THROUGH THE FIRE: Making Pilgrimages Go Virtual

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By SHARON YAMATO

Once upon a time before COVID-19, there were yearly camp pilgrimages attended by hundreds of eager pilgrims anxious to learn about camp and to commune with others in the remote places where tens of thousands of JAs were once forced to live. Enter two Yonsei pilgrims, Kimiko Marr and Hanako Wakatsuki, who shared bragging rights about the number of sites they had visited and went on to adapt the term “pilgrimage junkies” to describe their enthusiasm for these unique experiences.

These two postwar babies loved meeting and sharing stories with their elders in their very own Japanese American community, a community from which they felt geographically isolated but emotionally aligned.

When it became clear that there was no way these yearly events would happen in 2020, this dynamic duo wasn’t about to stand for this tragic loss. In a move of solidarity with 65 organizations, Marr, co-founder of Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, and Wakatsuki, chief of interpretation and education at the National Park Service’s Minidoka National Historical Site, gave birth to a massive nine-week online pilgrimage series called “Tadaima! A Community Virtual Pilgrimage.”

Tadaima, loosely translated as “back home,” expressed their desire to return to their roots. A robust steering committee of 15 dedicated individuals and hundreds of individuals and organizations took on the ridiculously monstrous job of staging a massive nine-week virtual pilgrimage — one that encompassed Nikkei history, current events, arts, films, books, entertainment, personalized genealogy, and yes, even cooking classes — a whopping 365 programs (and still counting)!

From left: Kimiko Marr, Mia Russell, Hanako Wakatsuki and Marissa Fujimoto standing with “elders” Paul (who coined the term “pilgrimage junkies”) and Mabel Tomita.

I have to admit that the concept of watching nine weeks of almost constant programming on everything JA was a little overwhelming, even for this certified JapanAmericophile. I also wondered how a pilgrimage could possibly be duplicated on a computer screen. I would miss the essence of these gatherings: the bus rides, the exchanges with people you hadn’t seen in ages or had never met, the lively conversations between sessions, and many other things you could touch, taste or feel. But in the age of social distancing, an army of enterprising Nikkei managed to come up with a plan that would defy all my expectations.

It may sound odd but what first grabbed my attention and swooped me in was none other than the inviting Tadaima! logo. The organizers turned to Seattle artist Erin Shigaki, together with her creative team of Eugene Tagawa and Marie Johnston, to come up with the identifying Tadaima look. It consisted of a barrack from Minidoka’s Block 22 that was much like the one survivor Tagawa lived in at the Minidoka camp. Maybe because I’ve had a strong connection to the barracks since we helped move one to JANM in 1994, I was drawn in by that stunning image.

As a testament to the power of art to transform concrete artifacts into moving visual imprints, I couldn’t agree more with Shigaki, who said, “We want to reclaim these structures as ours — our families transformed these into homes that sheltered us, despite all odds.”

The spirit of community resonated through the project that brought together people from over the globe. Stories from Nikkei communities in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, New York, Canada, Brazil, Peru, even Australia and more were featured in the series. Wakatsuki credits the work of tireless committee members, too many to mention here, who often worked on their own dime to make sure programs ran smoothly.

Since I obviously can’t list all of the 365 programs, I’d like to mention a few of my personal favorites and name the people responsible for putting them together. JANM staff member and Amache camp descendant John Tonai amassed a diverse series of living artists whose work dealt with the JA incarceration.

Artist Kristine Aono’s presentation of her provocative art installation, “Deru Kugi wa Utareru” (the nail that sticks up the farthest gets the most pounding), was breathtaking for its participatory element of using nails to project statements on her wall art. Presented first in 1992 at the Long Beach Museum of Art and later in 2017 at The Block Museum in Illinois, the piece involved 120,000 rusty nails, half of which were installed by the artist and the rest left for viewers to put up themselves. Powerful words like “racism still exists” and “resist” were pounded onto the wall by visitors, thus creating a bond between the artist’s own incarceration experience and the visitors’ racist histories.

Kristine Aono’s installation “Deru Kugi wa Utareru” has a participatory element using nails.

In another series, Asian American film aficionado Rob Buscher, a film festival organizer I’m grateful to have met at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, curated an amazing program of more than 60 films. Gathering them from both present and past, Tadaima! made them available for streaming at no cost to pilgrimage participants, and Buscher hosted lively discussions with some of the filmmakers and participants.

A conversation with Georgia-based filmmaker Matthew Hashiguchi (“Good Luck Soup”) and Maryland-based author Paul Takemoto (“Nisei Memories”) and his mother, Alice, was among my personal favorite discussions for its deeply insightful dialogue. For a moment, I even forgot that I was at home watching a computer screen and not sitting next to them at a live pilgrimage as I listened to their intimate thoughts on what it meant to be JA growing up outside the West Coast.

A regular feature each Sunday was an elder panel consisting of those who knew from first-hand experience what it was like to call camp their homes. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our own panel of three of my favorite JANM volunteers. June Aochi Berk, Barbara Keimi, and Masako Murakami-Koga enlightened us with their fascinating stories, most of which were never shared before an audience, while JANM’s Clement Hanami was the nimble moderator who knew these diehard volunteers well enough to make them feel comfortable sitting before an unfamiliar Zoom camera that recorded their every thought.

I’m told that Kimiko and Hanako devoted an average of 50 to 70 hours a week for 17 weeks to put on this extravaganza. Fortunately, the pay-off was beyond their wildest dreams with about 100,000 registered participants tuning in. The good news is that if you missed any of the 365 programs, there’s still time to see some of them at jampilgrimages.com.

The ambitious plan is to keep the series up for a while and hopefully find a permanent online home for it. Ambition is no stranger to these two Yonsei, and I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot more of them and their future ambitious JA ventures for years to come. With others equally committed to presenting the JA story (with a special shout-out to some I just happen to know who worked extraordinarily hard for this series, including Erin Aoyama, Royce D’Orazio, Dakota Russell, and Mia Russell, to name just a few), I’d say our JA future is in good hands.

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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