By JULIE ABO, Heart Mountain Interpretive Center Staff
On Oct. 20-21, the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium (JACSC) held its fourth meeting of museums, historic sites, volunteer groups, and advocacy organizations from across the nation whose focus is the Japanese American incarceration experience.
JACSC is devoted to collectively preserving, protecting, and interpreting the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans and highlighting related social justice lessons that inform current issues. The Japanese American National Museum hosted the two-day event.
The consortium has been in existence since the first meeting in 2015 and has been working on identifying goals that include advocating for the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grants program, a federal program that has helped fund nearly 200 projects nationwide that have brought greater scholarship and public awareness of the Japanese American experience. In addition, the consortium protects historic sites, facilitates collaboration and resource-sharing among stakeholder organizations, and assists in growing the capacity of all members.
“Collaboration is key,” JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs proclaimed as she welcomed participants on the first day. She observed that in the past, many of the organizations had been operating independently and in a silo-like fashion and that, moving forward, it was good to see the consortium as a collective effort to work collaboratively.
Consortium Coordinator Brian Liesinger noted that the consortium has created a community where members could connect and support one another more easily despite the often great geographic distances between them and the challenges they may face.
More than 50 participants attended the meeting, from 18 different organizations, including: Nine of the 10 War Relocation Authority confinement sites, JANM, the National Park Service, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, the Tuna Canyon Detention Station Coalition, Densho, the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, the Japanese American Service Committee (Chicago), the Japanese American Citizens League, the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation (Washington, D.C.), the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula (Montana), 50 Objects/Stories of the American Japanese Incarceration, the American Baptist Historical Society, and the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (Wyoming). The 10th WRA confinement site would have attended, but was unable due to an unforeseen event.
These groups reported on their current projects, discussed goals for the group, and identified their needs from the consortium. Attendees also collaborated on issues such as fundraising, information sharing, and advocacy.
Two graduate students, Helen Yoshida from CSU Fullerton and Koji Lau-Ozawa from Stanford University, presented their research. Yoshida described her ongoing oral history project documenting the World War II Department of Justice camps, a subject that has been little researched. Lau-Ozawa reported on his archaeological findings at the former Gila River camp in Arizona.
On Saturday evening, JANM and the consortium hosted a free public screening of “Voices Behind Barbed Wire: Stories of Oahu” featuring personal stories about the incarceration experience in Hawaii. Carole Hayashino, president of JCCH, introduced the film and held a lively Q&A afterwards. The film, produced by the JCCH, presents a newly emerging history of WWII incarceration in Hawaii and was partially funded by an National Park Service JACS grant.
The release of the documentary coincides with the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the gannenmono, the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Hayashino explained that the state of Hawaii has been celebrating this 150th anniversary of the arrival of the gannenmono all year. They consisted of 150 Japanese immigrants who came from Yokohama to Honolulu in 1868. Most labored on the plantations, while some worked in hospitals and others took up domestic work.
In Hayashino’s research, many descendants of the gannenmono were found. Some returned to Japan, but around 50 stayed and made Hawaii their permanent home, marrying locals and integrating into Hawaiian culture.
Hayashino explained, “So there are some sixth0, seventh-, eighth-generation Japanese in Hawaii who are so proud of this Japanese connection and it has been incredible to realize how diverse our community is.”
It is part of a planned four-part series on Hawaii’s confinement sites, with each part focusing on an island: Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island (the Big Island). The films are being widely distributed to schools throughout Hawaii to deepen local history education.
A member of the audience, Frances Hikido, commented afterwards, “I grew up in Hawaii and we didn’t know about this. I would like to know more.”
Sunday’s gathering began with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the five major stakeholders in the consortium who have agreed to form an administrative council. As the administrative council, the five organizations will provide both direction and funding to sustain the consortium beyond the lifetime of the JACS grants. JANM, HMWF, the Friends of Minidoka, and the JACL welcomed a fifth stakeholder, the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, to the council.
