Expensive home movie brings WW2 Japanese Canadian incarceration story to life for U.S. audiences

I recently had the honour of presenting the U.S. premiere of “Hatsumi – One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment” at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and a few weeks later at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s Films of Remembrance in San Francisco.

“Hatsumi” is a feature-length documentary that tells the story of the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Canadians from my grandmother’s perspective. It is the first film of its kind in Canada. The project was entirely self-funded and took 12 years to complete. It was widely released in Canada in November of 2012.

The trek south with the film has been a long time coming and I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Hatsumi” is entirely Canadian. At no point in the production process did I ever think there would be much interest among U.S. audiences; particularly as I am well aware as a member of the board of governors of the Japanese American National Museum in L.A., that the JA community still faces many challenges in the course of working to keep the JA story in the general consciousness of the wider U.S. population.
I was thrilled that the screenings were strongly attended and the lively question and answer sessions following both demonstrated two things. First, that a strong interest in the JC wartime experience exists (with many in the audience noting that they weren’t aware that JC’s had been incarcerated), and second, that the brutality of the JC wartime experience is shocking to those that perceive Canada as a purely benevolent nation.

The nutshell version of the major points of differentiation between the two internments are as follows.

With the invocation of the War Measures Act by the Parliament of Canada in the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Canadians were stripped of their rights as Canadian citizens; including the right to move freely and to own property. The majority of men of working age were separated from their families and forced to work on road camps and the assets that the government held in “trust” for the community were quickly liquidated by the “Custodian of Enemy Alien Property” for fire sale prices. Few Japanese Canadians retained any assets beyond those they could carry by the end of the war.

In the U.S., Japanese Americans retained their legal rights of citizenship under the protection of the Bill of Rights enshrined in the U.S. constitution.

Families were uprooted, but in the vast majority of cases they were detained as family groups and they, again, at least legally, retained their pre-war property rights. Following the war, JAs were permitted to return to their pre-war homes and property. The return wasn’t straightforward; there was widespread looting and vandalism that occurred with Japanese American properties and Japanese American businesses that had been successful during the pre-war years suffered mightily in the course of re-establishing themselves where resumption was even possible.

In contrasting the JC/JA experience, the point that generated the most reaction among audiences in the film was recounting the fact that Japanese Canadians were not permitted to return west of the Rocky Mountains, where well over 90 percent of the pre-war Japanese Canadian population had lived until 1949. The incredulous reaction to that point reminded me again just how outrageous so many aspects of the JC incarceration were, even when contrasted with the JA experience.

During my trip to San Francisco I was further honoured to be asked to participate in the local Day of Remembrance ceremony. As a young teenager I remember similar events being held in Canada to support of the redress movement, but they ended following the signing of the redress.

Racial dynamics in Canada present a far more unified front than the divide that’s currently reported in the U.S., but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that by reflecting on and sharing the experiences of the JA population, much can be done to make the country a better place for all of its citizens. Looking out to the sea of JA faces as I placed a candle on stage to commemorate the lives of those incarcerated at Gila River gave me a deep sense of my duties as a member of the wider JA family; it was a humbling and moving experience.

Our approach north of the border centers on the organization of events, conferences and educational initiatives to reach out to the next generation of students and society at large; the concept of open solemn contemplation, which felt very “Japanese” to me, is mostly absent from our activities. I look forward to recounting my experiences in San Francisco in the course of planning discussions for future commemorative events in Toronto.

In the meantime I’m happy to report that “Hatsumi” has been approved for inclusion in the curricula of the major school boards in Canada. My hope is that the film will prove useful as a tool for teachers to use in the course of educating a new generation of Canadians about the absolutely critical chapter in Canadian human rights history that the Japanese Canadian incarceration represents.

Chris Hope is a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer and producer. He is a member of the board of directors of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto and a member of the board of governors of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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