The virtual Nikkei


To call this past year “unprecedented” is the understatement of all understatements.

But as we noted in the commentary at the onset of the pandemic — “Navigating the new normal” (March 26, 2020) — “we are a resilient community, which fought racist immigration laws, endured our wartime incarceration and rebuilt our lives from scratch after World War II. … We’re all in this together. And we’ll do our best to make it through the storm together.”

And so, like much of the country, the Japanese American community embraced the advances in new technology, and found a way to connect.

Churches began to hold services on Facebook Live or YouTube. San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival — like other festivals to come — held a scaled-down virtual event in April, allowing viewers to focus on various elements of Japanese culture they may otherwise miss in the shuffle of an enormous physical event. And while churches seemed doomed to lose huge amounts of revenue due to the cancellation of their Obon festivals, some found ways to raise funds through virtual events highlighting their church programs. In the East Bay, J-Sei developed virtual sake-tasting events and also had movie nights with virtual discussions.

And while a much-anticipated national demonstration led by Tsuru for Solidarity was planned for Washington, D.C. in June — set to protest the incarceration and family separation of refugees and immigrants — they held a program to engage generations of activists through a virtual “Tsuru Rising,” incorporating live demonstrations of support throughout the country. The Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium would later hold a weekend education conference, discussing the legacy of the concentration camps and the role of activists today in the wake of a national racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd and others.

No virtual program was more ambitious, however, than the nine-week virtual “Tadaima” community “pilgrimage,” envisioned by Kimiko Marr of the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages and Hanako Wakatsuki of the National Parks Service. Each day had a particular theme, from Museum Mondays to Community Sundays, as participants learned how to prepare okonomiyaki, engaged in livestreamed discussions with Nikkei elders, or witnessed live artistic performances in the weekly virtual Nikkei Block Party.

“The pilgrimages are important for Kimiko and I because we grew up outside of the JA community so they were a way for us to feel connected,” Wakatsuki said.

Ultimately it engaged more than 55 partnering organizations that helped to generate content and resources, including a weekly film festival. According to organizers, more than 100,000 unique viewers tuned in from throughout the country and across the globe, partaking in an astonishing more than 350 programs. “We were really happy that we could pull together such a large coalition of contributors from all over the world and we think it really did create a virtual Nikkei community,” said Marr.

In the wake of a global pandemic, a determined band of descendants of the wartime concentration camps — mostly Yonsei and multiracial or multiethnic — embraced technology in a somewhat overwhelming community-building experiment. And the word is, they are planning to do it again.

Seeing that this could be very well the last major milestone for the hibakusha — or atomic bomb survivors — to convey the horrors of nuclear devastation, the Nichi Bei Foundation partnered with the Friends of Hibakusha, in collaboration with the Japanese American Religious Federation and other organizations, to present “A

Virtual Remembrance: 75 Years After the Atomic Bombings” on Aug. 9.

This past year’s Nikkei of the Year is dedicated to the many people in our global Nikkei community who took it upon themselves to discover new ways to keep us all connected. While this community-building exercise was forced upon us, we nevertheless learned to adapt with resiliency typical of our community’s heritage.

Somewhere, one would think our Issei forbearers would be proud, even if they would not understand what was going on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *