By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
When the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) held public hearings across the country in 1981, nearly 40 years had passed since the mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans. Now, 37 years later, the hearings themselves are a part of history.
Over the course of three days, 153 Japanese Americans testified about the impact of the camps on themselves, their families and their community.
There were moments of high drama. Ewan Yoshida of Alaska said that he and his father were separated by the government and never saw each other again; he still did not know if his father was dead or alive.
When Nisei veteran James Kawaminami was testifying, Lillian Baker, a vocal opponent of redress, attempted to snatch the papers from his hands. A struggle ensued, the audience was up in arms, and guards escorted Baker and a friend from the room.
Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.), who was never interned, was loudly booed as he testified that the Japanese American community benefited from being put in camps.
The significance of the hearings and the years-long effort to preserve the testimonies and make them available to everyone were discussed at the relaunch of the 13-part video series “Speak Out for Justice” on Dec. 2 at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), presented by Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and Visual Communications (VC).
John Esaki, formerly of VC and currently with JANM, was a film student when he was among the VC staff and volunteers recruited to document the hearings. “It was a profoundly educational and emotionally moving experience … I really got a start at VC and the whole area of Asian American/Japanese American media by participating in that really monumental event for our community. Probably over a decade later … VC took those tapes and restored them by transferring them to a new digital format …
“The committee … wrote summaries of all the testimonies and rewatched all that testimony. So once again that was really just so impactful to review that material later, and some of the people who had testified had passed at that point, so again I feel fortunate that that seminal event in our community is kind of woven through the work that I’ve been able to do for both VC and for the museum.
“So now this program launches us into a new chapter of renewed interest again in the commission hearings during our troubled times, and because it’s now on DVD, it’s accessible to many more audiences.”
Jully Lee of the PULL Project performed a monologue, written by Miya Iwataki, about a Sansei urging her Nisei mother to testify. A short video of highlights from the commission hearings followed.
A panel discussion was moderated by mystery author Naomi Hirahara, who also writes nonfiction books about Japanese American history, including the forthcoming “Life After Manzanar,” which includes a section about the hearings.
“I was only 19 years old when the commission hearings took place,” she recalled. “I was actually out of the country, but I remember when I went back to … Stanford and the activists on our campus … were talking about going to the commission hearings in San Francisco [which were held a week after the L.A. hearings]. I don’t think I really, truly understood how important it was, the magnitude of it.
“But I think that’s why it’s so important that VC and NCRR could actually document this for us … I still get chills watching this.”
Documenting the Hearings
Duane Kubo, co-founder of VC and recently retired dean of intercultural studies at De Anza College, explained why there isn’t comparable video documentation of hearings held in other cities. “I think the short answer is because we had VC in L.A. By the time of the commission hearings, VC had been around for about 12 years and we had done numerous community-based documentaries as well as … ‘Hito Hata: Raise the Banner,’ a feature-length film.”
He added that he and VC co-founders Robert Nakamura and Eddie Wong all worked at Ghidra, the first Asian American national publication, which addressed various community issues. “It was really instrumental in developing the identity of being Asian American in this country … I would put that beginning in L.A. as really the reason why we were really ready to document the commission hearings. That was kind of a natural.”
As for the logistics, he said, “We knew that it was going to be many, many hours of testimony … We didn’t have VHS equipment that enabled us to record for more than two hours at a time, so we actually had to borrow that equipment. We had to ask for volunteers, put a call out to see who would actually want to work on this. I distinctly remember writing a proposal to NCRR … for $400 to fund the raw videotape stock that we used to document the entire commission hearings.”
“I wasn’t really confident that people were going to be able to express their stories in front of the commission,” he acknowledged, “but once people started talking it just started coming out and I was just amazed at the courageousness, the detail and really the emotion that was behind the testimonies. I can remember being behind the camera shooting some of these testimonies and tearing up and fighting to keep the camera stable.”
Jim Matsuoka, a founding member of NCRR (then known as National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) and former director of EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) at CSU Long Beach, testified about his experiences in camp as a child. Angered when a commissioner asked him to wrap up his testimony, Matsuoka pounded the table and declared that he would not be rushed.
Looking back at the preparation for the hearings, Matsuoka remembered, “To get Nisei to speak in public … was very difficult, like pulling teeth.” With about three weeks to go, NCRR had only eight people lined up, which would have been “a public relations disaster.”
But when the time came, “A total of about 150 people testified over the three days. And we also scheduled a night meeting at Little Tokyo Towers. So it was like the wall of silence … was breaking finally and people wanted to say things about what happened to them.”
