By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
GARDENA — The experience of Japanese American women in the World War II camps was the focus of the 2018 Day of Remembrance held on Feb. 24 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
Bay Area filmmaker Marlene Shigekawa’s documentary “For the Sake of the Children,” in which children and grandchildren of incarcerees share their memories, was shown, followed by a panel discussion.
Executive Director Alison Kochiyama noted that GVJCI’s seventh Day of Remembrance program marked the 76th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass incarceration, and the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided redress and an apology to camp survivors. She introduced a special guest, Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, whose research played a crucial role in the success of the redress movement.
“No Japanese Americans were ever charged, much less convicted, of espionage or sabotage against the United States,” Kochiyama said. “Yet they were targeted, seized from their homes, rounded up, and imprisoned for years simply for having the face of the enemy … Today the U.S. government continues to pass laws and enforce policies targeting specific communities. The Muslim ban, deportations, indefinite detention, border walls, racial profiling, and government surveillance are all happening now, and we must continue to defend our citizens and immigrant residents’ civil and human rights.
“This is a repeat of what happened to our Issei immigrant generation in 1941, when over 1,200 Issei men were arrested by the FBI [immediately after Pearl Harbor]and more than 5,500 Issei men were eventually picked up and held as potential threats to national security. Our hope is that these annual Day of Remembrance events held around the country not only continue to bring awareness of this dark episode of U.S. history but that people connect what happened in the past to present-day issues.”
The post-screening panelists, introduced by GVJCI Program Manager Nicole Sato, were Shigekawa, executive producer and co-director of the film, who is project director of the Poston Community Alliance; award-winning artist Mary Hatsuko Higuchi and Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Monica Embrey, who are featured in the film; Asmaa Ahmed, policy manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); and Sameer Ahmed, staff attorney for ACLU of Southern California. The moderator was UCLA professor Valerie Matsumoto, holder of the George and Sakaye Aratani Chair on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community.
“What About the Women?”
“The film really came about when my friend Ruth Okimoto and I were having coffee,” Shigekawa recalled. “Ruth was instrumental in the preservation project at Poston and initiating propositions with the [Colorado River Indian] tribes … It was during that time that the men were getting a lot of recognition for their efforts with the 442nd, and we said, ‘Well, what about the women?’ The women were brave and courageous during that time because they raised children in camp, gave birth to babies such as myself and my brother and others, they created a kind of normalcy for all of us and kind of protected us … That takes a lot of courage and fortitude.”
At first she tried to interview women of her parents’ generation, including her own mother, who was still “genki” at 103, but her mother’s peers were more “fragile” and less able to communicate their experiences. After co-producer Joe Fox learned that Shigekawa didn’t know about the camps until she was in high school, “we found that same situation where a lot of the camp stories were not shared within the family. So then we decided to broaden the film and include the impact of the whole experience on the generations.”
Shigekawa said of women in camp, “What I felt was very courageous is to hide the pain and the shame and humility that was associated with being in prison and to create kind of an ‘Our Town’ kind of normalcy so that the children could feel like they were a part of mainstream society when in fact we were all rejected and marginalized and looked down upon, and that I think continued after camp.”
Not learning about the camps as a child left her with mixed feelings. “[My parents] set high expectations for us … to reach for the stars and feel that we were like everyone else, that we can achieve everything that we wanted to and that there were no roadblocks — when in fact there were, which I found out later … In some ways I felt that was an advantage. So there’s assets and liabilities … but I appreciated my mom for everything she did in trying to create a path for us into mainstream society.”
Shigekawa’s mother, a USC pharmacy school graduate, had a drugstore on Terminal Island and was given only two days to evacuate. “She put a lock on her drugstore and then she came back the next morning to pack everything up and it was ransacked, so she lost everything … She had her own car before the war and she seemed like a very independent woman. And then returning … she had a lot of anxiety and fear about doing the right thing all the time. We always got these messages about ‘Don’t bring any shame on the family’…
“So I feel like the camp experience impacted her emotionally in the sense that she felt like she couldn’t be who she was as a Japanese American but had to always anticipate how she would be received by mainstream society and adjust her behavior appropriately.”
Shigekawa’s message for young women: “No matter your ethnic, racial, religious background, be in touch with your own family stories and hardship and struggle … and also to be a part of a team of other people, whether it be Native American, Muslim American, Mexican American, anybody who has similar interests and struggle as yourself.”
A Difficult Journey
Higuchi remembered her mother’s difficult journey. “When she went into camp she had two children, and in camp she had two more. During that time [she was]washing those diapers every day, hanging them outside on the clothesline. With the dusty windstorms in Arizona, she had to bring them into the house, dry them along the ropes she had strung across the room with water dripping on the floor. Life was hard taking four small children to a mess hall every day … It brings me to tears to imagine all she has gone through.”
