A Conversation with Renee Tajima-Peña

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George Uno at home in Japan, looking through archives. The story of the Uno brothers is told in “Asian Americans.” (PBS)

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña is the producer of “Asian Americans,” a five-part PBS series that will be broadcast on May 11 and 12. At UCLA, she is a professor of Asian American studies, director of the Center for EthnoCommunications, and holder of the Alumni and Friends of Japanese American Ancestry Endowed Chair. She is an Academy Award nominee for her documentary “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

She shared some of her thoughts on “Asian Americans” with The Rafu Shimpo.

How did the series came about? How did you envision it and shape it?

Many of us have wanted to create an Asian American series for decades. [The late filmmaker] Loni Ding started to produce one, “Ancestors in America,” but she wasn’t able to finish it. But there’ve been several more attempts and I even wrote a treatment for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) over 20 years ago.

Renee Tajima-Peña

Around 2013, the Washington, D.C. flagship station WETA — they do all of Ken Burns’ series — approached me and CAAM about doing an Asian American history. We jumped at it and all decided to collaborate. It took a long time to raise the money, and also CAAM and I wanted to make sure that the series was told through an Asian American perspective.

By the time the series was green-lit, it was 2018 and then it was all systems go. We put together an amazing pan Asian American team — our episode producers are Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir and Grace Lee, and we were able to get Tamlyn Tomita and Daniel Dae Kim to narrate.

How does the series connect with your family history and your own personal experiences?

A lot of the history we cover is parallel to my own family’s story. My grandparents all immigrated from Japan during the anti-Asian exclusion era. The earliest was my mother’s dad, Hidehachi Ujiiye, who emigrated from Fukushima to Hawaii in 1902 to cut cane on a sugar plantation. He came to the mainland in April of 1906.

As the story goes, he arrived in San Francisco and was immediately targeted by white merchant marines who quite literally chased him out of town, and he ended up in Los Angeles. The next day was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so I guess those racist yahoos saved Grandpa’s life.

It was amazing to me to track this history in Asian Americans and imagine my grandparents’ and parents’ lives during these eras, and then reliving my own involvement in the Asian American movement, being a part of the campaign for redress and reparations, witnessing the events of 9/11 and what’s going on now. I really regret not having asked my grandfather about the Spanish flu. He would have lived through it. I wonder what he saw.

My father’s side also arrived in the early 1900s, but under different circumstances. My grandfather, Kengo Tajima, was a theologian and emigrated here to study at Yale. That side of my family has a direct connection to one of our key stories, in Episode 2, the story of the Uno family.

George and Riki Uno were parishioners at my grandfather’s church in Salt Lake City, and my dad remembers growing up down the street from the Unos and their ten children. It is a remarkable family that encapsulates the 20th-century Japanese American experience. Four Uno brothers served in the U.S. military during World War II, in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team] and MIS (Military Intelligence Service), while one spent the war working for Japan.

The rest of the family was incarcerated — George and the youngest, Edison, were at Crystal City until 1947! Of course, Edison became one of the fathers of redress and reparations, and his sister Amy Uno Ishii was an incredible activist telling the story of EO 9066 and the camps.

One thing we’re all really proud of: the historian Ryan Yokota, who is based in Chicago, told us that someone had found 50-plus videotapes of the Chicago CWRIC (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians) hearings! No one had seen it, and for all we knew, they were rotting there after almost 40 years.

We knew Kay Uno, one of the sisters, had testified at the Chicago hearings. We wanted to use her testimony, but we also knew the whole batch was an invaluable archive. So we immediately arranged to have the tapes preserved and digitized.

The Nikkei WWII experience is a moral and activist presence in much of the history that we tell. Not only in Episode 2, which looks at the 1930s and war years, but also in our episode about the Asian American movement, and our last episode that tells the story of 9/11 and includes an interview with [former Secretary of Transportation]Norm Mineta and the Japanese American response.

The pan-Asian American experience is deeply interwoven into the entirety of American history.

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