The tapestry of this moment

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When I first read about the planned auction of Japanese American camp artifacts in the New York Times, I was sad. But I was resigned. I assumed that there was nothing to be done, that the seller and Rago Arts simply had the right to sell objects in their possession. And that was my mistake. There were others around the country who felt immediately that an auction of these artifacts was a terrible idea, and simultaneously that something could be done. I have never been so glad to be wrong about so much.

So much, in fact, was unexpected. In Toshi Abe’s photos of the Rago Arts warehouse, there ware emerald metal crossbeams, large industrial fans and high windows. On April 15, 2015 there were surprising additions to the scene: a New Jersey state trooper in uniform, standing quietly at the entrance of the auction room and a reporter from NBC News, Denise Nakano, on hand with a film crew. Abe, a retired research scientist from New Jersey, was there with his wife in order to observe the preview for the planned auction of 450 artifacts, made by incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

The event’s title and agenda changed rapidly over several previous days as community voices began to express displeasure with the planned auction. Rago Arts had planned to have a talk from Eric Muller, editor/author of the book “Colors of Confinement.” But Muller withdrew from the event, citing his support for community organizers who had contacted him and wanted the auction to be delayed. To replace Muller’s talk, Rago planned a showing of “The Cats of Mirikitani” by Linda Hattendorf, a documentary about the artist Jimmy Mirikitani, an incarceree at Tule Lake. Hattendorf too asked the auction house to withdraw her film, citing her support for a delay. In the end, Rago decided to show “Days of Waiting,” a documentary about Estelle Peck Ishigo, a Caucasian artist who willingly followed her Japanese American husband into incarceration. By the day of the event, the event was simply titled — ironically — “Japanese American Internment.” The title was later changed to the “Rago Estate Auction Open House,” the current title used for publicity. Over 400 invitations were issued for the preview, and around 40 people attended.

After the documentary was over, Abe says in his firsthand account (which he later posted on Facebook), David Rago stepped to the podium.

Weeks after the preview, I had the chance to talk about what happened with several of the community organizers that were requesting the delay. “It felt like the house was burning down and we needed to put out the fire,” journalist Nancy Ukai Russell wrote to me. “The names of the people holding the hose didn’t seem important.” She and two other Nikkei women, Satsuki Ina and Barbara Takei, had been working with a small group on ways to organize a widespread, grassroots protest of the auction. The group had spent weeks writing letters, articles and e-mails, answering inquiries and formulating plans of action. Lorna Fong had established a Change.org petition, which gathered close to six thousand signers by the day of the preview.

On Twitter several hundred tweets using the hashtag #StopRago had been posted and retweeted. “(For us) it slowly became a full-time job,” said Ina.

All three of the founding ad hoc committee members I spoke with (Ina, Russell and Takei) are also quick to point to the efforts of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF). Washington, DC Attorney Shirley Higuchi, chair of the board for the HMWF, worked on the issue after hours, often after 10 and 11 p.m. When asked how many hours she and the board members spent on trying to halt the auction, Higuchi said “A lot of late nights.”

Higuchi is proud of her board members, who collectively offered $50,000 for the removal of the lots from the auction.

“My style of advocacy is highly collaborative,” said Higuchi. “I consulted with the (Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation) leadership, including Doug Nelson and Brian Liesinger every step of the way.”

For reasons which have not been disclosed, the HMWF offer was refused by Rago and John Ryan, the consignor. Many — though perhaps not enough — credit the injunction filed by the HMWF as one factor in halting the auction. It’s interesting to note that Rago’s Facebook page directly contradicts the Heart Mountain press release, saying “(our) decision was made before we knew of their intention (to file an injunction).” Yet other Nikkei institutions, including the board of the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, had also come forward with monetary offers. Community allies and individuals had offered to pay for the lots as a contingency plan, if the auction went ahead as scheduled.

Petitions, phone calls, and e-mail messages to the auction house did not halt the auction. Inquiries, reviews, and comments with the company’s Facebook page were deleted. Each signature on the Change.org petition sent a corresponding e-mail message to David Rago. If John Ryan, the consignor, had not felt qualified to choose an institution, as he stated first through Rago and then through a New York Times article, it is strange that he felt qualified to reject these previous offers. It’s not clear what role celebrity George Takei played in the halt or in facilitating the conversation and ultimate sale. Ultimately, it’s difficult to pinpoint which factors led to the halt besides the simple fact of a price tag.

