In 1942, some 120,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and imprisoned in concentration camps throughout the country. A film showing the impact of the incarceration on the children born to inmates in the Rohwer camp, or after the Arkansas camp closed down, will be shown in conjunction with the Day of Remembrance.
“Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration,” directed by Vivienne Schiffer, will be the showcase film at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s Films of Remembrance, screening Saturday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown.
“Relocation, Arkansas” focuses on three stories, two of Nikkei — Richard Yada and Paul Takemoto — whose lives have been affected by the camps, and one on the former mayor of McGehee, Rosalie Gould, who befriended the Nikkei, took in some of their artifacts and later exhibited them, and helped to spearhead the drive to renovate the Rohwer cemetery.
The film started out as a story about the art collection of Schiffer’s mother, Rosalie Gould, and how she came to be known in the Japanese American community as a safe haven for people to return to the Deep South. “What I found, though, was … how the trauma of the experience and the dislocation of the community affected the generation that had been born in or after camp,” Schiffer said.
Nikkei Labeled White
Richard Yada was born in the Rohwer camp, and after the war his family and about seven other families refused to return to California, where violence against Japanese Americans still existed. Instead, they became sharecroppers in Scott, Ark., meaning they worked the land and turned over a portion of their profits to the landowner.
Every aspect of a person’s life in the postwar South was dictated by whether that person was white or black, but the newcomers were neither, Schiffer pointed out. When the Yadas arrived in Scott, the community’s plan was for the Nikkei children to attend the black school. However, the woman who owned the land where the former inmates settled insisted they attend the white school. So that meant they were considered white people.
“I’ve known the Yada family for many, many years, and I knew Richard for over 30 years but I didn’t really know their history,” Schiffer related. “So when I learned that these families had moved to Scott to become sharecroppers because they were reluctant to return to California because of the discrimination and violence, that’s one of the great ironies that really struck me. They left camp and moved to a place in the Deep South that is known for its discrimination, intolerance and unfair treatment of minorities.”
Eventually the other inmates returned to California, and only the Yada family remained. The Yada boys, Richard and Robert, married Caucasians. There were anti-miscegenation laws in the South but they were directed against marriages between black and white, not Asian Americans.
The story is really about identity, Schiffer pointed out. “Richard Yada grew up in Arkansas and his teenage years were in Little Rock at the time of the Central High School integration movement. Richard described thinking like a white person, falling in with all of his friends who were deriding the Little Rock Nine, the black children who went to Central High and started the desegregation of the Little Rock school system.”
The reason Richard was born in Arkansas was because his family had faced the same kind of discrimination in California, she said. ”Yet Richard doesn’t know this. Nobody in Richard’s young life put a label on him. Therefore, he identified himself as one of the majority … as a white person.”
Paul Takemoto, who grew up in Maryland, didn’t want to know the details of the Arkansas camp in which his mother and her parents had been imprisoned. Ashamed of his Japanese American heritage, he was very rebellious.
“Paul’s problems growing up was he felt this pull toward customs and culture he didn’t want, something he didn’t understand and he definitely didn’t appreciate,” Schiffer explained. “That’s a story I heard from other people of his generation.”
Seeking to discover what his family’s incarceration experience meant to his identity, Takemoto attended a symposium, “Life Interrupted,” in Little Rock in 2004, Schiffer continued. He met Gould, who spoke at the event. It attracted many people who were interested in the camp, or had family in the camp. One attendee told the speaker, “Mrs. Gould, we came here all the way here from Maryland, and hearing you speak made the trip well worth it.” Then he brushed a little tear away and walked off.
That was Takemoto, a Sansei born after camp. Growing up in a virtually all-white area in Maryland far from the West Coast, “he felt a sense of disaffection because he didn’t know his family’s culture, and because his parents didn’t talk about what happened,” according to Schiffer.
When Takemoto finally started to explore his family’s history, he went to Rohwer, the director noted. “That was his way of finally making the connection, of understanding what his mother and grandparents had been through. Paul makes peace with his mother … We did not script anything, but that totally stunned us, Paul standing there crying, apologizing to his mother.”
Inmate Art Collection
Rosalie Santine Gould, 90, a descendant of Italian farmers, served as mayor of McGehee from 1983 to 1995, and since 1982 has been a fearless advocate for preserving the Rohwer site and the artwork, artifacts and documents.
Growing up in Tiller, not far from Rohwer, Gould didn’t know much about the camp. Widowed in 1965, she moved with her three children to McGehee in 1967 to operate the family farm.
In May of 1982, Gould learned about the Rohwer camp when she hosted a McGehee Chamber of Commerce dinner for some former inmates who were going to dedicate a monument at the camp cemetery. She socialized with the ex-inmates and invited them to come back.
Soon, more Nikkei visited Gould, often giving her camp memorabilia. “Tour buses and individuals kept coming,” she reminisced. “I started making speeches all over the United States, and professors would come to see everything the inmates were giving me.”
Mayor Gould takes no credit for the collection, which includes original documents as well as artwork, artifacts and autobiographies. “It was because of the former internees that the collection was amassed. They get all the credit.”
In 2011, Gould donated the collection to the Butler Center, which is a part of the Central Arkansas Library System. The collection’s appraised value is $800,000 to $1 million. “It is a bonanza for any researcher,” she noted.
Her mother’s collection is “incredible,” Schiffer commented. “I didn’t see it as monumental at the time … I took the collection for granted. I appreciated it, and I loved looking at it but I didn’t really appreciate it as a whole.
“The collection ended up in exactly the right hands; the Butler Center did a phenomenal job,” Schiffer said. “They’re primarily a research facility and the center is filled with highly qualified professionals who know how to treat something of this magnitude and historic significance.”
Schiffer, 57, is a native of Rohwer, Ark. “Relocation, Arkansas – Aftermath of Incarceration” is her first film. Previously an attorney, she is a documentary filmmaker and award-winning author who wrote a novel about the Rohwer incarceration camp, “Camp Nine.”
“Relocation, Arkansas: Aftermath of Incarceration” will be the Showcase Film at the sixth annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation on Saturday, Feb. 25 at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. It will screen at 6 p.m., followed by a Filmmakers Reception. For more information and to order tickets, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance.