Painful Memories, Powerful Words

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Kyle Toyama performed an impassioned freestyle spoken-word piece at GVJCI's 2016 Day of Remembrance program. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Kyle Toyama performed an impassioned freestyle spoken-word piece at GVJCI’s 2016 Day of Remembrance program. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Following is Part 2 of a report on the 2016 Day of Remembrance program held at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on Feb. 27. The theme was “Power of Words: Continuing a Community Discussion.”

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Three participants in GVJCI’s Sansei Stories writing class, taught by playwright Tim Toyama, read pieces related to the day’s theme. 

“An Awakening”

Kathryn Endo-Roberts recalled being the only person of color in her American history class at North High School in Torrance and being asked by the teacher to discuss what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. “All I knew was that it was a day which would live on in infamy … Why in God’s green Earth would I know anything more? I was an American and wasn’t even born then, for goodness’ sakes! …

“I had no answers, so she assigned homework and only to me, which was to ask my parents questions about the camps they were interned in and what they remembered about what happened back then. I was a little miffed … But as it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me and my family. After dinner, I got the courage and broached the subject …

“Both my parents stated to me they were not interned but were imprisoned in concentration camps, I was totally blown away and truly amazed that they both felt the same way. My father explained that if a person was interned it would have been a temporary situation. So his rationale for using the word imprisoned instead of interned made a lot of sense to me.

“My father and his family were sent to Amache, otherwise known as Granada Relocation Center, which was located in Colorado, and my mother and her family were sent to Minidoka, Idaho, also known as Hunt Relocation Center. I learned so much, but I don’t believe it made an impact on me until I became much older …

“The best thing I remember from this experience was the healing effect it seemed to have on both my parents because they were able to talk about an event in their lives which seemed to be a closely guarded secret. I felt very fortunate because my parents willingly shared what happened to them and their families. They told me their wish was for us to know and learn about this sad part of history so it would never be repeated on U.S. soil ever again.

“Today I am very grateful for having a teacher who taught us what was not in our history books, because if it wasn’t for her I would have never known what my parents and their families experienced.”

“Hiding in Plain Sight”

Dani Imura recalled growing up in Gardena and Torrance. “I never experienced overt racial slurs but there were whispers of what was to come. The most confrontational playground interaction was a loaded question: ‘So what are you?’ Believing that I was the same as my inquiring classmates and pledging my daily allegiance alongside those same peers to liberty and justice for all, ‘I’m American’ was the obvious response.

“But this answer wasn’t sufficient because my kind didn’t look like the television or print ads targeting white America to serve Corningware from the Thermador to the Frigidaire in Tupperware. The ’70s wasn’t far enough from the raid on Pearl Harbor to calm anti-Japanese sentiment … I learned the best strategy was to conceal by employing inscrutable Oriental mind trick by only admitting, ‘My family is from Hawaii.’ And like magic, I was delivered from being responsible for World War II.”

As a high school freshman in Orange County, she did experience overt racism. “I was walking home alone and a Datsun pickup truck brimming with older boys from my school drove by. As they passed, shouts of ‘Stupid Jap!’ split my ears.” Also, a classmate and fellow band member told her, “Why don’t you move back to your own country?”

“I looked at a mirror each morning and wished I had different hair color, eyes, and a nose bridge,” Imura said.

But after 9/11, “as anti-Muslim sentiment grew in America, I perceived no anti-Japanese vibe anymore. I liked this feeling. Media blitzed each day with words like ‘radical Muslim,’ ‘Al Qaeda,’ and ‘Osama Bin Laden.’ I was feeling distrustful of anyone who looked Middle Eastern … Now I could join other God-fearing, red-blooded Americans in the anti-terrorist crusade ….”

At the same time, she was friends with a Pakistani co-worker and was surprised to learn that he avoided anti-Muslim bias by telling people he was Mexican. “My conscience exploded … We were all just regular people who wanted to blend into America, but felt overwhelmed by a mistrustful majority … And words kill. Zahid assumed the name Matt, claimed he was from Dallas, and converted to Buddhism because he believed it was safer for him. Yet he still committed suicide three weeks ago.”

