Personal Reflections on History and Heritage: 13th annual Films of Remembrance

FILMS OF REMEMBRANCE CLASS OF 2024 — Top, L to R: Sharon Yamato, Claudia Katayanagi, Kaoru Ishibashi, Yuriko Gamo Romer, Barbara Kagawa Shore, Marlene Shigekawa. Bottom, L to R: Natalie Murao, Ryan Kawamoto, Shannon Gee, Jonathan Tanigaki, William Kaneko. Missing: George Wada and Pear Urushima. photo by Darren Yamashita

The Nichi Bei Foundation held its 13th annual Films of Remembrance film series at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco’s Japantown Feb. 24 and the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown Feb. 25, as well as online. The 12-film showcase examined the impact the wartime incarceration had on Japanese Americans during World War II.

According to Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, the nonprofit started the annual event to create a venue for filmmakers to showcase their work on the Japanese American experience during World War II.

“We purposefully don’t call it a festival, because it’s not a festive occasion, but it’s a showcase of films commemorating the wartime incarceration, because it’s important that we convey these lessons, so that the deprivation of civil liberties doesn’t happen again,” Taguma said.

This year’s screenings featured six blocks of films focusing on experiences from across the United States and different eras and generations of Japanese Americans, as well as in Canada. The blocks, entitled “War on Citizenship,” “Untold Stories,” “Artistic Interpretations,” “Life & Death Behind Barbed Wire,” “Films of Resistance” and “Songs of Remembrance,” each included panel discussions with filmmakers, actors and key figures in the films.

The San Francisco screenings included a filmmaker reception featuring Melody Takata of GenRyu Arts and the WUT Ensemble, featuring Francis Wong, Wesley Ueunten and Takata.

War on Citizenship
The first set of films featured “Nisei” (2023, 21 min.) by Darren Haruo Rae and “Community in Conflict” (2023, 45 min.) by Claudia Katayanagi. The first short film, based on Rae’s grandfather’s experience during the war, depicts the story of two brothers fighting in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, while “Community in Conflict” focused on the efforts to install a commemoration for an incarceration site in Santa Fe, N.M. from 1998 to 2002 and the opposition it faced from Bataan Death March veterans who resided in the local community.

Jonathan Tanigaki, who played the soldier based on Rae’s grandfather, participated in the panel discussion. A Shin-Nisei, he said he identified with the character, a Nisei facing conflict over loyalty toward his birth nation versus his own ethnic roots. He said the director helped him through sharing the Nisei soldier’s life.

“Darren was so open with it … he was so transparent with the project in telling this story of his grandfather’s,” he said. “… (T)he character really resonated with me, because it’s so personal.”

Meanwhile, Katayanagi spoke about discovering the story within her film while working on a follow-up to her 2016 documentary “A Bitter Legacy.” Through researching the largest wartime-era Department of Justice camp in New Mexico, she learned the former Santa Fe camp no longer existed and the city had commemorated it with a “marker,” rather than a “monument.”

“I didn’t know the story of the Bataan veterans that well. I didn’t realize how many and how many had died … so I learned so much, so I wanted to tell their story as well,” she said.

Two New Mexico-based Nikkei joined Katayanagi on stage for the panel discussion. They noted their knowledge of the Santa Fe camp. Nikki Nojima Louis said her father was taken from her on her fourth birthday on Dec. 7, 1941 while Sue Rundstrom spoke about her involvement in the monument committee despite not having any personal connection to Santa Fe, a common story for most of the Nikkei who participated in the effort.

“When we moved to Santa Fe, I had no idea there was a camp there. Absolutely no idea. I had been involved with the Manzanar Committee from almost the very beginning, I did not — the breadth of my knowledge was very narrow,” Rundstrom said.

Jana Katsuyama of KTVU Fox 2 moderated the discussion in San Francisco while filmmaker Duane Kubo moderated in San Jose.

Untold Stories

AN UNTOLD STORY — L to R: William Kaneko, producer of “Removed by Force — The Eviction of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans During WWII,” director Ryan Kawamoto and former National JACL redress coordinator Carole Hayashino. photo by Darren Yamashita

The second block of films featured a single film, “Removed by Force — The Eviction of Hawai‘i’s Japanese Americans During WWII” (2023, 60 min.) by director Ryan Kawamoto, focusing on the Honolulu chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League’s hand in recognizing the eviction of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i during the war.

The panel discussion following the showing featured Kawamoto, attorney and activist William Kaneko, producer of the film, and Carole Hayashino, former president and executive director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i and former National JACL redress coordinator.

Kaneko said the film, about the eviction of Japanese Americans from their homes in Hawai‘i during the war, memorializes the dark chapter of history to ensure it “never happens again,” and shows how fragile civil liberties are, as demonstrated with recent Supreme Court cases that have reversed abortion rights and affirmative action in the United States. Kaneko and Kawamoto felt the importance of preserving and telling stories as they have observed many people, even in Hawai‘i, are unaware of the evictions that did not incarcerate Japanese Americans living on Hawai‘i, but still dispossessed many of them of their homes.

“Culturally, or historically, Japanese Americans or persons of Japanese ancestry are very reluctant to share things, not only within the family, but within our personal and professional environments as well. We are humble and not wanting to talk over yourselves. I get that,” Kaneko said. “But you need to cut through that, and you need to be able to tell the story, because it not only benefits family, but it benefits society.”

Christen Sasaki of the University of California, San Diego moderated the discussion in San Francisco while Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani of the University of California, Berkeley moderated the discussion in San Jose.

