American nightmare turned into American Dream

REPURPOSED DWELLING — Tak Hoshizaki in front of a former Heart Mountain concentration camp barrack acquired by homesteaders Rudy and Doris Jolovich. photo by Stan Honda

“Moving Walls” by Sharon Yamato recounts the Japanese American experience at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp during World War II, and also discloses what happened after the war to the 457 barracks that had housed more than 10,700 ethnic Japanese from 1942-45.

The film describes how young veterans (including one Nisei, Tak Ogawa) seeking to homestead in postwar Wyoming were selected by the government through a lottery to purchase two barracks for a dollar apiece. “Moving Walls” looks at the intersection of the mass incarceration and the local population in areas surrounding the former camp.

“I wanted to make a film that was different from the many available films about camp life,” Yamato stated in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I found it fascinating that the barracks became an important building block for … the homesteaders looking for new lives on America’s frontier. These residential artifacts helped turn … an American nightmare into an American dream.”

Conflicting opinions remain between local homesteaders and former prisoners about the camp, noted Yamato, who spent more than a month in nearby Cody, Wyo. doing research. “Many of the remaining homesteaders still refuse to call Heart Mountain a concentration camp, and only refer to it as … ‘relocation center,’ and they still believe that the camps were built for the protection of Japanese Americans.”

Ugly Racial Slurs

Sharon Yamato. courtesy of Sharon Yamato

Yamato, a Sansei born after the Japanese American incarceration and the anti-Japanese wartime hysteria, wanted to show in the “most graphic way” how the Japanese were characterized during World War II — through news reports of Nikkei being incarcerated, and the announcer’s endless use of the ugly racial slur, JAPS. “It was difficult to see, but I wanted to give a sense of how fear could be created and stereotypes reinforced through newsreels.”

“Moving Walls,” accompanied by the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” describes camp life through interviews with former prisoners and with portraits of captive families. It demonstrates what the prisoners had to endure — the extremely bitter cold and horrible wind.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, who spent part of his boyhood at Heart Mountain and experienced that American nightmare, reveals emotionally in the film how he started crying when he visited the former camp’s Interpretive Center and saw the barracks exhibit.

Mineta’s old friend, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), vehemently castigates the government’s justification for incarcerating 120,000 ethnic Japanese from the West Coast: “Military necessity, my ass. It’s a direct violation of the Constitution … and a blot upon our record.”

Although there wasn’t time to report extensively about the Heart Mountain draft resisters, Yamato felt it important to identify Takashi Hoshizaki as a draft resister while interviewing him about his family’s experience living in a barrack.

Unique Kinship
When Yamato first went to Heart Mountain, she remembers feeling like a “foreigner in an all-white community.” But 20 years later, as she got to know the people and they welcomed her into their homes eager to tell their stories, she began to “feel a unique kinship” with them.

Subtle racism still exists in the area — in long-held beliefs about “the need to imprison American citizens for their skin color,” she added, but those beliefs are “completely separated from their attitude toward Japanese Americans today.”

Yamato hopes this film continues the dialogue between the local homesteaders and the Nikkei former prisoners, as well as other Japanese Americans who visit. “Happily, the film has already been extremely well received there,” she announced.

“Moving Walls” will screen Saturday, Feb. 24 at noon 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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