Imura’s takeaway: “We should never forget the mistakes of the past but we should also take action to improve our future so we’re not mired in self-centered self-pity and we can rise above the wrongs committed against us and by us. It’s not a one-day event. For me, it’s remembering how hateful words spat at me by people who didn’t know me made me wish I wasn’t American or descended from the Japanese, and to use that realization to bother to get to know people who are not like my perception of what an American is.”

Sansei Stories participants (from left) Debbie Mochidome, Dani Imura and Kathryn Endo-Roberts.

Sansei Stories participants (from left) Debbie Mochidome, Dani Imura and Kathryn Endo-Roberts.

“What’s in a Word?”

Debbie Mochidome shared insights she gained while teaching English as a second language at El Camino College, where many of her students are from South Asia and the Middle East. “Many of these students are here after fleeing oppression and hardship, but they love talking about their former home countries. They bring in photos and music and homemade goodies to share, and in our classroom, everybody is comfortable and safe. However, outside the classroom, things aren’t always that way.

“Since 9/11, I started noticing how words like ‘Muslim,’ ‘Islam,’ and the names of Middle Eastern and South Asian countries were taking on the same kinds of unfair and unwarranted connotations ‘Japanese’ and ‘Japanese American’ did back in the ’40s …

“These days, people know more about Kim and Kanye than what’s going on in the world. There are fascinating documentaries about Islam … The problem is, people just aren’t interested or don’t want to learn. The 24-hour news cycle constantly spins with stories of terrorist attacks committed by groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram … Add to that, people’s wanting to be entertained, rather than educated, and stuff like that ranty anti-Muslim mess being spewed by some politicians gets their attention.”

Mochidome said she was heartbroken by the impact on her students, particularly those from Syria. “I’ve seen one of my students, Leila, change a lot in the last two years I’ve known her. When she started Elco, Leila would walk right up to people, and introduce herself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Leila from Syria.’ She’d have this huge smile, and anybody could see how proud she was of her heritage and that her lineage traces back to the very first Christians. But later, I started noticing Leila telling people she was ‘Syrian Christian’ and wearing a big gold cross around her neck.

“Gradually, the ‘Syrian’ part faded away, until Leila was just ‘Christian.’ And lately, she’s been dodging saying anything at all about her background. When I asked her why, Leila looked around and whispered, ‘Miss Debbie, I don’t wanna tell anyone I’m from Syria.’ I told her she should be proud of who she is, but she just looked at me sadly and didn’t say anything …

“These days, there’s too much crazy talk out there about the so-called threat people like my students pose to our national security. And, it seems to me, if we’re not careful, history could repeat itself.”

Recalling that her ESL students at South Bay Adult School used simple and direct language (“Teacher’s old!”) before they learned how to speak less bluntly, she concluded, “There aren’t any easy answers, but we can start by doing what my adult school students did: use words without muddying up their meanings and use words fairly and mindfully.”

“Words of Massive Damage”

Spoken-word artist Kyle Toyama performed a piece inspired by the day’s theme. An excerpt:

So what the hell is a “non-alien”? Evacuation, relocation, misdirection used excessively

America, “The arsenal of democracy.” “A cultural melting pot.” …just picky with the recipe

Internment, in turn, meant imprisonment, truth told separately.  

Because the nation at war? Then where were all the Italian and German AMERICANS at when y’all came and arrested me?

Every time, is this the way it has to be? 

Unethically, ethnically lock people up and throw away the master key?

Quarantined off like some bad disease,

because we lack Anglo features and ancestry?

Colors were posted Boy Scout Troop 683. An art exhibit featured camp-related works by Roger Shimomura, Ettore Andreani, Norman Guy, Donald Hata, Mary Hatsuko Higuchi, Beth Shibata and Alvin Takamori.

Special guests included Hamilton Cloud (on behalf of Rep. Maxine Waters), Assemblymember David Hadley, Deputy Consul Izuru Shimmura, former Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi, George Nakano and Paul Bannai, Torrance City Councilmember Mike Griffiths, and former Gardena City Councilmember Donald Hata.

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