When asked about the memorandum and the consortium in general, NJAMF Chair Larry Oda, who was born in the Crystal City (Texas) Department of Justice camp, was optimistic. “It seems to me there is a willingness to collaborate and advance our mission. It is heartening to see so many organizations coming together. Each individual group can keep their identity, but we can act together and be a larger voice.”
Later that morning, JACL Executive Director David Inoue and former Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies President Floyd Mori led attendees in a discussion of what to expect on their upcoming visits to legislators in Washington, D.C. in February. The goal of the visits will be to educate and inform congress about the Japanese American WWII incarceration. Key issues are JACS grant funding and other vital preservation causes.
In preparation for these meetings, Inoue provided tools on how to conduct an effective legislative visit and Mori, also a former CEO and president of JACL, highlighted the importance of building lasting relationships with community and federal leadership.
Mori, who describes himself as “a Mormon country boy from Utah,” shared an important lesson he learned in his first year in the California State Assembly. One of the first lobbyists who came to his office was from a gay rights organization, one that he wouldn’t have normally thought of as an ally, and it was this first meeting that started a wonderful working relationship over a number of years.
This story illustrated how critical it is to make a personal connection with elected officials and underlined the importance of the JACSC meeting and advocacy on Capitol Hill planned for Feb. 26-28, 2019.
The final session of the consortium meeting was a presentation by Sam Mihara and Aura Newlin, both board members for the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. Mihara, who spent his boyhood confined at Heart Mountain and now travels the country talking about his experience, has made a first-hand study of incarceration and detention sites in present-day America. He shared some of the parallels he has drawn between the inhumane conditions his family faced during World War II and the conditions faced by undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in detention centers today.
Newlin described the work she has been involved with in fighting the construction of a for-profit Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Wyoming.
As the meeting came to a close, many participants commented on the positive future of the consortium and their own organizations. Stan Shikuma, a Sansei from the Tule Lake Committee, reflected, “It was exciting and energizing to be with all these different groups working on different issues and sharing solutions. It is daunting — we have a lot of work ahead of us — but comforting because we are working together!”
In addition to the next consortium meeting in February, the group is also tentatively planning a meeting next summer, to coincide with the JACL National Convention, July 31-Aug. 4 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
If your organization would like to join the consortium or would like more information, contact Brian Liesinger at [email protected]
A Brief History of the JA Confinement Sites Consortium
By BRIAN LIESINGER, JASC Coordinator
The Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium is composed of organizations committed to collectively preserving, protecting, and interpreting the history of the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans and elevating the related social justice lessons that inform current issues today. Members include the ten War Relocation Authority confinement sites, as well as historical organizations, endowments, museums, commissions, and educational institutes.
August 2015, Powell, Wyo.
Funded by a Japanese American Confinement Sites grant from the National Park Service, the consortium first met at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in 2015. The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which had applied for the grant, served as the organizer of the meeting.
May 2016, Washington, D.C.
The consortium met again in D.C. to build consensus on activity, establish major stakeholders, conduct East Coast outreach, and set priorities and goals. This meeting established the framework and mission for the group, while also expanding its participants.
Fiscal Year 2017
The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation applied for and received a second National Park Service grant to continue the consortium. Brian Liesinger, former executive director of the foundation, was hired as the coordinator for the consortium project.
February 2018, Los Angeles
The consortium’s major stakeholders signed a memorandum of understanding to establish an administrative council. Through the MOU, the council pledges ongoing guidance, funds, and in-kind resources.
The president’s proposed budget defunded the JACS grant program. The consortium launched a grassroots advocacy campaign to encourage legislators to protect the program. The effort paid off and funding was preserved.
October 2018, Los Angeles
The consortium met at the Japanese American National Museum. The National Japanese American Memorial Foundation joined the administrative council. The group planned more strategic outreach and communication, as well as refining advocacy goals and overall mission.
For more information about JACSC, contact Brian Liesinger at: [email protected]
For more information about National Park Service JACS Grants, go to: https://www.nps.gov/jacs/