taste of what the conditions in the concentration camps were like.

“One of the things you might not notice if you’re just looking at a picture is that the boards [that make up the walls aren’t sealed], so sand and wind are constantly coming through,” the actor explained. “I was on set for 12 to 14 hours a day for a few days… I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be there for three years.”

What the camps mean for the future of Japanese America is yet to be seen.

“It’s hard to know exactly what the camp means for the fourth generation,” Yonsei panelist Cindy Sakai Kim said. “In some ways, is very personal, but I think one thing that is pretty universal is that the camp experience calls on us to take an active role in figuring it out.”

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