Each year, more and more stories from the World War II American concentration camps are shared, broadening the public’s awareness about the long-term effects mass incarceration has had on the Japanese American community. Stories about people like Fred Korematsu, the Heart Mountain draft resisters and the “No-Nos” are esteemed within the community for their strong messages.
Although these stories focus on the political aspects of Japanese Americans’ mass incarceration, koto performer and teacher Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto decided to make a film that focuses on a more cultural perspective.
“One way to be able to express yourself and try to get some of that anxiety out because they were in prison was to do the arts — to dance, sing, and play instruments and it helped them stay positive,” she said.
“Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the World War II Internment Camps” explores what it was like for Japanese Americans to practice and teach traditional Japanese arts while being incarcerated.
Muramoto, who directed the film, said it features personal stories from musicians — koto, biwa, shamisen, shakuhachi and shigin — (stringed instruments, flute and sung poetry — dancers (Bon odori and buyo) and kabuki (classical Japanese dance and drama) theater actors. Even though most of the people she interviewed are Nisei who were incarcerated during the war, the film also includes interviews from those who learned the art after the war finished.
“Some of them are essentially carrying on the tradition so that we can enjoy (these arts) today,” she said.
A Sansei and 38-year koto teacher who learned how to play from her mother, Muramoto said she became curious about the concentration camps after she misunderstood it as a summer camp. She said her mother told her she learned how to play the koto from “camp.”
As she began to learn more about the American concentration camps, Muramoto realized there was very little information written specifically about Japanese music played within the concentration camps, which was her original focus. In order to learn as much as she could, Muramoto began to distribute flyers and ask around, looking for anybody who could share their cultural arts stories.
Eventually, Muramoto learned about a scholarly article written by Tokyo Arts University professor Minako Waseda that contained the only academically researched work she could find that provided information on the Japanese traditional arts practiced within concentration camps.
According to Muramoto, Waseda interviewed several former inmates in Southern California who practiced the traditional arts. Using Waseda’s research as a guide, Muramoto began talking to some of the same people Waseda interviewed and from there, the number of people that were sharing their story with her grew.
Arts Versus Barbed Wire
Not only were Japanese Americans forcibly relocated because of their race, but they also faced strict laws that prevented them from exploring their heritage comfortably.
Although the artists continued to practice within the concentration camps, sometimes fashioning masks and instruments out of materials they had available around them, the concentration camp directors oversaw almost the entire performance process.
For example, Muramoto said the concentration camp directors requested that kabuki plays be translated into English so that they knew what was being said. Shakuhachi music sheets were even examined and stamped as “detailed enemy mail.”
“Because of the atmosphere and the reason why they were in camp, I think it was still a brave thing (for them) to keep these arts up,” Muramoto said.
The role traditional arts have on people is still important today. Muramoto said she wants the audience to learn that cultural and traditional arts are relevant no matter where people originate from.
“If you take away the culture, you take away the heart and soul of the people,” she said.
Website Resource and a Future Film Screening
In addition to providing more information about the film, Muramoto said she hopes the film’s Website (www.jcalegacy.com) will become a hub of information for interested people.
It will also “house” all 31 interviews, some of which will not make it to the final movie cut.
She hopes that, by providing the full interviews, the Website will become a useful resource to researchers.
One idea for an additional feature to the Website is to make it a source for people interested in learning the different Japanese traditional arts. For example, if someone wants to learn how to play the koto, the Website will provide information on koto teachers and organizations. However, such a feature would require additional funds to keep the Website running.
Even though “Hidden Legacy” is not yet completed, a work-in-progress screening is set to take place at 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 5 at the Japanese American National Museum, which is located at 100 North Central Ave. in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Muramoto said she will use the opportunity to receive feedback from the audience about the film. A few of the interviewees will also be present at the screening, with a Q-and-A-format session to follow.
For more information about the film’s first pre-screening, go to www.janm.org/events/film/.
For more information about the film itself, contact Muramoto at (510) 482-1640 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.