By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
A new and improved version of a 2013 Heart Mountain documentary received rave reviews from the audience after a recent screening at the Japanese American National Museum.
Created by ABC7 news anchor/reporter David Ono and editor/camera operator Jeff MacIntyre, “Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain” aired last year as a half-hour special. The duo doubled the length of the documentary by adding more stories connected to the Wyoming “relocation center” where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans from California, Oregon and Washington were held during World War II:
• Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson became lifelong friends when Boy Scouts from Heart Mountain and from the nearby town of Cody held a jamboree. Decades later, Mineta, a Democrat representing San Jose in the House of Representatives, and Simpson, a Republican representing Wyoming in the Senate, worked together on passing legislation providing redress and an apology for those who were interned.
• When the draft was imposed on camp inmates, a group of internees, led by the Fair Play Committee, said they would only serve in the Army if their constitutional rights as American citizens were restored first. A mass trial, the largest in Wyoming history, was held for 63 young Nisei resisters, who stuck by their beliefs despite facing jail time as well as ostracism from their own community. Among them was Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation board member Takashi Hoshizaki.
• Stanley Hayami was a promising young artist at Heart Mountain who joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was killed in action at the age of 19 in Italy. His journals and drawings, now preserved at JANM, provide a glimpse of his creativity and what might have been. (His story is also told in the documentary “A Flicker in Eternity.”)
• The late Clarence Matsumura served with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 442nd, which rescued starving prisoners from the Dachau death camp as the Nazis retreated. The Nisei soldiers were in the odd position of being liberators overseas while their own families were being held behind barbed wire back home. One of those Holocaust survivors, Solly Ganor, author of “Light One Candle,” was reunited with Matsumura in 1992 in Israel.
The screening followed a town hall meeting held at JANM by the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation, which has opened a museum near the camp site. Foundation Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, daughter of Heart Mountain internees Dr. William I. Higuchi and the late Setsuko Saito Higuchi, and other board members met with local residents who have ties to the camp.
“We spent the last couple of days in the board room and really did some great brainstorming,” Higuchi reported. “We really will continue to tell the story. We focused on a memorial wall, which is our next project, to list all the names of the internees, and to figure out a way to tie that back to the Yonsei and the Sansei so they can carry the legacy of the Nisei and the Issei and the sacrifices that have come before us.”
She thanked Ono and MacIntyre, saying, “We are going to make this video hopefully available in our gift store to spread the word. You really brought this story together and tied in the friendships and the love and the commitment and the dedication that not only the community of Heart Mountain but also now our new community in Powell, Wyo., has really embraced.”
MacIntyre, who has worked with Ono on several award-winning documentaries, confessed, “Before David asked me to work on this project, I was an utter Japanese American internment dummy … Better than any book, more thorough than any class, the lessons I was to learn would be more than just about that very painful important moment in American history, but those lessons would ultimately change my life.
“History isn’t made by the meek, the weak or the ordinary. It’s painfully forged by the strong, the brave, the extraordinary. Granted, most in this community would never admit to being any of those, but that’s okay, that’s why we’re here. With great honor, David and I sound the horn and shine the light on this quiet yet powerful people. And it’s a generation whose history in part was written in the shadow of a mountain. From my experience with this gracious community, I just think it’s deeply unjust to keep that story in the shadow.”
Ono recalled that after doing pieces on the 442nd, the Vietnam War and the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, he felt that “I can’t do any more Asian stories. I’ve got to show the rest of the community that I’m concerned with them as well.” But just then he was contacted by Patti Hirahara, whose father, Frank, and grandfather, George, took more than 2,000 photos of life at Heart Mountain, and Ono decided, “Okay, one more Asian story.”
“But then it evolved … I started learning more about … Heart Mountain and these amazing individual stories of families, many of them from Southern California,” Ono said. “Through our investigation and researching online, various things led me to Shirley, and Shirley really opened my eyes to the various personalities that came out of that camp … I went back to Jeff and said, ‘This isn’t a story, this is a documentary. This needs to be a multi-faceted documentary. There are stories that are as relevant today as they were the day they happened 70 years ago, so we have to do this.’”
