Films of Remembrance unveils little-known stories of wartime incarceration

UNCOVERING HISTORY ­— (From far left): Filmmakers Sharon Yamato, Holly Yasui, Lucy Ostrander, Don Sellers, Ryan Kawamoto and Steve Nagano at the Filmmakers Reception. photo by William Lee

The Nichi Bei Foundation presented its seventh annual Films of Remembrance program, featuring a curated selection of 10 films, Feb. 24 at the New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. The one-day film showcase shed light on once-hidden facets of the Japanese American incarceration experience where some 120,000 people of Japanese decent were imprisoned during World War II.

“While the story of the wartime incarceration gets more widely known through films like these, it is also of note that these new films help to uncover little-known or untold stories of this experience. We’re proud to have provided such a vehicle to help give these films an audience,” Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said.

“Given the dark cloud that surrounds such uncertain times, we feel that now, more than ever, we need to learn lessons from the past in order to prevent the repetition of such deprivation of civil liberties today,” Taguma added, noting the role Japanese Americans have played to safeguard the rights of other minorities and groups by speaking up about their wartime experiences.

“This program, and the reminder of the impact and continued impact of the illegal incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens, is especially important in today’s social and political context,” said Christen Sasaki, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and a Films of Remembrance committee member. “What I found interesting was that in this year’s films, I see a common theme — of the younger generation interacting and speaking with their elders who were incarcerated.”

The event began with a screening of two films under the theme of “Taking a Stand.” The films, Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider’s “And Then They Came For Us” and Brandon Miyasaki’s short documentary of the “Florin JACL / CAIR Manzanar Pilgrimage,” focused on present-day activism inspired by the Japanese American experience. A panel discussion featuring Ginzberg, Miyasaki, Zahra Billoo and Marielle Tsukamoto, moderated by filmmaker Satsuki Ina, followed the films.

“We were less than two percent of the nation, … but it was the power of people who understood how important it was to get that apology, how it was important to get that $20,000 because it set a precedence that we step forward,” Tsukamoto, a former wartime inmate and former president of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said. “Many people that were Nisei said, ‘oh Mary (Tsukamoto’s mother), we don’t need it,’ and she always answered this: ‘It’s not for you, it’s for the future.’ The same thing occurs here. That film that Abby made? It’s not for us, it’s for the future.”

(From left to right): Zahra Billoo, filmmakers Abby Ginzberg and Brandon Miyasaki, and Marielle Tsukamoto. photo by William Lee

Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area office, noted that the Japanese American community had nothing to gain in speaking up for the Muslim community and did so as an “obligation” for having survived the wartime incarceration. “What we hope is that, when we survive this moment in history, we will be as brave, courageous and bold in standing up for other communities as the Japanese American community has been for us,” Billoo said.

The second segment featured “Moving Walls” by Sharon Yamato and “The Colorado Experience: Freedom & Poverty” by Bryan Yokomi. The two films focused on two concepts of freedom during and after the incarceration experience. For “Moving Walls,” Yamato told the stories of the barracks that formerly housed Japanese Americans at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. The buildings were sold for a dollar each to homesteaders, and found new purpose for those newly settling in the region after the war.

Yokomi’s grandmother was not incarcerated during the war. Her family, instead, moved to Colorado ahead of the incarceration and ran an ultimately unsuccessful farm. The film told of the double edged sword Yokomi’s family experienced in obtaining freedom from the camps while still suffering from the wartime hysteria and racial prejudice rampant in America at the time.

Following the films, Yamato and Yokomi discussed their films with moderator Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2.

Filmmaker Bryan Yokomi. photo by William Lee

Yokomi recounted the experience of trying to find his grandmother’s former house in Colorado where his family lived to escape the wartime incarceration. His film features a segment where he walks through the dilapidated remains of what was likely his grandmother’s childhood home during the war.

“It was quite a journey to go out there, I didn’t have that much information of where it was,” he said. “We had … photos for reference, driving down all these farm roads.”

The third pair of films, “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Hawai’i Island” by Ryan Kawamoto and “Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii” by Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers, focused on the incarceration experience of Nikkei in Hawai‘i during the war.

