The Nichi Bei Foundation held its 10th annual Films of Remembrance film series on the wartime incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. While this year’s program largely moved online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it also included a drive-in screening of “Farewell to Manzanar” at the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose.
Last year’s program expanded to San Jose’s Japantown. This year, in addition to both San Francisco and San Jose Japantowns, organizers had intended to hold screenings in Little Tokyo, as well as Chicago, Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said at the start of a live panel presentation. Instead, the 10th annual screenings featured 35 films, including films shown in previous years, along with two live online presentations of four films and the drive-in screening held Feb. 20-21. (Ticketholders were able to rent films online through March 7).
Live programming kicked off Feb. 20 with a screening and live panel discussion of Janice Tanaka’s 2016 film, “Rebel with a Cause,” showcasing the life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga. Joining Tanaka, activist Chizu Omori, performance artist Nobuko Miyamoto and former California state Assemblymember Warren Furutani discussed their relationship to the late Nisei civil rights activist and researcher in a discussion moderated by journalist Martha Nakagawa.
While Herzig Yoshinaga is known for her role as a researcher who found documents that led to the U.S. government’s apology to Japanese Americans for their unjust incarceration during World War II, the film revealed her life as a radical activist in 1970s in New York.
Miyamoto and Furutani spoke about her involvement with Asian Americans for Action, where she worked with contemporary activists such as Yuri Kochiyama and Michi Weglyn.
“They were very engaged not only with Japanese American issues, but they were supporting the Black Panthers, the U.S.-Japan treaty, the Vietnam War, etc.,” Miyamoto said.
Though the Nisei activists stood at the crossroads of many social justice movements, the group described Herzig Yoshinaga as the “quintessential Nisei.”
“I think that dichotomy was the perfect word to describe it,” said Furutani, Herzig Yoshinaga’s son-in-law. “She was a rebel as Janice puts in her title of the film. I remember being at the Kochiyama house with Yuri, and she … would holler at the youngest of the Kochiyamas, ‘Did you do your homework?’ … We’re going down to picket for the Panthers!”
Given how active Herzig Yoshinaga and other Nisei were in New York social justice circles, Nakagawa shared an audience member’s question about why many African Americans and Latinos are not aware of Asian American contributions to the social justice movement.
Furutani said history is lost when Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are not included in the discussion.
“If you look at newspaper articles, they’ll talk about African Americans, Latinos compared to whites, and they don’t even mention Asians,” Furutani said. “But you ask Nobuko, you ask anybody who was at the San Francisco State strike or the Berkeley strike. It was all the Third World Liberation Front. Everything was third world if you talk to the Panthers, you talk to the Young Lords.”
“They don’t call things third world now, they call it, BIPOC, Black indigenous people of color,” Miyamoto added.
The event hosted a second live-screening and panel for three short films the next day, featuring Robert Shoji’s “A Hero’s Hero,” Matthew Goriachkovsky’s “Within Their Gates” and Rory Banyard’s “Bearing the Unbearable.” The three filmmakers, along with others, joined journalist Wendy Tokuda for two panel discussions after the series of short films.
In the first panel, Shoji and Goriachkovsky spoke about their films as students of filmmaking. Shoji, a Sansei, worked on the film with Joel Quizon of Visual Communications through their Digital Histories Program, which helps older people produce their own documentaries. Goriachkovsky was a student at the University of California, Irvine while filming the 10-minute short. Yukio Shimomura, whom Goriachkovsky interviewed, joined the panel discussion.
Goriachkovsky decided to make a film after hearing Shimomura speak about his experience during the war. While he did not plan on making a film on the Japanese American incarceration, Shimomura’s story — as it relates to the treatment of refugees and immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border — resonated with him.
Shoji learned about his film’s subject, Yosh Kuromiya, when writer Susie Ling invited him to record an interview she was conducting with the draft resister. Shoji also learned about Kuromiya’s nephew, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, who was a pioneering civil rights activist in his own right.
Shoji said having only 10 minutes to tell the fascinating stories of both Yosh and Kiyoshi Kuromiya was the biggest challenge he faced. He hopes the short film will encourage viewers to learn more about both men.
“I knew I couldn’t get everything in about what they did in their lifetime — I just kind of scratched the surface.” Ultimately, Shoji said he focused on the relationship between the uncle and nephew.
Goriachkovsky’s biggest challenge was shooting the film itself. As a college student, he had limited access to equipment and time, saying he took one three-day weekend to shoot the footage. “So we traveled from Irvine, Orange County, all the way to Manzanar in one day.” Then, they “drove to Bergen Hill, and then the next two days, … we spent that time at Yukio’s house,” he said.
Following the first panel, Tokuda spoke with Banyard, along with Clarence Moriwaki and Lilly Kodama, two interview subjects from the film. They spoke about the significance Bainbridge Island played during the war. Not only was the island near Seattle the site of the first forced mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, but the island’s local newspaper was the only media outlet to support Japanese Americans when most of the country treated them as the enemy.