As a common legal courtesy, Higuchi told me, it’s customary to first notify the court where the intent to file will take place, and then the defendant. Heart Mountain’s attorneys in New Jersey had notified the court of their intent to file the injunction; they notified Rago and the consignor.

A few hours later at the auction house, “Days of Waiting” had concluded. As Toshi Abe’s note says, David Rago brought the next planned speaker, designer Mira Nakashima, to the podium, where he announced “quietly” that the lots had been pulled. Applause broke out in the room.

The founding committee members and Higuchi were all in the middle of other work when news of the auction halt reached them. Higuchi was flying on a plane from Salt Lake City where she was attending to family matters that included a visit to her father, a Heart Mountain incarceree. Russell was at her computer when a phone call from Toshi Abe brought her the news. Takei was “confused” when she heard the news, since it arrived just after a phone call regarding HMWF’s injunction. Ina was on a plane to San Antonio, Texas to meet with refugees from Central America at the behest of the ACLU; when she checked her e-mail and read the news she was “shocked, relieved, and deeply grateful.”

Speaking with Higuchi and the other committee members highlighted the spirit of collaboration which was a hallmark of this campaign. When asked separately they each pointed to the larger web of people and organizations involved. The three ad hoc committee members were joined by others, including Abe, Takei’s husband Yoshinori Himel, Laura Iiyama, Mike Ishii, John Kusano and Chizu Omori. According to Abe’s Facebook note, religious leaders from Buddhist, Islamic, Presbyterian and Quaker communities had come forward to offer written protests, meeting spaces, and interfaith support. Taiko drumming had been planned as protest for the auction opening itself, scheduled for two days after the preview.

Higuchi pointed to the collaboration and support of other camp pilgrimage committees, including Tule Lake and Manzanar.

Shortly before the auction halt, I began my involvement in the social media aspect of the protest, urging people to share and sign the Change.org petition through Facebook and Twitter. Though my involvement was small, I felt connected to making a difference. I learned across generations and across geographic communities, meeting new allies. Even in the writing of this piece, Ina remained my teacher. “It’s just my narrative, clearly biased and one-sided, so please get other people’s perspective so you will have something closer to the truth,” she reminded me. “It’s a trippy ego-thing to claim a single person or a handful of good people made it all happen.” Much as mainstream culture and media likes to cling to the narrative of a single hero — and many of us were excited by the idea of George Takei’s intervention at first — there were so many who made this happen.

The movement was international, with news coverage spreading to Japan. The movement was multigenerational, from the Sansei members of the ad hoc committee to Yonsei blogger Sean Miura. Takei credits her son Carl for some of the movement’s social media strategies, while Russell’s daughter helped her with the creation of the Facebook page. The movement was multiethnic, including Nikkei communities and their allies like Jamie Ford (author of the bestselling novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”). Russell also noted that many other “non-Japanese American supporters were passionate in saying ‘never again.’”

After the collection was purchased by the Japanese American National Museum in May, there has been much celebration, but the organizers feel that their work is not finished. “The question looms,” as Takei says: “will JANM convene, consult with, and collaborate with other Japanese American institutions, families and groups who have a claim to items in the collection?” The three founding women, together with five others have formed a new committee, the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop The Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts. Unveiling themselves on Facebook for their seven thousand followers strong, they write, “We hope to remain a place where camp material culture and property is discussed….Please let us know how we can help.”

My own interest in writing this piece comes from a place of kodomo no tame ni, from how I want my Yonsei daughters to know their history. I want them to know about this important moment of coalition in Japanese American history; I want them to know that women were central (not peripheral) to this movement. Concluding her message to me, Ina wrote, “I truly believe that the collective unconscious can create a powerful force for the betterment of human beings if we pay attention.”

Now that we have paid attention again, how do we write a history of collaboration? This protest was a movement of tapestry, rather than a single line of stitching. How do we teach a history of textured and thoughtful cooperation to our children? When can we see “behind the scenes” work not just as background but foundation? How can we remember and pass on the interwoven tapestry of this moment?

Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay freelance writer and editor, originally from Northern California and now living in Tacoma, Wash. She is writing a memoir that responds to her father’s wartime incarceration experience at Tule Lake; more of her writing is available through http://kikugirl.net. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

 

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Correction

Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the June 11, 2015 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the piece entitled “The tapestry of this moment” erroneously  stated that the “Heart Mountain (Wyoming Foundation)’s attorneys in New Jersey had notified the district of their intent to file the injunction; they notified Rago and the consignor.” The foundation had notified the court. Additionally, the foundation was referred to as the “HWMF,” not the “HMWF.” The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the errors.

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