How to remember Japanese incarceration, 80 years later


Akemi Leung knew his grandfather had been incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming during World War II.

But he never talked about it much.

It wasn’t until reading and watching a video of his testimony at a congressional committee hearing that she learned more about what he went through as one of more than 120 000 Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes and live in concentration camps.

“I just knew he was a quiet person who liked watching more than talking,” Leung said. “Seeing the testimony helped illustrate how he was a leader.”

Richard Murakami with an installment at the Japanese American National Museum which features soil and artifacts recovered from all Japanese American internment camps.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The hearing took place decades ago. By the time she watched the tape in 2017, her grandfather, Hiroshi Kamei, had already passed away.

With the 80th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the incarceration of Japanese Americans as a supposed threat to national security, the ranks of survivors are thinning.

Many have gone to their graves without sharing their experiences with their families.

As Japanese Americans mourn the loss of a generation, they try to preserve the memory of what their elders went through, sometimes using modern technology like podcasts and virtual reality.

The effort is especially important at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise and backlash in some places against educating students about racial injustices, some say.

“Each generation needs to rediscover history, understand it, and tell it in their own way,” said Tom Ikeda, founding executive director of Densho, a Seattle-based nonprofit that educates the public about the incarceration of Americans. Japanese origin.

At Densho, Ikeda and her team have spent decades collecting oral histories.

Now, with only a few thousand survivors, the focus is on how to tell these stories creatively, Ikeda said.

In 2020, Densho launched a podcast, “Campu,” from the perspective of a brother-sister duo talking about their great-grandparents.

The organization also helped create an exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington, featuring Japanese American farmers depicting their incarceration in augmented reality on visitors’ smartphones.

Murakami with photographs of life in the camps at the Japanese American National Museum

Murakami with luggage that Japanese Americans used to carry their belongings to the camps.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Facial recognition, machine learning and data scraping could be in Densho’s future, Ikeda said.

At the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, a survivor who also served with the US Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team talks to visitors.

The survivor, Lawson Sakai, died in 2020. But the year before, the museum recorded him answering more than 1,000 questions.

With the help of artificial intelligence, a realistic video image of him responds appropriately to visitor queries.

The AI ​​Survivors exhibit was inspired by a similar exhibit at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum.

The Jewish community faces similar challenges in preserving memories as fewer and fewer survivors remain.

These exhibits are about “investigation, using technology to provide a way to interrogate testimony that allows people to be curious,” said Kori Street, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, which created the exhibition.

The “wow” factor of new technologies attracts younger generations. But just displaying historical artifacts, like those from the life of a Japanese-American teenager killed in action in northern Italy in 1945, is also important, said Clement Hanami, artistic director and Vice President of JANM Exhibitions.

“As a museum, real objects are very important to us,” Hanami said. “The trauma of the whole experience is a fragile thing, and it can be overshadowed by the spectacle. … It is important to us that analog is not overlooked in entertainment.

Activists also want to ensure the preservation of 10 concentration camp sites in remote locations in the western United States.

They scored a victory this week when the US Senate voted to designate Camp Amache in Colorado as a historic site. The bill still needs to be approved by the House and signed by President Biden.

“The significance is that we’re moving toward a more complete history of our country,” said Tracy Coppola, senior Colorado program manager for the National Parks Conservation Assn. “Just knowing that the Amache site will be protected in perpetuity, for present and future generations, brings great hope to our country.”

In northern California, a proposal to fence Tulelake Municipal Airport has raised activists.

The airport is being built on the site of a camp for Japanese Americans who have not sworn loyalty to the United States, and activists would like to move it. The fence is designed to keep wildlife out, but would also deter visitors.

“We think that would be the equivalent of putting a fence around Gettysburg,” said Tule Lake committee member Barbara Takei.

Preserving the legacy of incarceration and educating people about it is sometimes an uphill battle. Bruce Embrey, who chairs the Manzanar committee, is concerned about the controversy over critical race theory.

If school districts ban lessons about the country’s racist past, teachers may not be able to discuss the incarceration of Japanese Americans and its legacy.

“It’s one thing for victims not to talk about it,” Embrey said. “It’s another thing for the US government’s education system to completely whitewash what it’s done.”

For 90-year-old Richard Murakami, who was 10 when he arrived at the Tule Lake incarceration camp, the traumas his family hid have still come to light in recent years.

In 2016, her brother Dan told her about a visit to Tule Lake with their mother decades ago.

She never spoke of their stay at the camp. She didn’t want her sons to grow up prejudiced against anyone.

But when they arrived at the camp site that day in 1952, Dan said, she started crying and couldn’t stop.

“Seventy-one years after the camp, it was the first time I learned that my mother led a difficult and unhappy life while we were incarcerated,” said Richard Murakami.

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