Objects make stories come alive for families

OBJECTS AS STORYTELLERS ­— Artifacts such as Ibuki Hibi Lee’s doll help tell stories about the wartime incarceration. photos by David Izu

From dolls to furniture, objects from the unjust incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II are present in collections across the United States. Nancy Ukai, writer and researcher of the Japanese American diaspora, is focusing on the intangible stories behind the objects.

As part of the “50 Objects/Stories: The American Japanese Incarceration” project, Ukai partnered with the National Japanese American Historical Society based in San Francisco’s Japantown to host a series of online presentations on four of the many objects she has been researching. Originally meant to be a physical exhibition in San Francisco funded by the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Charitable Foundation, Ukai and Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of the historical society, moved the program online after the coronavirus pandemic canceled their summer plans.

The new program format, however, has been a blessing in disguise. Ukai said the Zoom presentations have been a great way for family members to discuss their history.

“If you (did) an in-person program before COVID, it would be a lot more difficult logistically. People live far distances away,” Ukai said. “So it was a very interesting opportunity for the audience to listen and ask questions, and then for the family members to talk about something in a way they might not have done before.”

Tonai also appreciates the event’s format. “It’s like being invited to someone’s house and you have this nice conversation with people about what happened to their loved one,” she said. “I think what we want to do is encourage people to talk and to express their thoughts and feelings and perceptions about … camp.”

Tonai said the programs’ discussions help families reclaim their stories after the U.S. government shamed them into silence.

“The government took a lot of this — our ability to talk story and tell stories of our past — because it was so shameful. We’re sort of reawakening people’s awareness, continue that sort of oral tradition, and … we want to encourage young people to listen in,” she said.

Ukai started working on the project in 2016 with David Izu, the project’s art director. After obtaining funding from the Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program, Ukai said they were further galvanized to work on their project as the Trump administration and its supporters started to downplay the wartime incarceration.

“(Trump) said that, if he had to make a decision on Japanese American incarceration, he didn’t know what he would do. It just all of a sudden seemed like, the very things that we were talking about … were now beginning to happen again,” Ukai said. “I think that sharpened our sense of what we would like to do in this project.”

The project has chronicled around 17 objects to date, and will present the 18th object, Ibuki Hibi Lee’s doll, at the next event with NJAHS Dec. 5 at 11 a.m. over Zoom. The doll, featured in a 1942 Dorothea Langue photo, is covered in bandages.

Ukai said she tried to choose four objects that focus on illness or disability in light of the pandemic. The program previously featured crutches Takato Hamai made in camp and a toy tank Kiyoshi Ina’s father built for him while he was quarantined with the chicken pox. The final program, slated for January, will discuss Tokinobu Mihara’s wooden Braille board.

Tonai commented on the importance of Ukai’s work.

“We only collect historical things from the camps. We are challenged by the educational aspects of it, letting people know how valuable they are and the story behind it,” Tonai said. “I think the gift that Nancy has had is that she’s able to dive deeper into the people behind the objects, and to really make them come alive.”

Ukai said she often spends months researching a story. Sometimes she comes across leads from talking with community members. Ukai said she encountered a dead end while researching a handmade wooden chair that the Japanese American National Museum obtained from the 2015 Rago auction in New Jersey. Ukai said the trail for the owner went cold after the Homma family moved back to Japan after the war. By chance, however, Ukai was introduced to Mitch Homma of San Diego, a grandnephew of the chair’s creator.

“We could complete the story, it was really fantastic, but it’s one of these things where talking to people in the community just brings out all kinds of things,” she said.

While “50 Objects” and NJAHS have partnered to present four objects, both Ukai and Tonai said they hope to collaborate again in the future. Tonai said, however, they would first have to find additional funding. Meanwhile,

Ukai said the four programs will be recorded and uploaded online at a later date so more people can watch them in the future.

Izu, who photographed the objects and built the project’s Website, said in the meantime they are continuing to collect research to present to the public. He said the project continues to seek out unique objects and stories, particularly from Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas.

“We’re interviewing people and we’re getting stories. The story may or may not be absolutely true, but they’re truths of the people that we’re talking to in their memories,” Izu said. “I know that their stories are long and they’re pretty deep. There’s gonna be a lot to digest, but I’m seeing it as an educational resource in the future that people can refer to.”

To register for the upcoming Zoom presentations, visit www.njahs.org. For more information about “50 Objects,” visit www.50objects.org.

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