Addressing the silence

‘For the Sake of the Children’. photo courtesy of Fly on the Wall Productions

Following World War II, Japanese Americans returned home to the West Coast from various concentration camps. The experience, traumatic and humiliating for many former inmates, became a taboo subject for numerous families. Often times, their children would not learn about their incarceration until years later.

Marlene Shigekawa, a filmmaker based in Lafayette, Calif., explores that silence and its effect in her debut film, “For the Sake of the Children.”

Shigekawa, co-director and executive producer of the film, initially conceived the idea for it as she saw men getting recognized with the 2010 Congressional Gold Medal for Nisei veterans who fought in World War II. Counter to that, she asked, “what about the women?”

“They raised children in camp and gave birth to children in camp,” Shigekawa told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

“They showed a lot of bravery and courage, so our intent was originally to do a film focusing on women.”

Marlene Shigekawa

Shigekawa and Joe Fox, the film’s director, however, switched their focus to the children as they conducted their interviews. “(Fox) was surprised to find out that I didn’t know about camp until high school, so we started exploring that aspect,” she said.

Shigekawa’s experience was not unique.

Amy Tsubokawa was a teenager when she left the camp. She had her eldest daughter Patricia Tsubokawa Reeves six years after leaving the incarceration site. Tsubokawa Reeves said her parents raised her emphasizing her American side of being Japanese American and did not speak about the emotional toll of the camp experience until the 1990s.

“I learned about my mother and my father in a very personal and emotional way from my children’s college assignments,” she said.

Tsubokawa Reeves’ daughters Christine Reeves and Stephanie Gillman interviewed their grandparents and Tsubokawa Reeves learned, for the first time, the toll the incarceration had on her parents. “I sat there with my jaw dropped and my eyes open, and we started crying and it was very emotional, because … my parents wouldn’t talk to me about this.”

The film explores a variety of ways parents coped with the wartime experience. Some, such as Tsubokawa, eventually opened up, but others took their stories to the grave. Mary Higuchi, one of the film’s interview subjects, recounts her mother’s refusal to open up. Diana McCabe explores her mother’s time in Poston, Ariz., in which her mother did not think the experience was all that bad.

Monica Embrey, granddaughter of Manzanar Pilgrimage founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey, reflects on how her grandmother inspired her to become an activist for Greenpeace.

Shigekawa reflected on her parents’ silence about the wartime experience to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“In retrospect, even though we missed a lot in learning about camp, … I’d think their silence and higher expectations enabled us to reach for the stars and dream big to be all that we could be,” Shigekawa said. “By keeping that experience from us, we felt like we were … all American and I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Shigekawa said it was important for viewers to come in with an open mind.

“There’s so many aspects of it, how the people felt,” she said. “I feel with ours, it’s very different that there may be a surprise.”

“For the Sake of the Children” will screen at Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 24 at 4:15 p.m. at the seventh annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. For more information, see page 3 or visit: www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance.

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