Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Call for Interviewees

Late Friday afternoon we received good news. Densho's application to the national Japanese American Confinement Sites grant program was awarded in the amount of $112,500. The money will pay for 40 new video interviews with people who can speak about the 10 WRA mainland camps as well as detention sites in Hawaii. The new interviews will focus on camps less well documented in Densho's and others' collections (for example, Jerome, Arkansas, pictured).

We're starting to research new interviewees now. If you know of good potential "narrators" of the World War II detention camps (not necessarily Japanese American speakers), submit your suggestion online: See the Densho narrator criteria and nomination form.

Read more about Densho's grant here. It's administered through the National Park Service. If we're fortunate, Congress will appropriate the full $38 million that was authorized while there's still time to capture the life stories from our Nisei elders.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Event: "Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens"

When Asian American studies scholars visit Seattle, we sometimes invite them to speak in public programs. This Saturday at the Densho building, we will host a author talk by Lane Ryo Hirabayashi of UCLA. If you're in the area, come hear Dr. Hirabayashi speak about his new book on the War Relocation Authority's use of PR photography: Japanese American Resettlement through the Lens.

The book reproduces photographs by a Nisei photographer working for the WRA, complete with the original lengthy captions directed at two audiences: 1) potentially hostile members of outside communities, and 2) incarcerated Japanese Americans reluctant to meet those potentially hostile community members. These staged-looking photos of Nisei happy on college campuses and cozy in new homes feel faintly surreal if you've heard true stories of the poverty and discrimination that released detainees faced.

A past "From the Archive" article focuses on the government's attempts to shape the public's opinion about the "loyal and law-abiding" Japanese Americans appearing in their midst. In researching our digital archive for the article, I came across a choice quote from one of our interviewees. Peggie Nishimua Bain told us how she struggled to secure decent housing in Chicago:

The WRA did not offer to find anyplace. They give you an address and they say, "Well, you go and see if you can rent the place." And they kept calling me because they wanted to take a picture of me so they could send it back to the camp saying what a wonderful place Chicago was and how nice it was to be out and relocated. So I told them the next time they called me, I said, "I'm being thrown out of the apartment, so come and take a picture of that." They never bothered me after that.

So much for that photo opp. We hope to see you at the book talk.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Los Angeles Interviews, Tom

Last week I had the joy and honor of interviewing three Nisei women who were talented, strong, and committed individuals. For three days we set up a temporary video studio at the Torrance Holiday Inn to interview eight women. I conducted the following three interviews.

Aiko Yoshinaga-Herzig is known for her important research in support of the coram nobis cases and the redress effort. Our time together focused on her life before she became a researcher when she was a single mother raising three children and becoming more politically aware in New York City with the group, Asian Americans in Action. It was in her fifties when she launched her new career as an archival researcher.

Wakako Yamauchi is a playwright who wrote “And the Soul Shall Dance” a play that I saw when I was in college in the late 1970s. Although it was 30 years ago when I saw the play, I still remember how well it captured the hardships and despair of Issei farmers. During Wakako’s interview we talked about her growing up in a farming family in the Imperial Valley and the hardships her family faced. We also talked about how she emerged as an artist and writer.

Mary Kageyama Nomura is nicknamed “The Songbird of Manzanar.” During Mary’s interview she talked about how she performed as a child at community events. She also described the difficulties when both her parents were dead when she was only eight years old and how her older brother kept the five siblings together as a family. Mary also talks about singing in Manzanar and the special relationship she had with Louis Frisell, the music teacher.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Powerful Storytelling

I came across an interview with Leslie Ishii, a Sansei actor seen on TV in the series Lost and Desperate Housewives, and soon to be seen in the movie Fame. Her answer to the very first question rang Densho's bells. When asked what inspired her to pursue an acting career, she cites a 1980s Seattle theatrical performance in support of Gordon Hirabayashi, who was seeking to have his Supreme Court conviction for defying incarceration overturned.

The Japanese American community came out in force, and former detainees told the stories of their wartime ordeals for the first time. The standing room crowd was moved. Ishii says, "I recall my Dad mentioning at intermission that he was in the restroom and saw men crying. Asian men could be very close to their vests in showing their emotions. I saw how powerful storytelling was and knew it was something I had to do more of."

Densho also knows about powerful storytelling, the power of life stories to bring out emotions--and we hope to enlighten. Stay tuned for reports on our latest interview gathering.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Hero on the 4th of July

Over the 4th of July holiday, I remembered a news item from the last days of June. Seattle's historic federal courthouse was rededicated after a 3-year renovation. In 2001 the courthouse was renamed in honor of William Kenzo Nakamura, a Nisei war hero. Nakamura volunteered for service from Minidoka incarceration camp. He was killed on July 4, 1944, while drawing enemy machine gun fire to protect his platoon. His Distinguished Service Cross (second highest military honor) was upgraded to a Medal of Honor (highest military recognition) by Bill Clinton in 2001.

This column recounts some of the momentous episodes in the courthouse's history. The writer agrees with us that the William Kenzo Nakamura Courthouse is aptly named for a national hero.