Matsuoka also recalled Baker and her entourage disrupting an NCRR meeting in Gardena. “The Nisei at this meeting, we had to separate the two (groups) because they were going to go at each other. Lillian stands up in the middle of it all and she says very emotionally, ‘My husband went to the Pacific and never came back!’ I couldn’t help myself. I said, ‘If I was your husband, I wouldn’t come back either!’”
NCRR learned valuable lessons, Matsuoka said, such as “how to write letters, how to fund-raise, how to do press conferences. We never know how to do any of that.” Another take-away: “You’ve got to let leadership come to the forefront … A lot of our leadership were women, and they provided the strongest leadership during the most crucial times.”
Sumi Seki, another redress activist, recalled that when travel restrictions were imposed on Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, her “rascal” brother was arrested for going more than five miles from home, and remained in jail until the family was evacuated in April 1942.
“We went to Santa Anita (Assembly Center) and he wouldn’t stay in Santa Anita,” she said. “He jumped the fence and he went to the movies … They sent him to another camp in Arizona … We really didn’t know where he was until one of our San Pedro friends who was in Poston wrote to my father telling us that he saw Masa being escorted by the police into the mess hall from another camp into Poston.”
For Seki, camp “was a terrible memory … from the very beginning to the last.” Regarding the hearings, she said, “I was so scared when I had to testify. I’ll never do that again.”
An Intimidating Scene
Harry Kawahara, a retired faculty member of Pasadena City College, was co-chair of the Pacific Southwest District JACL Redress Committee. He and fellow co-chair Phil Shigekuni worked to recruit potential witnesses.
“It was difficult because … it was very intimidating,” he said. “They were in a large auditorium and the nine commissioners were on a platform looking down on the witness table. There were klieg lights and there were … flashbulbs from cameras and so on. So it’s a very intimidating scene to ask people to testify before a federal commission. Many of these Nisei … were reluctant to talk to their own kids about camp, much less appearing in a public forum. So it took a lot of courage.”
To alleviate those fears, the JACL held a series of mock hearings.
“I was very proud of our witnesses … They agreed to do it because of the importance of the event,” Kawahara said. “ … The witnesses were very anxious and nervous, which I can understand. But they spoke, I think, very powerfully … Their hands were trembling, their voices cracked, I saw some of them break down in tears (but) they delivered a very powerful message and I was glad to be part of the effort to make an impact upon the commission, which I think we did.”
He added that he and Bert Nakano of NCRR felt it was important for the two organizations, which had been at odds in the past, to work together. “We coordinated a lot of our efforts … We were in regular touch with each other to maximize our impact … I hear there were some differences in other areas … but fortunately I think we had a decent relationship here in the L.A. area.”
While he initially doubted that redress could be achieved, Kawahara said, the hearings taught him about the power of collective action. “We contacted a wider circle of supporters. We approached the NAACP, the ACLU, Jewish groups, Latino groups, churches, the American Friends (Service Committee). We tried to rally the support of people to endorse and approve the redress movement. I think through a number of circumstances it incredibly worked out well, so in my judgment the actual passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was truly a miracle and I’m very thankful that it actually happened.”
Including Japanese Speakers
Evelyn Yoshimura, a longtime activist who works at the Little Tokyo Service Center, tried to democratize the hearings as a member of NCRR’s outreach committee. “There was still a big emphasis on what they called ‘experts’ – people who were more highly educated, people who had titles before or after their names. I think for NCRR, our attitude was that it was the people, the regular people … whose voices really needed to be heard, and a lot of those people at the time were Japanese-speaking people. We forget because most of those folks are gone now.”
She credited Yasuko Sakamoto of LTSC with making sure that Japanese speakers were included on the witness list.
“There was a big struggle. We had to push really hard to get the government to pay for translation, but finally they agreed to that and I think that really opened up a really important part of people’s voices,” Yoshimura said. “ … The Issei, that generation who were adults during camp, their experiences were really different. When you talked to them at that time, you didn’t hear very many stories like ‘I had a lot of fun at the dances’ because they were adults who were trying to hold their families together …
“There were a number of women, I was really shocked, who lost children during childbirth in camp because they didn’t have those (medical) facilities. I think that voice wouldn’t have been expressed had it not been for people like Yasuko and others.”
Asked how the hearings relate to today’s issues, Yoshimura responded, “When we were building the redress campaign, we used to always say it was important not just for ourselves but also because of the future of everyone in society … I think in a lot of ways redress really impacted things in a positive way in general, made this society better …
“We always said that it should never happen again and I think we really have to take that to heart because right now the kind of political leadership and the kind of things that are being said in terms of Muslims, in terms of immigrants, is really outrageous and uncannily familiar. It sounds just like what was being said in those days about us … We can’t let it happen again.”
The compilation DVD of selected testimonies costs $25. The complete set, comprising 23 hours of testimonies, costs $250. To order, email [email protected]