Getting to the heart of a nation

During its annual film showcase Feb. 23 in San Francisco’s Japantown, the Nichi Bei Foundation plans to present a series of short films on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. Entitled “Americanism is in the Heart,” the three films explore sacrifices some 120,000 people of Japanese descent made while incarcerated

The short films consist of the narrative feature “American” by Richie Adams, as well as documentaries “An American Hero: Frank Nishimura” by Shannon Gee and “Mr. Tanimoto’s Journey” by Jesse Dizard. Following the screenings, filmmakers Adams, Gee and Dizard, as well as Jim Tanimoto will speak in a conversation moderated by San Francisco State University Asian American studies Professor Christen Sasaki

Adams learned about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team from his grandfathers who fought in World War II. The segregated military unit comprised mostly of Nisei is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. Learning of Clinton Shiraishi, a Nisei veteran from Hawai’i, Adams sought to honor the Japanese American veterans and the wartime incarceration through a story loosely based on Shiraishi’s wartime experience.

“American.” courtesy of River Road Creative

Working with executive producers Ken Whitney and Elizabeth Reiko Kubota Whitney, Adams first thought to cast George Takei for the role of “Clinton,” a Nisei veteran who volunteers at a museum dedicated to the Japanese American wartime experience. “At the time, I didn’t even know such a museum existed, but of course it does … the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles,” Adams wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. He learned that her mother worked for Takei’s father in Rohwer, Ark. and had her forward the script

“In almost no time, George sent me a note saying, ‘Richie, I can’t tell you how much your script, ‘American,’ has affected me,” he said. With Takei on board, Adams also gained access to the museum. The famed Japanese American actor has been affiliated with the museum since its founding.

Adams was introduced to another major source of help through the family of Nisei veteran Don Seki, who provided Adams and his crew with the garrison cap and medals Takei’s character owns in the film, as well as an informational resource for its cast during filming

“An American Hero: Frank Nishimura” is an adaptation of Nishimura’s story, which was featured in Lawrence Matsuda and Matt Sasaki’s graphic novel “Fighting for America: Nisei Soldiers.” Shannon Gee, who adapted two of the stories to film, won an Emmy for each of the adaptations from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

“An American Hero: Frank Nishimura.” artwork by Matt Sasaki

Matsuda, a former educator and a Sansei born in the Minidoka, Idaho concentration camp, said he was inspired to tell the stories in a graphic novel when he met with Paul Murakami of the Nisei Veterans Committee Foundation, who lamented the passing of Nisei veterans and how fewer and fewer veterans were available to visit and speak at schools.

With a Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant from the National Parks Service and support from the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Matsuda said he and the veterans organization compiled the stories of six Nisei who served in the war. The veterans organization and the museum then approached the Seattle Channel to adapt the stories into film.

“The Frank Nishimura animated piece is the second one we’ve done,” Gee said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We were wondering which one would work and also tell a different story about a Nisei veteran and the incarceration experience than the Shiro (Kashino) one, and also Frank is still alive, so that helped us make the decision that we would work on that.

Gee said working with the graphic novel as a base helped formulate her films. “Graphic novels and comics are great storyboards for moving images,” she said. “It’s just inspiring that I can read the book and see the artwork, and we wonder where that can take us. … It’s just a very rich medium to start with.

The Seattle-born filmmaker said Nishimura’s story was inspiring, primarily because of his commitment, not only as a soldier during World War II, but as a community member after the war, working as a mail carrier and a Boy Scouts troop leader

“It is not a Japanese American story. It is an American story,” Matsuda told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. “I think if you say it’s a Japanese American story, it really kinda cubby holes it. … It’s about a man who is patriotic and fought for his country, and he did so under circumstances most Americans didn’t experience.”

Matsuda added that Nishimura enlisted even though he was not incarcerated

The final short film, “Mr. Tanimoto’s Journey,” tells the story of Jim Tanimoto, the last living member of the group of protesters from Block 42 of the Tule Lake Segregation Center

“Mr. Tanimoto’s Journey.” courtesy of Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology

Barbara Takei, Tule Lake Committee board member, said Tanimoto was one of the 35 men from Tule Lake’s Block 42 who protested the racist so-called “loyalty questionnaire” administered by the U.S. Army. “Their resistance is a little-known story of wartime dissent that responded to Army and (War Relocation Authority) efforts to force cooperation from young inmates,” Takei said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. She added that Tanimoto and his three brothers’ protest “helped spark mass resistance to the registration at Tule Lake.

Dizard, an anthropologist at California State University, Chico, first learned about the protesters as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley when he found notes compiled by other anthropology graduate students who conducted fieldwork at the Tule Lake Segregation Center during the war

“I was fascinated and appalled and wanted to know more. I made the Klamath Basin a subject of inquiry, and tried to find all I could pertaining to its history and prehistory. Eventually I taught an annual field school in the Klamath Basin, examining the indigenous Klamath Lake and Modoc cultures, the impacts of Euro-American settlement, the Modoc War, the (Civilian Conservation Corps), the prison camps, and the contemporary conflicts over irrigation and salmon on the Klamath River,” he said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly

Dizard then met Tanimoto through Makoto Kowta, a senior colleague at Chico, and recorded the conversation on camera. “That afternoon’s conversation with Dr. Kowta and Jim Tanimoto left me stunned and amazed, convinced that an ethnographic documentary film concentrating on Jim Tanimoto’s story could afford a unique perspective that would resonate with audiences,” Dizard said. “I think that Jim Tanimoto and the rest of the men and women who protested their unconstitutional incarceration are courageous and patriotic heroes of the first order.

Dizard said his film tells of the still extant threat of injustice in America today.

“The vapidity and ignorance that made possible the injustices … have not disappeared,” the filmmaker said. “They continue to smolder, like buried embers from an ancient fire, ready to be fanned into flames by the next demagogue or authoritarian politician willing to use fear as a means of gaining or maintaining power.”

The “Americanism is in the Heart” short films program will be held as part of Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 23, 2:30 p.m., at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post St., in San Francisco’s Japantown. For tickets or additional information including other featured films, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance or call (415) 294-4655.

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