After the program was broadcast last June, Ono said, he and MacIntyre felt that “it wasn’t enough because there were so many pieces of this story that didn’t get on the air that were equally important. So we thought, ‘Let’s expand it.’”
He added, “I want you think about how this is just one camp out of 10, this is just a handful of families out of the 10,000 that were in each camp. So these stories can go on and on, but I hope this tells a story that can be shared with all communities to show not only what was happening back then, but what can still happen today. I think that’s a really important part of the message.”
Darrell Kunitomi of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, who appears in the film, attended the screening with his father Jack, who was interned at Heart Mountain, and his brother Dale, who was born there. “We’ve all seen a lot of stuff about the camp experience, and that was just amazing,” he said of the documentary. “I hope this goes very, very far and lasts forever.”
As a son of the “Greatest Generation,” Kunitomi said, “We had the best lives, the safest lives … Our folks may have kept that from us, what they had gone through. So all I can say to them and to others of my generation is we have to say thanks and we have to appreciate what they went through.”
He added that vigilance is still needed because “hate is always there … It pops up immediately now because of Twitter and Facebook … That goes for whether you’re talking about gay marriage or any other hot racial issue or religious issue out there. It happens so fast and it’s so disappointing to read things on the Internet that are so stupid … after everything this country has been through.”
Greg Kimura, JANM president and CEO, who brought his son to the screening, commented, “We have to teach this to our younger generations, and that’s the way we keep these stories alive within the community. But perhaps even more important than that … we need this story to be understood as an American story.”
On a personal note, he called the internment “a community-wide cultural scar that … has gone right to the heart of every Japanese American … I still cannot get my head around the fact that my father as born behind barbed wire in an American version of a concentration camp in his own country.”
Kimura told Ono and MacIntyre, “The power that you guys have in tapping into a broader audience … to affect people outside the community who have never heard this story, who see JANM when they’re walking down First Street and would never think of entering … your ability to tap these people and touch them with the stories, these very human stories … it’s something none of us can ever take for granted. The community owes you guys a huge debt of gratitude.”
Toshi Ito, who met her late husband, James, at Heart Mountain, attended the screening with her son, Judge Lance Ito. In the documentary, she tearfully recalls that her father was unable to find work after the war and ended up committing suicide so that the family could collect the insurance money.
“One of the difficult things that Jeff and I always talk about when it comes to doing Japanese and JA stories is it’s tough to make the viewer understand the pain because Japanese people don’t emote … It’s natural for us to feel the other person’s pain. If they’re in control, you’re in control. If they’re hurting, you feel that pain. Toshi emoted in a way that really hit home what this generation had to deal with after the camps. Most people think you just went back to you lives. That wasn’t the case. You had to rebuild your lives. Toshi’s ability to emote that was remarkable.”
Speaking at the screening, Ito said she didn’t even talk to her son about her father “because it’s so emotional. You know you’re going to cry about it, and it’s sad.” She noted that she had to sell her father’s possessions, including his Buick, because the insurance money didn’t come for two years.
MacIntyre told Ito, “You brought such heart to the piece. It’s like your tears were the tears of almost 120,000 who we were not able to interview.”
Hirahara, who is still in the process of identifying everyone in the camp photos, said, “When I was part of the first Heart Mountain reunion in 1982 here in L.A., I knew we had pictures, but I never knew this many. I’m glad they were found. I’m glad they’re able to tell the story. People can go and look at these pictures (on the Washington State University website, http://content.libraries.wsu.edu/cdm/) and then they can go to the Heart Mountain Foundation website (www.heartmountain.org) and they can learn more.
“This is a story that will continue. My family was three generations in Heart Mountain. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father were there. My great-grandfather died at Heart Mountain, and I’m the last, the fourth generation remaining to tell the story. I’m very happy that all of you are here. Please tell your friends, please tell them to go to abc7.com … Let’s get their Facebook numbers up … I’d like to show the station that this story means so much to us.”
Because the finished documentary is nearly an hour long, about 10 minutes will have to be cut for broadcast to accommodate commercials, Ono said. He will try to get it aired locally in May for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and also offer it to ABC affiliates in San Francisco and Wyoming.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo (except where indicated)