RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Who gets to tell the Japanese American incarceration story?

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bioline_Chizu OmoriWhat are the meanings to be found in our camp experience? And why am I puzzling over such a deep question, and why now? It’s because I am involved in an inquiry about the contents that are to be placed in the Topaz Museum. As many of you know, there has been a multi-year effort to establish a museum in Utah commemorating the incarceration camp that existed there during World War II.

Through the government’s Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program, indeed a museum was recently built in the town of Delta, the nearest town to the actual campsite, about 16 miles away and about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City. Now, the project is in the phase of filling the building with exhibits and displays about that period where about 8,000 persons of Japanese ancestry spent the war years, in captivity.

The long-term dream of such a museum has been the goal of a resident of Delta, and she is well known for her dedication and work over many years to actualize the museum. We all owe her much for her efforts, and she will always be honored for her contribution.

Of course, to us, former inmates of the camps, the story of Topaz is a very important one, especially to Bay Area Japanese Americans because most of the people imprisoned there came from the Bay Area. There are still living survivors and their descendants who live here. After all, it is their story that should be told in the Topaz Museum exhibits. That is what so many have expected and supported over many years’ time.

There is always one nagging question that comes up: Who gets to tell our story? Who is best qualified to do this job? Historians come to mind, and there are plenty of such academics and others who were never in the camps and are not JAs, and we value their hard work and scholarship to get as close to the truth of things as possible. We would very much like to see the vast trove of material that has accumulated over the years to be reflected in telling our story. There is no excuse for ignorance because so much exists. We know that many who visit the museum will know little or nothing of the history, and it is important that they receive an accurate picture of life in the camp.

I also know that it is a complicated multi-layered story and people experienced it differently. Still, there were things that were common to all and this has to be the basis for a true account. So, I ruminate about meanings. Maybe the crucial issue was the one of identity: We had to reconcile the fact that as Americans, we supposedly were entitled to all the safeguards of citizenship, and yet, we still carried the stigma of our ancestry. And at one point, everyone over the age of 17 had to submit to a questionnaire that was to determine our “loyalty” to this country, and this proved to be very divisive and contentious.

I call attention to this business of the Topaz Museum because a meeting will be held Sunday, Dec. 13 in San Francisco’s Japantown, where the public will get a chance to see what is planned for the museum in way of texts, pictures and exhibits. So we should all show up to have a say in how out story is to be presented. This is a crucial opportunity for all of us to have a voice in the telling of our story. It’s so important that we who lived it and the subsequent generations that have been so influenced by the incarceration participate in getting it as right as possible.

The Topaz Museum Review meeting will be held Sunday, Dec. 13, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which is located at 1840 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. Topaz board members along with Franklin Odo, chair of the Topaz Advisory Group, a representative of West Office Exhibit Design and staff from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program, will be available to review the museum’s progress and the final version of the text prior to the start of manufacturing and installation of the permanent exhibits in Delta, Utah. The time and date for a review meeting in Salt Lake City will be announced shortly.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif., is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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