Film uncovers little-known story of music in camp by incarcerated Nikkei

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Joy Takeshita Teraoka, who sang in a band while incarcerated in a concentration camp during World War II, is the subject of the film “For Joy,” screening at the ninth annual Films of Remembrance Feb. 22-23 in San Francisco and San Jose. photo courtesy of Julian Saporiti

“For Joy,” a film by Julian Saporiti and the No-No Boy project, tells the little-known story of a Nikkei teenager who sang with a jazz band formed in the World War II concentration camp for Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain, Wyo. The story also sheds light on a hidden history — the music played during the Japanese American incarceration.

In the 15-minute 2019 documentary, while scenes of the desolate Heart Mountain camp loom in the background, Saporiti narrates the story: “Joy Takeshita Teraoka, when she was 15, was forcibly removed from her home in Los Angeles and sent with her family to Heart Mountain. Behind the barbed wire under constant guard and living in impoverished conditions, she always kept her positivity, and she joined a band. During that first harsh winter, Joy auditioned for the George Igawa Orchestra, a formidable big band comprised of some professional musicians and talented high schoolers. The band practiced daily and performed at camp dances every weekend. In fact, during the war years, they were the only swing band in Wyoming and performed across the state.”

As Teraoka and Saporiti’s colleague Erin Aoyama sing “Sentimental Journey” when they visit Teraoka at her Honolulu home in 2018, Saporiti asks, “What does it mean for a 16-year-old high school student to sing with a big band like that?”

“Thrilled and honored,” Teraoka replies as the film shows the band in the background. “If I were back home in Los Angeles, I know the opportunity would never have come to sing with George Igawa, a skilled professional musician before the war.”

Commenting on scenes in the film showing government notices posted on telephone poles ordering all persons of Japanese ancestry to be forcibly removed from the West Coast, she exclaims that it was “like a slap in the face … But as a teenager you’re so much more adaptable. But I’m sure the older people went through a lot.”

The film shows teenagers coping with the incarceration by hanging out in their social clubs and holding dances in the barracks, with the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Artie Shaw and others played on phonograph records.

When Aoyama notes that during those difficult times Teraoka still found joy in singing, the singer explains, “That was the thing about the Japanese in those relocation camps. They didn’t sit around and mope the whole day. They got up and made something … as positive as can be.”

Dances weren’t the only activities the administration allowed at Heart Mountain, as the documentary shows scenes of the Nikkei participating in Japanese cultural events, including kabuki theater, sumo and judo. Teraoka’s father also taught shigin (classical Japanese singing). “It’s ironic that the government put us in camps because they said Japanese couldn’t assimilate,” she states. “But the administration lets them have all the Japanese cultural things.”

‘My Japanese Grandma’
The documentary’s message, Saporiti said in an e-mail, is for viewers to “take an interest in history. Ask your grandparents and neighbors about the lives they’ve led and take their stories to heart.”

“I first was made aware of Joy Teraoka and her singing at Heart Mountain during WWII when I was living in Wyoming,” Saporiti revealed. “I had made a few trips to the museum at Heart Mountain and was curious to learn more about this picture they had on display of a jazz band.”

Saporiti, who is of Vietnamese and Italian descent and has no relatives connected to the camp experience, explained his interest in the Nikkei incarceration story as follows: “As an Asian American, and a musician, I had never heard about this history, but was dying to learn more. I started digging through the museum archives … and the archivist at the time told me that there was a woman in Hawai‘i who had sung with the band and she gave me Joy’s e-mail.”

“I often say Joy is like my Japanese grandma,” Saporiti says in the movie.

“For six years we have maintained a meaningful long-distance correspondence. At first, we talked about her time at camp, but after a time, we became friends. The chance to meet her meant more to me. But sharing the trip with Erin Aoyama added an extra layer of meaning. Erin is not only a gifted singer but a talented, forward-thinking scholar. In 2018, she was an irreplaceable collaborator. Her grandmother, Misa Hatakeyama, had also been incarcerated as a young woman at Heart Mountain. Unfortunately, she died before Erin could ask her anything about it. For the two of us, meeting Joy was an important connection to the past.”

Saporiti met Teraoka for the first time in 2018. “I was finally able to afford to come to Hawai‘i because the families of the 100th veterans helped sponsor a concert for me and Erin Aoyama to perform some of my songs, which had sprung out of the research I’d been conducting since 2012,” he related. “The reason I went to Hawai‘i was not only to meet Joy but to sing with her.”

At the concert for the families of Nikkei veterans who served during World War II, Saporiti and Aoyama introduce a new song in honor of Teraoka, “The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming.” To close out the concert, Teraoka performs the songs she sang with the George Igawa Orchestra at Heart Mountain, including “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Saporiti explained that his project is called No-No Boy because, “… I wanted people to read John Okada’s novel, ‘No No Boy,’” which tells the story of a young man’s resistance against government oppression.

Saporiti, 34, said, “I do have a lot of respect for those resisters, as well as the vets and everyone else who lived through those experiences.”

‘MY JAPANESE GRANDMA’ ­— Joy Takeshita Teraoka (R) and Julian Saporiti.
Courtesy of the 100th Battalion Clubhouse (Anne Kabasawa & Clyde Sugimoto)

Part-Time Singer
“Julian and Erin are the ones who deserve the credit for their documentary film, ‘For Joy,’” Teraoka stated in an e-mail. “It was a delight meeting them and getting to know them as both musicians and friends.

“It was my good fortune and honor to sing for George Igawa’s band while I was in Heart Mountain,” she commented. “However, it should be stressed that I was in Heart Mountain for only one year and there were many other singers who performed with the band — Bob Kinoshita, Lane Nakano, Yone Fukuda and several other female singers.”

Teraoka performed with George Igawa’s band from late 1942 until August 1943; her parents were allowed to relocate to Utah, Denver and then to Washington, D.C., where she graduated high school. She met Lt. Denis Teraoka at a party honoring the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team veterans who came to Washington, D.C. to receive the Presidential Citation from President Harry Truman. Takeshita and Teraoka dated, and after 10 days, they got engaged. Nine months after the troops left for Hawai‘i, she sailed to Hawai‘i to get married.

The new Mrs. Teraoka attended the University of Hawai‘i, but became a stay-at-home mom, having three children from 1949 to 1957. During that time, she took vocal lessons at the university and from professional musicians. She sang professionally with many of the top well-known musicians on weekends.

Teraoka, by then a college graduate, worked from 1989 for the East-West Center on the university’s campus, and later, helped her husband in his dental practice until he retired in 1996.

Singing with the George Igawa Orchestra was “truly memorable, because we were able to leave the confines of camp on many occasions to perform in several of the towns in Wyoming,” she recalled. “The irony is that when we played for the war and freedom bond rallies, as soon as we were through, we were bussed back to our barbed-wire, fenced-in, guard-watched concentration camp.”

“For Joy” by Julian Saporiti / No-No Boy will be screened as part of the “Songs of Remembrance” session at Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m., at New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, with a discussion moderated by Jana Katsuyama, KTVU-2 reporter.

It will also be screened Sunday, Feb. 23 at 3:15 p.m., at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, 640 N 5th St. in San Jose’s Japantown, with a discussion moderated by Roy Hirabayashi, San Jose Taiko co-founder.

Both presentations will feature a multimedia concert by No-No Boy, featuring Julian Saporiti and Emilia Halvorsen, which will include songs based upon memories from the concentration camp experience.

For more information, including to purchase tickets, visit visit www.nichibei.org/films-of-remembrance or call (415) 294-4655.

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