CHICAGO — Northeastern Illinois University’s Ronald Williams Library has added newly digitized video footage of the 1981 Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) hearings to its Japanese American Redress Collection.
This footage is now available to the public, and some of the footage is scheduled to be part of the new PBS five-part documentary series, “Asian Americans,” which premieres nationally May 11-12.
“These tapes were considered ‘lost’ by the Japanese American community in Chicago for decades,” Northeastern archivist Hanna Ahn said. “The discovery of the tapes in the spring of 2018 was unexpected.”
The tapes were scattered among more than 230 boxes that were part of a donation from Media Services that the university’s previous archivist received several years ago. As Ahn and her student aide combed through the collection, they had no idea that the Japanese American redress hearing tapes were part of the donation because it didn’t come with an inventory list.
Additionally, many of the labels on the exterior of the boxes were poor and often faded. In several instances, the labels had fallen off from the tapes themselves and many of the tape formats were obsolete. When the donation was transferred to the University Archives in 2013, the boxes had to be stored in three different areas of the library because there was not enough space in the processing office to adequately hold them all.
“There were 62 tapes that were related to the redress hearing,” Ahn said. “Thanks to the Japanese American Service Committee, we were connected with Flash Cuts, which was in the beginning stages of ‘Asian Americans’ and offered to digitize the collection in exchange for using the footage in their documentary.”
The CWRIC hearings took place on Northeastern’s Main Campus on Sept. 22-23, 1981. They investigated the legality of Executive Order 9066, a mandate issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II that led to the detainment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. Considered a threat to national security because of their ethnic background, the uprooted Japanese and Japanese Americans were placed into camps and held for an average of three years. No internee was ever formally charged with or convicted of espionage or sabotage.
“When we learned of the discovery of the CWIRC tapes at NEIU, we absolutely knew that we had to contribute to preserve and digitize them,” said Eurie Chung, executive in charge of production for “Asian Americans” and manager of Flash Cuts, a California-based production company.
“It was not just a matter of what we could use in the series but the fact that so few of these important testimonies survive today. Our series producer, Renee Tajima-Peña, donated the funds so that all the tapes could be restored. Though only a small fraction of what was digitized is used in our series, it was a great privilege to show Kay Uno Kaneko, a survivor of Amache Relocation Center and Crystal City Alien Enemy Detention Facility, her own testimony over 30 years later.”
Kaneko’s testimony is scheduled to appear in Part 2 of the series, and all of the testimonies are now available for free on Northeastern’s Digital Commons. Former Northeastern librarian Alyssa Vincent suggested the use of the university’s Digital Commons as a way to archive the footage as well as make it more accessible.
“Within the past year, Digital Commons introduced the ability to stream video,” Vincent said. “When Hanna made the announcement about the video footage being digitally archived, I knew we had the option of using Digital Commons to make it more widely available. Digital Commons is indexed by Google and Google Scholar to make them extremely findable, not just for NEIU community members, but for the whole world.”
Though not all 62 tapes were recoverable, some of the tapes were duplicates and, luckily, every testimony was recovered and digitized.
“All of the testimonies were recovered, which is great,” Ahn said. “We’ve had the written transcripts as part of our collection for years, but now we have the actual video footage. You can really see the testifier speaking. I think that’s more powerful than just reading the transcript. To see the person, with all of their emotions, talking about their experiences during the war, I thought that was very powerful.”
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the CWIRC hearings. With the discovery of these tapes, as well as a resurgence in interest in this part of American history, Ahn is hopeful that the collection will aid researchers and students in learning about a time that is often forgotten.
“What happened during the war was really a violation of civil rights and civil liberties to a targeted ethnic group,” Ahn said. “I think there are some relevant events going on, like detentions on the country’s southern border and ICE raids, that mirror what was happening during the World War II era. My hope is that because of Alyssa’s hard work in making these more readily available that we’ll get more interested researchers and maybe faculty members will reach out to inquire about using the archives.”
Aside from the digital videos and transcript of the CWIRC hearings, Northeastern’s Japanese American Redress Collection also contains hard copies of declassified government documents from World War II, including documents related to the resettlement and camps to the beginning of the redress movement. Ahn is also working on eventually expanding the collection to include more items relating to camp life, resettlement and redress.
“Chicago was one of the biggest resettlement sites once the camps closed after the war,” Ahn said. “The number of Japanese Americans grew exponentially, but Chicago doesn’t really have a centralized area like a Little Tokyo. One of the reasons for that is because in the late ’40s and ’50s, it was very hard for Japanese Americans to find housing because of what they looked like. My hope is to expand the collection to include items from camp life, resettlement and the redress because it’s important to see the whole story.”
Vincent thinks the discovery and archiving of the redress videos is a step in a positive direction to getting more of that story told. She credits Ahn for her archival stewardship to ensure that once the tapes were discovered, they were carefully restored, digitized and made publicly available. Vincent also noted that this effort was truly collaborative and embodies the spirit of Northeastern research.
“I think so much NEIU research — and I hope more future research — focuses on raising up people’s voices that may have otherwise been marginalized,” Vincent said. “This collection is such an incredible opportunity to show students what happened then, and these are their actual words. It’s not someone commenting on their words.
“You’re not just reading a transcript, which is still an incredible resource. You’re getting to see someone. You’re getting to hear them and you’re getting to see what that moment in time was rather than just reading someone else’s perspective of it. It’s a part of history that is often forgotten about, but in collecting this testimony, it brings life to the words ‘never again.’”
In addition to the Japanese American Redress Collection and Northeastern’s University Archives, the Ronald Williams Library is also one of the Illinois Regional Archives Depository sites that specifically holds materials for Cook County. The library was also recently given the congressional archive of Northeastern alumnus Luis Gutiérrez. Ahn anticipates the Gutiérrez archive should be available for public viewing in 2021.
Until now, the only extensive video record of the CWRIC was from the Los Angeles hearings. The nine-member commission held hearings in 10 cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Cambridge and Washington, D.C. The findings were released in a 467-page report titled “Personal Justice Denied.”
The CWRIC’s recommendations for redress (with one commissioner dissenting) became the basis of legislation that was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan as the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Any former incarceree (and other Japanese Americans whose constitutional rights were violated) still alive when the bill was signed received a payment of $20,000 and an official apology.