By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
GARDENA — The impact of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans on subsequent generations was the focus of the annual Day of Remembrance program held Feb. 28 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute.
The well-attended program featured a screening of the 1999 documentary “Children of the Camps” and a talk by its producer, Dr. Satsuki Ina, a psychotherapist and professor emeritus in the School of Education at CSU Sacramento.
“The trauma and stigma that many Nikkei faced after being put in American concentration camps is something that has carried on throughout the generations,” said Dr. Carrie Lew, a member of the event committee. “The Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to four years without due process of law or any factual basis in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards … This compelling film depicts powerful personal stories as well as the emotional impact the camp experience had on these individuals, which they carried with them for over 50 years.”
The film documents a workshop, led by Ina, in which six people who were interned as children opened up about their experiences during and after the war. The participants and the camps where they were imprisoned were Marion Kanemoto (Minidoka), Toru Saito (Topaz), Bessie Masuda (Crystal City), Howard Ikemoto (Tule Lake), Ruth Okimoto (Poston), and Richard Tatsuo Nagaoka (Rohwer). Ina was herself born in Tule Lake.
As a result of the workshop, Nagaoka decided to go by his Japanese name instead of his English name.
Ina was introduced by former Assemblymember George Nakano, who was interned at Tule Lake and left the camp in 1946 at the age of 10. His family
moved to Norwalk, where he was one of the few Asians at Centennial Intermediate School. The Caucasian neighbors across the street were friendly and invited him to join the Boy Scouts with their son.
“On the other hand, there have been some bad experiences,” he said, recalling the time he accompanied an Italian American friend who was delivering newspapers. “We went to this one barbershop. The barber looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want Japs in here! Get the hell out of here!’”
Nakano said he could relate to the emotions expressed by the people in the film.
Ina, who has worked with a variety of trauma victims, including survivors of natural disasters, sex trafficking and suicide attempts, said she has probably seen “Children of the Camps” about 200 times, including 110 screenings throughout the U.S. when the film first came out.
“When I thought about making this film, I wondered how would the Japanese American community receive this when it’s so emotionally intense and it’s part of our … history that we haven’t really talked about at this level,” she said. “So it took a lot of courage for these six people, who I didn’t know until we started this process.”
The idea for the project began when Ina visited the Smithsonian with her son in the late 1980s. “We walked in … and when I turned the corner there was this big photo of my father in the jail at Tule Lake, a picture I’d never seen before … I burst into tears.”
“Emotions Would Just Well Up”
During a training session to get her continuing education units accredited, Ina participated in a group activity where six people took turns going to the center of the circle and imagining themselves as infants. “When it was my turn, I closed my eyes and I imagined the face of my mother and father, and they looked frightened. But the more stunning thing about the experience was that I wasn’t in a crib. I had this visual image of some woven material that surrounded me and I didn’t know what it was.
“After that training, I went to go visit my mom in San Francisco and I asked her … ‘When we were babies, what did you put us in?’ She said, ‘We didn’t have a crib, we put you in a kori.’ A kori is a woven Japanese basket that people put their clothes in … So this was a very early memory and that struck me as so revealing about how our minds must work around trauma.”
Ina began to hold weekend sessions with friends that she had grown up with in San Francisco, asking them to share whatever memories they had of the camp experience. “Something really extraordinary would happen. Oftentimes we didn’t have even the words to describe the experiences, but the emotions would just well up. And I did these groups over a 10-year period where somebody from like the San Jose Buddhist Church would say, ‘We heard you’re talking to people in groups about their experience in camp. There’s 10 of us that would like to come and get together and talk it through.’”
In the film, participants remembered a Japanese children’s song “that just kind of came up because we were in a context,” she said. “We didn’t remember that specifically, couldn’t even remember the rest of the song, but memories would well up just because it was in a safe context to begin talking about something that had been stored away.”
Since then, Ina has learned that “trauma memories are stored in a special way in a person’s brain, because your brain is designed to keep you safe so that you’ll survive. If something harmed you, then your brain will store it in a way different from other memories so that the next time something similar to that comes into your world … you’ll be able to react in order to survive … fight, flight or to be in a freeze mode.
“So for children they used to say, ‘Oh, you were just a kid, so camp couldn’t have bothered you because you don’t remember anything.’ We know now that children are the most vulnerable victims of trauma because they don’t have the emotional and psychological resources to explain or to understand what’s going on for them …
“The very thing that helped Japanese Americans survive, which was silence and to gaman and to not complain and not be bitter, all of those things created kind of a culture of suppression, of not talking about it. So my goal through this filmmaking was to use it as a way to get people to have memories to talk about it, to find out that the more a person can express the feelings that got suppressed, the less they would be haunted by these amorphous associations that they would have.”
