‘Hidden Legacy’ Explores Traditional Arts in the Camps

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Sahomi Tachibana and her students at Tule Lake. Stage backdrop of Castle Rock and Mt. Shasta painted by Enjiro Kodani.

Sahomi Tachibana and her students at Tule Lake. Stage backdrop of Castle Rock and Mt. Shasta painted by Enjiro Kodani. (Courtesy of Sahomi Tachibana)

A premiere promotional screening of “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Arts in the World War II Internment Camps” will take place on Saturday, April 5, at 4 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo.

For over 20 years, executive producer Shirley Kazuyo Muramoto, an Oakland-based teacher and performer of the koto and leader of the Murasaki Ensemble, has researched the history of Japanese traditional performing arts as practiced in the camps. She tracked down, located, and interviewed both teachers and students from most of the ten main prison camps.

Shirley Muramoto plays koto in the Mess Hall at Manzanar.

Shirley Muramoto plays koto in the Mess Hall at Manzanar. (Photo by Robert Chan Wong)

“I’ve been playing the koto for over 50 years since my mother first taught me how to play this instrument,” Muramoto said. “My mother learned to play the koto in camp, as she would tell me while I was growing up. This camp, I found was not a sleep-over camp as we commonly know it, but a prison camp during World War II, where over 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent, stripped of their lives, homes, work, businesses and imprisoned in these camps, located in isolated deserts or swampy areas. They could only take with them what they could carry.

“Growing up, I used to wonder, did my mom bring a 6-foot-long koto into camp? Did anyone else have a similar experience carrying their instruments, costumes, props? Were there others who learned Japanese arts?

“I became really curious and started to read books, research the museums, but found little information. Most of what is documented about camp life are the American activities, like swing music, baton-twirling, or sports, like baseball and football, because that was very popular then, and just like all Americans, they enjoyed what was ‘in’ at the time.

“So, this is where my journey began. I started looking for people who might have done or learned Japanese traditional arts in the camps, such as Japanese music and dance, kabuki and noh plays, and gathered and recorded interviews as I located people.

Sets Abe Hirano (left) and younger sister Edith dancing buyo at Topaz.

Sets Abe Hirano (left) and younger sister Edith dancing buyo at Topaz. (Courtesy of Setsuko Abe Hirano)

“I realized there were quite a few people who did Japanese arts in all the camps, but there was little information about these activities, and, of course, there was practically nothing written about the camps in the history books. I felt their stories needed to be told.

“Camp was prison. This was apparent to no one more than the Issei, or first-generation immigrants from Japan, who were the most affected, as they lost their livelihoods, work and their homes. There were different modes of survival, and the Japanese arts helped them forget they were in prison for a while, and it also created an opportunity for young Japanese Americans to learn a cultural art. For some, art might be a necessity, but here in the camps, art was survival.

“This film is their stories. It is about the Japanese Americans who kept the cultural arts alive in the camps, and helped to cultivate the cultural arts, which survived after the World War II camps.

“I’ve interviewed close to 30 people, and they are very rich stories that I feel must be told. Most of them are artists and teachers who practiced the arts in the camps as well as students who learned from these artists. The camps happened over 70 years ago, and I feel the urgency to capture these stories from the survivors of the camps.”

Kineya Jyorokusho (who is interviewed in the film) with her students performing "Ozatsuma."

Kineya Jyorokusho (who is interviewed in the film) with her students performing “Ozatsuma.” (Courtesy of Kineya Jyorokusho)

“I believe in this project because it does two great things,” stated filmmaker Joshua Fong. “One, it allows history to speak for itself from those who lived it, the last of whom are passing on; two, it tells the camp story from a fresh cultural perspective rather than the traditional political one. A culture’s spirit lives in its art, and the flourishing of music, theater and dance in the camps is the best testament to how Japanese Americans, shouldered the ordeals of internment.”

The film is almost completed. The producers are trying to raise $20,000 on Indiegogo.com and are halfway toward their target. Their goal is to show the film on public TV stations across the country and at camp interpretive centers, and prepare the DVD for sale. Contributions will pay for post-production costs, music clearances, copyrights for photos, archival film footage, distribution, design and manufacture of the DVD, and upkeep of the website, http://jcalegacy.com/.

The film is funded, in part, by a Japanese American Confinement Sites grant from the National Park Service.

The interviewees include artists in the fields of music (koto, nagauta shamisen, shakuhachi, shigin, biwa), dance (buyo, Obon) and drama (kabuki) who were interned at Tule Lake, Manzanar, Amache/Granada, Gila River, Rohwer, and Topaz. About 12 of then will be present at the screening.

Muramoto and her son, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong, will play koto music, and a Q&A session and reception will follow the screening.

For more information on the museum, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

Yukino Okubo Harada and her buyo dance students at Amache/Granada. Katsura (wigs) made by Matsui Suimin, standing left of sign.

Yukino Okubo Harada and her buyo dance students at Amache/Granada. Katsura (wigs) made by Matsui Suimin, standing left of sign. (Courtesy of Yukino Okubo Harada)

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