Sellers, who lives in Washington with Ostrander, said their decision to create a documentary on a Military Intelligence Service veteran came after filming their previous film, “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” He said Yamane’s daughter contacted them, suggesting they make a film on him after seeing Matsumoto’s biopic.

Both stories tell of Japanese Americans who were living in Hawai’i during the war. Ostrander and Sellers wanted to add context to the film to teach mainland Americans about the history of Nikkei service members from Hawai’i. In a post-film discussion moderated by broadcast journalist Jan Yanehiro, Kawamoto said “Voices” is one of four films produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i and funded through the Japanese American Confinement Sites Program by the National Park Service.

In addition to funding the films, Carole Hayashino, executive director of the JCCH, said the organization had hired archeologists to find and document all 17 detention camps in Hawai’i. “Some of these sites are so remote and so covered over, that it’s only been in the last two years that these sites had been rediscovered,” she said. The next step would be to discuss with both the government and the local communities how best they can preserve these sites for the future.

The fourth set of films, under the theme of “Kodomo no Tame Ni,” featured the short animation “Yamashita” by Hayley Foster and “For the Sake of the Children” by Marlene Shigekawa and Joe Fox. Shigekawa and Patty Tsubokawa Reeves, an interviewee in the documentary, held a discussion moderated by filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer after the screening.

Reeves, a civil rights lawyer, said prejudice could be dissolved through a personal connection. She noted that even when she and her clients win a case, the outcome is a monetary compensation instead of a “real apology.”

The showcase films were the short “Speak Out for Justice” by Steve Nagano and “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice” by Holly Yasui and Will Doolittle. Nagano had a discussion with filmmaker Frank Abe after his film and Holly Yasui and Peggy Nagae, lead attorney for Min Yasui’s coram nobis case, held a discussion moderated by filmmaker Dianne Fukami.

Nagano said the testimonies of the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians hearings were a “watershed moment” for the Nisei who had largely kept quiet until they testified.

Now, decades later, Nagano said the next generation of Japanese Americans are not aware of the pain and anger displayed in the hearings. “They think we went to camp, … and everything was cool but if you see these people — out of their mouths come the emotion, the pain, the anger we don’t normally see.”

Nagano’s film, a 14-minute excerpt of footage from the Los Angeles CWRIC hearings, drew questions on where recordings of other hearings are located, and if they are being made available similarly to Nagano’s three-hour “Selected Testimonies” DVD and the full 23-hour collection of footage.

While the recordings are of the Los Angeles hearings, Nagano said he is looking for other recordings. “I heard that Chicago had a DVD, one DVD that they didn’t want to release,” he said, noting existence of film of the Seattle hearings. Nagano said he hopes to obtain the footage to work on them. For San Francisco’s hearings, however, Nagano noted there is no known recording.

Yasui’s documentary on her father’s life was her post-retirement project, she said after the film. Joined by Nagae via Skype, the two discussed their insights to Yasui’s significance today.

“I hope that people learn … that he intentionally and courageously did something at a very young age and felt a responsibility as a citizen and a lawyer to speak out,” Nagae said. She noted Yasui’s courageous stand against Japanese American incarceration was only the beginning and he would go on to help other minority groups in his career. “He was a multicultural, multiracial collaborator in the (19)40s before those terms were even coined. So if he could do that in the ‘40s, what can we do now?”

The event finished with a reception in the theater’s lobby with the filmmakers emceed by Fukami, who interviewed the filmmakers. The filmmakers were also recognized by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors at the reception. Attendees enjoyed food prepared by Nakayoshi Young Professionals, Takara Restaurant, SSISSO and Nichi Bei board members with entertainment by Wesley Ueunten and a capella by the alumni of the Nikkei Choral Ensemble of University of California, Berkeley.

The 2018 Films of Remembrance was made possible with funding by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, the San Francisco Japantown Foundation and the Aratani Care Award and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, among many other sponsors. Proceeds benefitted the Wayne Maeda Educational Fund.

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