Ina cited one case of unconscious association, a woman who was starting a new job but found herself unable to walk past the parking lot, which had a barbed-wire fence. “There were hundreds of stories like that where people had bits of memory and when they saw the film they could put it together.”
One of her favorite stories was from a screening in San Jose, where a Nisei man bought five or six VHS copies of the film and told her, “Those stories were my stories, but I can’t talk to my children about that. So I got one of these films for each of my kids.”
Creating a Safe Space
In terms of creating a safe space during the three-day retreat shown in the film, Ina said she initially had the workshop participants and the white crew members stay in separate quarters because the former internees might feel threatened. That changed when Masuda read a letter, retrieved from her War Relocation Authority file, that she had written as a child.
“When she started talking, after a while I heard this sniffling and I looked over … Steven Holsapple, who was the co-director and camera guy … was crying,” Ina said. “He had snot running down his face, he was trying to hold his camera up. So I said, ‘Let’s stop here. Steve, why don’t you come over into the center of the circle?’ … He just wept and we all wept. And he said … ‘This never should have happened and I am so moved by the tragedy.’ …
“It’s part of our healing. It’s important that others outside of our community be able to express their compassion for our experience. And the group changed, people relaxed more, and I think part of why we had so much openness in what you saw today was the result of having people acknowledge what happened in a way that they never trusted could be done.”
She added that all connected with the film are still good friends 15 years later, and she calls the six participants whenever there is a screening.
Regarding her own experiences, Ina said, “My father renounced his American citizenship and I didn’t find that out until I was in college, that they had gone years with no citizenship. I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about this?’ He said, ‘Because I was afraid you would not be able to understand.’
On behalf of Rep. Maxine Waters, Hamilton Cloud presented a proclamation to Satsuki Ina.
“So asking the questions is an important part of the intergenerational process. You may feel there’s this reluctance, but I encourage people, Sansei and Yonsei, to talk to their grandparents and their parents and ask questions to understand what happened … Breaking that barrier, I found, has made a big difference in people’s lives.”
Ina told her parents’ story in another documentary, “From a Silk Cocoon.”
Ina also recalled, “When I was at Berkeley, it was during the Free Speech Movement and every night my mother would call me on the phone and say, ‘We don’t want to see your face in the news.’ … She said, ‘When you protest, bad things will happen to you.’”
Parents telling their children to “not speak up, avoid conflict, do what you’re told” is “the legacy of a whole community of people who got oppressed,” she observed.
Among the members of the audience who shared their experiences was Mary Higuchi, an artist and a member of the event committee, who was a toddler in camp. She recalled that she never learned about the internment in school and her mother refused to talk about it.
“I do recall … how difficult it was for my mom and dad to work so hard to rebuild their lives, and soon after we came back my father died very … at the age of 45,” Higuchi said, adding that she learned during a visit to Heart Mountain that 40 percent of the men who were incarcerated died before the age of 60 due to stress.
Ina noted that Dr. Gwen Jensen, a medical anthropologist, found a much higher rate of premature death among Japanese American men who were incarcerated, compared to their counterparts in Hawaii who were not incarcerated.
Donald Hata, a historian and a member of the event committee, said that his mother died at the age of 37 and he overheard a nurse and doctor at the hospital talking about Japanese American women dying premature due to “physical and emotional burnout.”
When the issue of the wartime JACL’s opposition to resistance in the camps was brought up, Ina — remembering overhearing her father saying, “I hate the JACL” when she was in high school — said, “The JACL was used by the U.S. government and we were victims of the JACL’s vulnerability to that. That perception that they were the bad guys — we have to remember the bad guys were the government that put us in prison. In order to repair that break in our community, I think the big step is we need to talk to each other across these lines and find a way to understand how people made the decisions they made.”
The closing meditation was led by Tenzin Kiyosaki, hospice chaplain for Torrance Memorial Medical Center Hospice and former Buddhist chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Proclamations for Ina and the GVJCI were presented by former Torrance City Councilmember Tom Brewer on behalf of Assemblymember David Hadley and Hamilton Cloud from the office of Rep. Maxine Waters. Special guests included Consul General Harry Horinouchi and his wife Sabine.
The event was supported by 34 community organizations, many of which had displays of artwork and artifacts at the event.
Members of the event committee included Randall Fujimoto, Alison Kochiyama, Teri Kuwahara, Jeff Murakami, Hideki Obayashi, Kathryn Endo Roberts, Alvin Takamori, Scott Tanaka and Michelle Yamashiro.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo