The Nichi Bei Foundation presented its fifth annual Films of Remembrance program Feb. 20 at the New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. The one-day film festival hosted a full day of programming portraying the lives of Japanese Americans across the United States in a period of time spanning some 80 years, from pre-war Japanese American activism to educational programing that’s being developed today.
The first screenings of the day featured the stories of Nisei linguists fighting in the Battle of Okinawa as members of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service. The films, “Typhoon of Steel,” directed by Gena Hamamoto, and “The Herbert Yanamura Story” by Stacey Hayashi and Alexander Bocchieri, depicted stories of the Battle of Okinawa, where some 150,000 civilians perished, according to Hayashi’s film. Members of the MIS, specially-trained Japanese American soldiers embedded in the Army, not only provided language assistance, which contributed to winning the war, but also saved countless civilian lives by convincing them to surrender peacefully rather than to commit suicide. Former MIS members Frank Higashi, a San Jose resident, and Herbert Yanamura, a resident of Hawai‘i, attended the screening.
“I think the two filmmakers should be congratulated for capturing stories … in a very timely way before the historical subjects disappear,” said Ben Kobashigawa, the discussion’s moderator.
Hamamoto said the MIS’ story is worth recognizing, because it was relatively unknown until recently, due to the classified nature of their work. Hayashi also noted that MIS veterans often shied away from the spotlight. “These MIS guys, they’re so humble and a lot of them will say ‘the 442 and the 100th, they did the real fighting,’ they’ll just kind of brush off what they did,” she said.
“Although I didn’t think much of it, personally, as to my accomplishment, I’m glad to know the saving of those 1,500 lives meant so much,” Yanamura said.
The second session of screenings featured a slate of short films that recreate moments in Japanese American history. Renee Tajima-Peña’s “Building History 3.0: Learning about Japanese American Incarceration Camps Through Minecraft”; Tina Takemoto’s “Warning Shot: The Killing of James Wakasa,” an artistic film depicting the conflicting accounts about the death of inmate Wakasa in the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp; and Jeffrey Gee Chin’s “Lil Tokyo Reporter,” a film depicting the life of Sei Fujii, an Issei activist who earned a law degree but could not practice law and was the publisher of the Kashu Mainichi in Los Angeles, were screened.
Next, Claudia Katayanagi’s “A Bitter Legacy: WWII Secret Citizen Isolation Prisons” was screened, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker, painter and former wartime Leupp, Ariz. inmate Taneyuki Dan Harada and Art Hansen, professor emeritus of history from California State University, Fullerton. The film detailed the experience of the wartime incarceration, particularly focusing on Citizen Isolation Centers in Death Valley, Calif.; Moab, Utah and Leupp, Ariz.
Hansen praised the film for covering a facet of history that has largely been hidden away. “The problem over the years was that it was not only called an isolation center, but it was isolated from inquiry, isolated from history,” Hansen said.
Katayanagi started researching the incarceration experience after realizing the full extent of what had happened to Japanese Americans. “Our mom would always say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’” she said. “I think when I saw my first barracks at the Japanese American National Museum, I thought ‘Oh my God. She’s right. What a place to be.’”
Following “A Bitter Legacy,” the event screened “The Empty Chair,” by Greg Chaney of Juneau, Alaska. The film was made in conjunction with the Empty Chair Project, a bronze memorial erected in the Alaskan city in memory of the Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from the city. The symbolic chair was set out for John Tanaka, Juneau High School’s Japanese American valedictorian who was unable to attend his graduation ceremony after being forcibly removed from his home.
Chaney, who is a lands and resources manager with the city and borough of Juneau, joined the event via Skype alongside Mary (Tanaka) Abo, who was also featured in the film.
Chaney said, while he is not a professional filmmaker, he decided to film the documentary after the Empty Chair Project committee approached him to ask where they could erect a monument. “I wanted to reach out to the non-Japanese Americans that were affected on the community of Juneau. It’s not just on the people taken away, but the impact of the whole community,” he said. “We don’t just harm the people that are sent away, we harm the whole community.”
Abo said only about 200 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from Alaska. “Even though it’s a small number, we felt we needed to be acknowledged,” she said. She went on to say that Chaney wove a cohesive and rich story about the Japanese American experience in Juneau through his interviews.
The event’s centerpiece film, “Right of Passage,” is a documentary that depicts the political maneuvers undertaken by politicians required to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Following the film, Janice Tanaka, the filmmaker; John Tateishi, former head of the Japanese American Citizens League’s efforts for redress; Hansen; Chizu Omori, former plaintiff of the National Council for Japanese American Redress lawsuit; and John Ota of the National Coalition for Redress/Reparations spoke together in a panel moderated by former broadcaster Wendy Tokuda.
Hansen praised the film, but expressed reservations. The emeritus professor of history and Asian American studies noted that the film lacked focus on the Redress Movement and solely focused on the legislative process.
Ota agreed, saying the movement was the real driving force in getting the bill passed. “In the beginning, Japanese American legislators were telling the community ‘Don’t get your hopes up, it’s never going to happen,” Ota said. “I think that later, they realized there was such a strong movement and community, they needed to get in front of it or they would have been left behind.”
Tateishi said the politicians, however, made redress possible. “It was (Sen. Daniel K.) Inouye who said, ‘every colleague we have, just about, in the Senate and the House, does not know about camp or they think what happened was right. So how are you going to convince them that what you’re pushing for is justified?’” he said. “He’s the one who came up with the idea of the Commission (on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians). I hated that idea.”
Tanaka acknowledged that the film focused on the lawmakers over the activism. “Our intention was to really look at the legislative process, and it happened to be the Civil Liberties Act of 1988,” she said. She also acknowledged that the film, to some, seemed to focus on President Ronald Reagan. “When you do a film like this, where you want people to watch, who is the most notable person that you can think of in the story of redress that a regular American maybe in the south or mid-west would recognize? And we thought, Ronald Reagan.”
Following the final showing, attendees were treated to a reception with the filmmakers. Attendees enjoyed food prepared by Nakayoshi Young Professionals and entertainment by the University of California Berkeley alumni acapella group MEaN, Okinawan music by Lucy Nagamine and Naoko Nishimata, and a dramatic reading of Sei Fujii’s wartime diary by Academy Award winning director Chris Tashima, who portrayed Fujii in “Lil Tokyo Reporter.”
The 2016 Films of Remembrance was made possible with major funding by the George and Sakaye Aratani Community Advancement Research Endowment grants of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Asian American Studies Center and the Wayne Maeda Educational Fund, gold sponsor Union Bank, and silver sponsors the Florin and San Francisco chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League.