The family’s troubles didn’t end with they were released. “We lost everything. Actually, they didn’t realize until we came back because we had neighbors take care of our things in the garage. But when we did come back, there was nothing left.”
After the war, the family farmed in Lawndale for a few years. “We put a down payment on 10 acres of land in Torrance. But before we were able to move there, my father had a heart ailment and within a matter of weeks he died and so my mother [was left]with four young children … She farmed those 10 acres by herself … from early morning to late at night … having to harness a horse and using a plow to cultivate and make rows and plant cauliflower … We would come home after school and help her as much as we could, but she had a very tough life after camp.”
Higuchi, whose camp-related artwork was displayed during the program, recalled, “When I did my first painting about EO 9066, I asked my mother what she thought, and she just looked at it for a long time and … started having all those tears. She said all she kept thinking about is ‘When is the war going to end? What’s going to become of my children?’ … This is all she thought about every single day.”
Her message for young women activists: “Be strong.”
“A Unique JA Experience”
Embrey — granddaughter of the late Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who was instrumental in Manzanar being named a state and national historic monument — said, “I think I have a pretty unique Japanese American experience in that I grew up learning about camp and knowing a lot of about it because of my grandmother. So when I think about women in the camps … I actually think a lot about the role of women in being on the forefront of social change and our movements today … strong, powerful women who are the ones out there advocating for justice and equality for all of our communities.”
Regarding women in camp, Embrey said, “I think a lot around women’s health, the number of miscarriages and women who didn’t survive childbirth, and that was much higher in camps than outside the barbed-wire fences … Access to health care and the way that that disproportionately was impacting moms and young women, I think, is really important to remember …
“Another theme that was brought up so many times in this film is the role of women in helping instill in their children a sense of self and self-worth … The women really did a huge role to help kids have fun in camp and be shielded from what it meant to have guard towers with machine guns that were facing in, living behind barbed wire. I think women in the community were the ones who were really coming together to help make sure that that young people … were having as good an experience as possible, from the schools to the games to the plays and the dances.”
Noting that activism can range from speaking at a rally to making Spam musubi for a community event, she added, “I think women show up in so many different ways in holding families together, in caring for our communities and standing up and raising their voices for what’s right.”
Women in Leadership
Asmaa Ahmed said that women play a major role in CAIR. “We have several chapters where the executive directors are women … Our office in San Francisco, that executive director is also a woman … Her name’s Zahra Billoo. She’s a prominent civil rights activist. And at CAIR LA, our operations director is a woman. I’m in a management position. Also our immigrant rights center is managed by a woman … Throughout CAIR we really believe in women, especially women of color, in positions of power.”
Reflecting on the film, she said, “After 9/11, the Japanese American community was the first community to come forward and show support to the Muslim American community, and to CAIR in particular. So that’s why this community is really near and dear to our hearts … Since then, time and time again the Japanese American community has shown up for us. We did a ‘No Muslim Ban Ever’ rally last year in L.A. and we started it at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center …
“I would just tell young woman today that it’s important to learn how you behave in this world as an impacted individual but also as an ally, and the most important thing about being an ally is that you support and you strengthen, but then you step back because at CAIR we believe in uplifting voices that are the most impacted.”
Women also play a prominent role in the ACLU, said Sameer Ahmed. “For many, many years, Ramona Ripston was probably one of the leading civil rights activists in Southern California. Currently I think more than half of our project directors are women, including my boss, Jennie Pasquarella. She’s the head of our immigrant rights project and I would say one of the leading immigrant rights lawyers not only in L.A. but around the country …
“Donald Trump wants to do this extreme vetting program with Muslim immigrants and we filed a class-action lawsuit. Jennie not only uncovered that program … but now is the lead lawyer in this lawsuit across the entire country, representing immigrants affected by these programs.”
As for his take on the film, Ahmed said it is relevant in view of Trump’s policies that are making immigrants “feel that they don’t belong here,” such as the Muslim ban. “What these women experienced in these camps are much worse than things, thankfully, that are going on now. And we can learn a lot from their resilience, we can learn from how they stayed strong when they were in the camps, and how the next generation is standing up and speaking out to help make sure things like this don’t happen again.
“The Muslim community is a very small percentage of the United States. We can’t fight back against these policies unless we have allies in other communities. I think that’s really, really important.”
Boy Scout Troop 683 posted the colors. Other special guests included Hamilton Cloud, aide to Rep. Maxine Waters, Gardena Mayor Tasha Cerda, and Gardena City Councilmember Rodney Tanaka. Food was provided by Gardena Bowl and @Home Kitchen. The program was supported by a grant from Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and had 28 community supporters.
GVJCI is arranging transportation to the 49th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 28. For more information, call (310) 324-6611 or email [email protected]
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo