‘HIDDEN LEGACY’: Film showcases the preservation of Japanese arts in the wartime concentration camps


A handwritten script used in a World War II American concentration camp. photo by Kristen Sato/Nichi Bei Weekly

A handwritten script used in a World War II American concentration camp. photo by Kristen Sato/Nichi Bei Weekly
A handwritten script used in a World War II American concentration camp. photo by Kristen Sato/Nichi Bei Weekly

SAN JOSE — June 28 marked the premiere film screening of “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the World War II Internment Camps” at San Jose’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. The film explores the practice and preservation of Japanese cultural arts in the American concentration camps, and is the result of more than 20 years of research by the film’s director Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto. An established koto performer and teacher, Muramoto is also the founding member of the Murasaki Ensemble, a group of musicians that combine the koto, the national instrument of Japan, with traditional jazz sounds.

The film premiere, presented by Murasaki Productions and Contemporary Asian Theater Scene, included opening remarks from the director, a koto performance by Muramoto and her son, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong, and a Q-and-A-format session with the audience following the screening.

“Hidden Legacy” is the first major presentation of the existence of traditional music, dance and drama, and the significant roles played by teachers of these classical Japanese art forms in the wartime camps. Through historical footage and interviews with artists who were incarcerated during the war, comes the story of how traditional Japanese cultural arts were maintained at a time when the War Relocation Authority, which governed these prison sites, emphasized the importance of assimilation and Americanization. 

The film includes candid interviews with 19 artists and concentration camp inmates about their experiences with Japanese performing arts while they were imprisoned, and highlights traditional Japanese arts such as music (koto, shamisen, shigin, shakuhachi), dance (buyo, Bon Odori) and drama (kabuki). The film offers personal anecdotes from those who practiced the arts in the wartime camps, as well as some of their children, to whom they have since passed tradition of the performing arts. 

Several of those interviewed in the film attended the premiere, including: Masayo Yasui Arii (Chidori Band founder and Gila River concentration camp inmate), and Reiko Iwanaga (CATS executive director and Granada (Amache) concentration camp inmate who learned buyo classical dance while imprisoned in Colorado). Iwanaga leads San Jose’s Bon Odori each year, and is the daughter-in-law of the late-Rev. Yoshio Iwanaga, who is credited with bringing Bon Odori to the mainland United States from Japan.

“Hidden Legacy” reveals how Japanese performing arts created a sense of community, unity and strength during a time of adversity for so many of those incarcerated. The film also spans the nuances between Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation) observation of the cultural arts in the wartime camps. For example, many of the Issei men, who suddenly found they had more time on their hands without their former jobs, took on tasks such as building and painting elaborate stage sets for kabuki plays, even manufacturing makeshift musical instruments and kabuki wigs using what resources they could gather while imprisoned. 

One of these wigs, created in the Granada concentration camp by Matsui Suimin, was on display at the premiere. It was created using combed out rope for hair, black Shinola polish to color the rope strands, and a metal base made from a part of a potbelly stove. Suimin’s granddaughter, who was present in the audience, remarked how she did not know about this history before the film but remembered her grandfather as a very creative man who crafted things for her when she was young.

While in the wartime camps, the Nisei were often encouraged to assimilate to American culture, so many of them participated in American pastimes such as baseball, basketball and swing dancing. However, they also learned and practiced the Japanese arts from the Issei and often performed in entertainment shows that would commonly take place in the mess halls. 

A LEGACY OF ART ­— Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto presented the story of Japanese arts in wartime Japanese American concentration camps. photo by Kristen Sato/Nichi Bei Weekly
A LEGACY OF ART ­— Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto presented the story of Japanese arts in wartime Japanese American concentration camps. photo by Kristen Sato/Nichi Bei Weekly 

During the interactive Q-and-A-format session with the audience, one of the questions was whether those who practiced Japanese arts during the camp days also participated in American activities. Muramoto answered, “Of course they did! In the film, one of the buyo classical dance teachers said, ‘Oh, I know how to do the Fox Trot!’ Additionally, one of the koto teachers said, ‘I never missed a dance!’ As an American, you can participate in many multi-cultural activities, Japanese, American, Hawaiian, etc.”

Another audience question was whether the Japanese traditional arts were practiced at all of the camps. Muramoto answered, “Yes, they were practiced at all the camps. The art of shigin singing in particular was practiced at all the camps. Shigin could be practiced very easily, as it did not require any accompaniment or any instruments. You could sing in any key that is comfortable for you, and sing at the top of your lungs! It also helped to express your emotions and get out your stresses. If you were more interested in American arts, swing music, the circle of people you’d be around would be with people of like interests. One of the interviewees also thought that only traditional Japanese music was practiced at her camp, that she never heard any American music there.” 

The event concluded with remarks of appreciation from audience members who noted the cultural significance of this project. 

Currently, the filmmakers are working with KRCB North Bay Public Television to air the film in the next couple of months with the hope to then distribute the film to other public television stations across the U.S. The filmmakers encourage the public to show their support to their local public television station. 

For more information about the film, visit: www.jcalegacy.com. For community groups or schools interested in a screening, contact Shirley Muramoto at: info@jcalegacy.com


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