“(Walt and Milly Woodward) were outliers, they were the ones who said this was unconstitutional, like how people … react to Fox News and QAnon and stuff,” Moriwaki said. “Well Fox News and QAnon were the reality in 1942. The media was totally behind what Roosevelt was doing.”
While the island welcomed Japanese Americans before, during and after the war, Kodama said nearby Seattle did not share her hometown’s sentiments. She recounted going shoe shopping in downtown Seattle where department stores had snubbed Kodama and her mother.
“As we were walking back to get on the ferry to come home, a Caucasian man came up behind the two of us and he said ‘why don’t you go back where you came from you blankety-blank Japs!’” she said.
Kodama said that was her first memory of facing overt prejudice and it caused her to want to prove she was an American and deny her Japanese heritage.
Banyard is now working on a longer documentary for public television that will contextualize the wartime incarceration with current events in the U.S.
Reaching Audiences from Around the World
Online screenings allowed people from across the world to tune in to this year’s film series. Stephen Zaima, a retired professor of art residing in the Catskills in upstate New York, said he watched every film he could from the film series.
“Even though I am a Sansei from San Jose, most of my life has been spent away from the West Coast and any semblance of a Japanese American community,” Zaima said. “Films of Remembrance … was a thorough awakening in watching and felt as if I was given a tutorial gift.”
Student Kai E. Müller watched the films in Germany for a paper he was working on for his college history course. Müller said German schools don’t teach the Japanese American experience. He first learned about the wartime incarceration while listening to musician Kishi Bashi in 2019.
“Speaking as a white German gentile, seeing aspects of history repeated is something I try to fight against in the form of local activism here in Berlin and of course by staying informed on global issues, and so seeing this incredible solidarity between the Japanese American community and both the Muslim American community (a)ffected by 9/11 and travel bans, and the Central/South American community affected by the inhumane U.S. border situation was both moving and humbling,” he said.
A few hours after the panel presentation, more than 100 cars flocked to the West Wind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose for a 45th anniversary screening of “Farewell to Manzanar,” the 1976 film by Director John Korty based upon the book by James D. and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. The screening partially benefited Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service and featured a video presentation of San Jose Taiko’s “Swingposium” and “Day of Remembrance” prior to the film.
The screening also included a cast reunion organized and moderated by Frank Abe, who played Frank Nishi in the film, along with stars Clyde Kusatsu, Akemi Kikumura Yano, Momo Yashima, Dori Takeshita-Chan, cinematographer Hiro Narita, and other extras who participated in the film. Shawn Wong recounted the experience of being an extra and watching some of the older Nisei and Sansei who were in the camps acting in the film.
“People would just be sitting there alone with their thoughts, thinking back to the time that they were in camp and we often, some of us in those break times would sit there and talk to the Nisei,” Wong said. “Everybody was there, (activist) Edison Uno, the writer Toshio Mori was in the audience. And so we ended up sort of doing on-the-spot oral history. I remember one time I was standing next to (actor) Mako, you know he had just done his performance and he told me, ‘this is not acting.’ He says, ‘I’m getting so much feedback, so much emotion from the crowd.’ He said ‘we’re not acting anymore we are those people.’”
Yashima recounted going to the set at Tule Lake, and being hit by a wave of emotion.
“When I walked out, and I looked out and I saw the barbed wire, and I saw Mount Shasta, I started shaking. I couldn’t stop shaking, because I realized the enormity of what happened to our people. That we were really behind barbed wire. There were towers with men with guns in them, and for children to have to go through that, I have to say it really changed my life,” she said.
“I was thinking this is a great intergenerational film for kids to see with grandparents and parents. It not just shares history, but can lead to open dialogue, and passes on the lessons learned from this time period,” Jennifer Masuda, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Mountain View, Calif. Mayor Ellen Kamei said the screening, her first time seeing the film, and at a drive-in, was “memorable and meaningful.”
“Given the current anti-Asian resurgence and xenophobia, it is particularly important to continue to share the Japanese American incarceration story,” she said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
“It is one that will be forgotten if not retold.”
Ammad Rafiqi, civil rights and legal services coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was among the attendees. He said the film reminded him to watch out for not only anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry, but the threat of anti-Asian racism as well. “By telling these stories of Japanese American incarceration, for newer immigrants to the U.S. like myself, we create a bulwark against the rising and ebbing tides of hatred as well as to recognize the sacrifice and sufferings of
many on this land who have created pathways for a more perfect union,” Rafiqi, a Kashmiri Canadian immigrant, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Though it has been 79 years since the wartime incarceration was enacted, the 10th annual Films of Remembrance made it apparent that what happened to Japanese Americans painfully still remains relevant today.