Films of Remembrance presents intergenerational stories of incarceration

A FILM EVENT TO REMEMBER ­— Above (L to R) Nichi Bei Foundation Board Chair Kiyomi Takeda, Myles Matsuno, Konrad Aderer, Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma, Jon Osaki, Robin D’Oench, Vivienne Schiffer, Jason Matsumoto, Kazuko Golden and San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. At left is filmmaker Emiko Omori. photo by William Lee

The Nichi Bei Foundation presented its sixth annual Films of Remembrance program Feb. 25 at the New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. The one-day film showcase focused on the mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent during World War II, most of whom were American citizens.

“This year’s Films of Remembrance had a record number of 10 films screened across five programs, including a mixture of narrative and documentary shorts, in addition to two feature-length documentaries,” said Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma. “It was inspiring to see films largely created by children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren of the camps from across the country. While we’ve never quite sold out any screening in the past, this year four of five programs were sold out.”

Taguma estimated a total of more than 750 people attended the five screenings.

The event began with a screening of two short films discussing family histories created by descendants of the wartime incarceration in Documenting Family Histories Program. The films were Myles Matsuno’s “First to Go” and Jon Osaki’s “Yonsei Eyes.”

“These two filmmakers have taken family personal experiences and turned them into these wonderful programs that reflect not only their families’ wartime experience, but I think is really symbolic of our shared Japanese American wartime experience,” said Dianne Fukami who moderated the discussion after the films.

Matsuno’s short documentary focusing on his family’s story before, during and after the war was told primarily through his grandmother, Mary Matsuno, who also attended the screening.

Matsuno said his film — based on his great grandfather, Aki Hotel owner Ichiro Kataoka, being the first to be picked up from San Francisco’s Japantown after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — stressed the importance of family. “That was my main reason why I made this movie and it’s been really neat and cool to see how … everyone came together from all sides,” said the Southern California-based Myles Matsuno.

Osaki, who is executive director of the San Francisco Japantown-based Japanese Community Youth Council, did not initially intend to make a film, but the project came together as he found footage of an interview of his father-in-law, Tsukasa Matsueda, and later his own father Wayne Osaki. His two children, Mika and Lee Osaki — whose journey on the Tule Lake Pilgrimage was the focus of “Yonsei Eyes” — also attended the screening.

“Both me and my brother were fortunate to grow up … a part of the Japanese American community here. In terms of the facts, we had a pretty good grasp of that,” said Mika Osaki.

“But going to Tule Lake really gave us the opportunity — it’s one thing to know the numbers and know what happened.”

Next, the Telling Stories Program screened Emiko Omori’s new short “When Rabbit Left the Moon,” Brendan Uegama’s dramatic short “Henry’s Glasses” and Brett Kodama’s documentary “One-Two-One-Seven: A Story of Japanese Internment,” three films trying to overcome the deep psychological barriers that blocked people from frankly discussing their experience.

Omori, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, made what she calls a “video poem” to use images of the wartime incarceration to evoke the experience. “Pictures are worth a thousand words,” Omori said. “Many documentaries including ‘Rabbit (in the Moon,’ Omori’s 1999 documentary) did not have sufficient time to absorb what was happening.”

Uegama discussed his film on the Japanese Canadian incarceration during World War II via Skype. “It all stemmed from the idea that when I would talk to my father or anyone I knew from (the Japanese Canadian) internment, … they never wanted to speak about it,” he said. “It was only once I got involved in the film that my father would open up.”

Kodama, together with his grandmother Sharon Okazaki, later joined the discussion by Skype as well. Okazaki said her experience of being orphaned while incarcerated — her father killed her mother, and then died by suicide while in the Manzanar concentration camp ­— was something she had largely forgotten about over the years.

“We didn’t talk about it until recently when people are curious and asked about it,” she said.

While she knew about 100 or so orphans stayed at the Manzanar Children’s Village, she said she could not recognize or remember any of them when she attended a reunion some years ago.

The third slate of short films focused on fictionalized short narratives that depict the beginning, middle and end of the wartime incarceration through Hidden Histories: The Story & Legacy of Nikkei WWII Incarceration featuring “The Orange Story” by Erika Street Hopman, “A Song for Manzanar” by Kazuko Golden and “Tadaima” by Robin D’Oench.

Golden and D’Oench attended the screening with Jason Matsumoto, “The Orange Story’s” producer. Chicago-based Matsumoto said he had come to produce the film with his co-producer and script writer Eugene Park because they were seeking stories that were about Americans that did not look like a “typical American.”

“The Japanese American incarceration is one of those moments in history where it’s confusing because two-thirds of them were American,” Matsumoto said.

Matsumoto said his film received a grant on the condition that they also create an educational component to teach about the wartime incarceration. Matsumoto then scouted out three other films — including the films by Southern California-based Golden and New York-based D’Oench — to screen together to provide a broader understanding of the wartime incarceration and its effects.

While “The Orange Story” depicted the dilemma of a store owner preparing to be sent to a concentration camp, “A Song for Manzanar” was based on a forthcoming novel by Golden’s mother about two sisters in Manzanar and Hiroshima. D’Oench’s “Tadaima,” a rare look at the journey back from the camps, was dedicated to his grandfather, the late University of California, Berkeley Professor Paul Takagi.

Second to last, the full-length version of “Resistance at Tule Lake” by Konrad Aderer was screened, a film detailing the story of the 12,000 who protested the wartime incarceration and were imprisoned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. While Aderer’s family had been incarcerated in Topaz (Central Utah), the filmmaker focused on resistance during the wartime incarceration after working on his first film “Enemy Alien,” about the incarceration and resistance of Palestinian activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti.

“(Tule Lake’s resisters did) the same exact things as Farouk did. He conducted hunger strikes, he was beaten, he went through all kinds of oppression and he organized people to resist, and so I became completely swept up in that history,” the New York-based Aderer said. While the film focused on Tule Lake and did not explicitly tie in the current climate of Islamophobia, Aderer said the themes resonate with what he chose to include in the film.

“It was important to mention what the Executive Order was; it wasn’t an order to incarcerate Japanese Americans,” he said. He added that he has had discussions where the most recent so-called “Muslim ban” instituted by President Donald Trump, also faces similar arguments.

“I’ve been in discussions with people who say, ‘it’s non-journalistic to call it a ‘Muslim ban.’’”

This year’s showcase film was “Relocation, Arkansas — Aftermath of Incarceration” by Vivienne Schiffer, a film on Japanese American families that did not move back to California after being incarcerated in Arkansas, and a local mayor who fought to preserve the history of World War II incarceration in Arkansas, despite threats from friends. Along with Schiffer, who attended the screening from Houston, the event featured Rosalie Gould, former mayor of McGehee, Ark., in a Skype chat. During the discussion, the Nichi Bei Foundation presented a plaque honoring her for her dedication to preserving the Japanese American experience despite facing death threats while mayor.

“When I started in 1982, when I first met the former internees, no one would talk about it,” Gould told the gathering, including her daughter, Schiffer. “Everyone was against anything to do with the Japanese Americans. They just kept telling them they didn’t understand that these internees were American citizens and they had lost their civil rights and that was absolutely not right.”

“I’m so happy we got to see the film,” said Marielle Tsukamoto, one of the film’s interview subjects. “I know that I would never have come to Arkansas to see Rohwer and Jerome without you (Gould), without your commitment, without your persistence, without that stubborn determination that helped you preserve our legacy. More than that, you helped us appreciate what we had, what we had lost, and what we had learned from that experience. I want to thank you. I don’t think any of this would have happened without your fierce determination.”

Schiffer said her first film was inspired by a fictionalized account of the camps that she wrote.

Schiffer discussed the process of making the film and the chance meetings that brought to her two of the stars in the documentary, Paul Takemoto of Maryland and Richard Yada of Scott, Ark.

“I’m from Rohwer. That’s my hometown. I wrote a novel about it because I thought it was such a fascinating idea that here I was in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “I thought nobody had ever been there and nobody is ever going to come there, but when you see the cemetery, you know somebody had been there.”

Taguma said he partly attributed the increased interest in this year’s screenings to the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 as well as “the assault on civil liberties in today’s political climate, which has caused many to gather around Day of Remembrance events to ensure that what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II doesn’t happen again to others.”

“Now more than ever, it’s important for us to remind the public of our wartime experience in order to safeguard the rights of others,” he said.

In addition to Fukami, discussion moderators included filmmakers Satsuki Ina and Eddie Wong, journalist Martha Nakagawa and Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2. Nakagawa, representing UCLA, also discussed the university’s Jack and Aiko Herzig Collection as well as its Suyama Project archives, both of which are accessible to the public.

The event finished with a reception in the theater’s lobby with the filmmakers emceed by Katsuyama, who interviewed the filmmakers. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi presented a certificate of Commendation from the City of San Francisco, arranged by San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, and Nichi Bei Foundation Board Chair Kiyomi Takeda also presented plagues on behalf of the foundation. Attendees enjoyed food prepared by Nakayoshi Young Professionals, Takara Restaurant and Nichi Bei board members while they listened to Okinawan music by Wesley Ueunten and Naohiro Matsuzawa and a capella performance by the Nikkei Choral Ensemble of University of California, Berkeley and its alumni.

The 2017 Films of Remembrance was made possible with major funding by presenting sponsor: Aratani CARE grant, UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center; Gold Sponsors Japanese Community Youth Council, Tule Lake Committee, Berkeley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, Dr. Himeo Tsumori, Yuko and Richard E. Benedetti and Alice and Mark Taguma; Silver Sponsors Moriwaki Imai & Fujita, Inc. Insurance Agency, the Florin and San Francisco chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League, Yu-Ai Kai, Kenneth and Yoshiko Ho, Mary Ishisaki, Judge Lillian Sing, Go and Kay Sasaki and Mariko Sharon Taguma.

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