WHEN ‘THEN’ MEETS ‘NOW’: Film examines bonds made in Crystal City camp, lessons for today


How is “now” — meaning the Trumpian era where government officials criminalize immigrants and asylum seekers from non-Aryan countries — connected to “then” — the World War II period when people of Japanese descent from the West Coast and Latin American countries were incarcerated in United States-style concentration camps?

‘Then Becoming Now’ images courtesy of Emiko Omori

To find out, join three men — Hiroshi “Shim” Shimizu, Kaz Naganuma and Hiroshi Fukuda — on their journey back to the Crystal City Department of Justice confinement site in Texas where they had been imprisoned as children for no reason expect for being born Japanese.

Don’t know where Crystal City is? Not to worry. Filmmaker Emiko Omori has an animated map where you can follow the international journey of the three men’s families, especially Naganuma’s family who had been forcibly removed from Peru and brought to the U.S. to be used in a hostage exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

Turns out that wartime U.S. government officials found it not only awkward but illegal to propose a hostage exchange between Japan by sending over Japanese Americans, who by birth were U.S. citizens, in return for Caucasian American POWs. So, government officials came up with a scheme to bring over Japanese, living in Latin American countries, to use them in a hostage exchange with Japan.

These Japanese Latin Americans and Japanese Americans, who were destined to be deported to Japan, were imprisoned at the Crystal City DOJ camp in Texas.

In 2019, all three men returned to Crystal City for a pilgrimage and then, drove a few miles down to the Dilley detention center to participate in a rally to protest the current government’s family separation and detention policies pertaining to immigrants from certain countries. What was occurring at Dilley was reminiscent of what had happened to the three men’s families during their childhood.

The three men joined others and shared their stories, protested and raised their voices in song. And their Texas activities captured the attention of the San Francisco Mayor’s Immigrant Rights Commission where the ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was recognized.

All of this is captured on film, interspersed with archival photographs and documents, set to lyrical music that only heightens the tension.

“Most films about the camps kind of stay in the past,” said Omori. “But with this, I was able to say, ‘No. This isn’t just about the past. It’s about today.’

“It was important for me to show that Japanese Americans were standing up and speaking up for people who have no voice and putting themselves on the line for another group.”

Emiko Omori

With “Then Becoming Now,” Emiko Omori shows she is still a master artist. Although she is most recognized for receiving the Best Documentary Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival and an Emmy Award for “Rabbit in the Moon,” if “Then Becoming Now” is any proof, she must still have a few great films in the works.

“Then Becoming Now” (2019, 24 min.) will screen as part of the “Lessons for Today” session at the ninth annual Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation Saturday, Feb. 22 at 12:40 p.m., at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown and Sunday, Feb. 23, at 6 p.m. at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown. It will screen with “Resettled Roots: Legacies of Japanese Americans in Chicago” (2019, 33 min.) and “Tsuru for Solidarity History” (2019, 16 min.). For more information and tickets, visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance.

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