Artistic Interpretations

ARTISTIC INTERPRETATIONS — Above, L to R: “Traveling Rice Pot” director George Wada, “The Blue Jay” director Marlene Shigekawa, “Because of You, I Am” producer Pear Urushima, and the latter film’s subjects PJ and Roy Hirabayashi. photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

The “Artistic Interpretations” block featured short films examining the wartime incarceration. Featuring “Blue Garden” (2022, 5 min.) by Natalie Murao, “Traveling Rice Pot” (2019, 7 min.) by George Wada, “The Blue Jay” (2023, 14 min.) by Marlene Shigekawa and “Because of You, I Am” (2023, 30 min.) by Doug Menuez and produced by Pear Urushima, the films covered various angles on the wartime experiences.

The panel discussions split the conversation into two sessions. The first discussion involved Murao, Wada and Shigekawa, while the second featured Urushima and her interview subjects, PJ and Roy Hirabayashi. Wendi Yamashita of California State University, Sacramento, moderated the discussion for this block of films in both screenings.

Murao, whose film focused on her grandfather’s experience in Canada during the war, spoke about the Japanese Canadian experience, while Wada talked about his family’s experience, which remained relatively unspoken after his family repatriated to Japan after the war before eventually coming back. Shigekawa discussed the larger work she hopes to one day complete to help educate more people on the Japanese American experience.

Urushima and the Hirabayashis, meanwhile, discussed the reflective short film on the San Jose-based taiko pioneers and how it fit into Films of Remembrance. The Hirabayashis said the drumming became a way to express their Asian and Japanese American voice in the late 1960s in a form that didn’t require words.

“I really feel that being born after the war, and not knowing who I was, who I am, and living like that for 20 years-plus, I couldn’t really express who I was until I was able to have something that I didn’t have to really talk about,” PJ Hirabayashi said.

Life & Death Behind Barbed Wire
Featuring a dichotomy of experiences in camp, “Life & Death Behind Barbed Wire” explored the health issues and unnecessary deaths inmates suffered while incarcerated in “Missing Pieces” (2023, 14 min.) by Barbara Kagawa Shore, while Yuriko Gamo Romer explored the lighter side of camp life through “Baseball Behind Barbed Wire” (2023, 34 min.).

The block held two separate panel discussions as well, the first covering Shore’s film with the director herself and Gwenn M. Jensen, a historian who wrote about the state of medical care in the concentration camps. Shore said Jensen’s work convinced her the Nisei doctors and nurses who worked in the camp hospitals were “heroes.”

“So many more people would have died. And they’re heroes to me, I’m so grateful to that,” Shore said.

During the second panel with Romer, the filmmaker talked about her upcoming full-length documentary on the Japanese American ties to baseball’s popularity in Japan and how it shared its pedigree with baseball in the camps.

Sasaki also moderated the discussion for the San Francisco screening while Mike Furutani, a player for the Monterey Japanese American Citizens League Maguro baseball team, moderated the discussion in San Jose.

Films of Resistance
“Films of Resistance” meanwhile highlighted the fight against U.S. government waged by Japanese Americans in “We Hereby Refuse: The Akutsu Family Resists” (2023, 15 min.) by Shannon Gee and the work of Wayne M. Collins in “One Fighting Irishman” (2023, 30 min.) by Sharon Yamato.

The panel discussion featured filmmakers Yamato and Gee, along with “We Hereby Refuse” author Frank Abe. Yamato said her film only scratches the surface of the Tule Lake story, which Abe said will be explored further throughout the year.

“You’ll see more works coming out about Tule Lake, in March, Satsuki Ina of Berkeley is going to have her … memoir come out about her father at Tule Lake … from Heyday Books. In May, I have an anthology from Penguin Classics, of all things, called ‘The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration,’” he said.

The pair also called on the Japanese American Citizens League to do more to acknowledge their role as partners to the U.S. government during the wartime incarceration.

“They did issue an apology, a sort of watered down apology. One of the things they said is, they wanted to educate people about Tule Lake, but they haven’t done anything yet,” Yamato said.

“We’ll give them an opportunity to do so in July in Philadelphia at the National JACL convention,” Abe added.

Filmmaker and activist Chizu Omori moderated the panel discussion in San Francisco while Tom Izu, former executive director of the California History Center at DeAnza College, moderated the San Jose panel discussion.

Songs of Remembrance

SONGS OF REMEMBRANCE — Musician Kishi Bashi (below) performs in San Jose. photo by William Lee

Finally, the program concluded both days with “Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi” (2023, 74 min.), featuring the musician and co-director himself, who performed a short concert following the screening of his film. Kishi Bashi thrilled attendees with a solo performance and talked about his sense of identity as a Shin-Nisei raised on the East Coast.

“As an artist … music is something that helps you personally. It’s an escape. It’s a way for you to express yourself. But then, from the listener’s point of view, it’s something where you find catharsis,” he said.

Performing in the indie rock scene, Kishi Bashi said he has not sought out nor noticed a larger Japanese or Asian American crowd in his concerts since releasing his film, but did note that his concerts on the West Coast included more Asians in the audience, the Films of Remembrance attendees notwithstanding.

Yuki Nishimura, a Nichi Bei Foundation board member, interviewed Kishi Bashi during the San Francisco showing while Robert Handa, a reporter for NBC Bay Area, interviewed the artist in San Jose.

As Kishi Bashi delved into his own identity examining the U.S.’s treatment of Japanese Americans while also examining his own Japanese identity not directly related to the incarceration experience, the search for more meaning and scholarship continues. Whether it is the story of Tule Lake or the little-known fight for Redress over evictions in Hawai‘i, the 2024 Films of Remembrance signals there is yet much to document on the Japanese American wartime experience.

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