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Title card for “Relocation, Arkansas,” which will screen during National JACL Convention in Philadelphia.

Documentary films ‘highlight a multitude of perspectives from within the Japanese American experience.’

By Rob Buscher, Member, JACL Philadelphia Board of Directors

This year at the 2018 JACL National Convention, attendees will have the opportunity to enjoy half a dozen compelling documentary film titles that highlight a multitude of perspectives from within the Japanese American experience. Presented in partnership with Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, the East Coast’s premier festival specializing in Asian American and Pacific Islander content, the film program seeks to address aspects of the Japanese American story that are often neglected.

“Relocation, Arkansas” is one film that exemplifies this diversity within the saga of wartime incarceration, which was shot primarily in the Deep South. Although life in Arkansas’ Jerome and Rohwer camps was similar in many ways to those in the Western Intermountain region, the stories of the few families who stayed behind in Arkansas after the camps closed provide a wholly different narrative. Director Vivienne Schiffer’s 2016 film features original interviews with Japanese Americans who lived through the last decades of Jim Crow in the rural segregated South, offering an insightful take on racial triangulation and the othering of Asians as neither white nor black.

In addition to screening this film at PAAFF as part of its 2017 Japanese American Showcase, JACL Philadelphia recently presented the title for an audience of state legislators and commonwealth employees at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg. The film has been well-received by all audiences and helped foster earnest dialogue across ethnic and racial divides.

Seiki Oshiro meets Grant Ichikawa, seen meeting for the first time in “The Registry” after years of collaborating via the Internet on compiling a registry those who served in the MIS.

Another film in the 2018 JACL National Convention program that demonstrates the regional diversity of the Japanese American community is “The Registry,” a documentary feature co-directed by longtime JACL Twin Cities chapter member Steve Ozone and his cousin, Bill Kubota, who is a senior producer at WTVS Detroit Public Television.

Shot largely in the Great Lakes region, their film chronicles the efforts of aging Japanese American veterans as they document the history of their fellow Military Intelligence Service comrades.

The translation work and other tasks completed by Japanese American MIS soldiers was crucial to the U.S. victory over Japan, yet many of these stories have gone untold within the better-known 442nd narrative of JA service during World War II. Much of the information surrounding their service was previously classified under the Defense Secrets Act, but as information becomes declassified, many of these veterans are beginning to share their stories in their twilight years.

“The Registry” refers to a database being compiled by the documentary’s principal subjects, Seiki Oshiro and Grant Ichikawa, who are both veterans themselves. Their hope is that the registry will allow their fellow MIS veterans to connect with each other and preserve the historical legacy of their service for future generations. This is an exciting film for military and community history buffs alike, providing a unique insight into an understudied group within the Japanese American veteran community.

“Resistance at Tule Lake” tells a very different kind of story about the wartime experience, seen through the lens of camp survivors who actively resisted the loyalty questionnaire during their incarceration ordeal. In stark contrast to the “model minority” myth that has oftentimes been thrust upon the JA community, this film comprehensively documents the large-scale protests, hunger strike and eventual declaration of martial law that resulted in a prison stockade being built within the existing prison camp to isolate the instigators of the resistance movement.

This film is highly impactful, in that it shows the absolute worst of the incarceration experience, including documented cases where inmates were tortured by U.S. soldiers and the mass coercion of resistors to renounce their U.S. citizenship, which led to thousands of deportations following the end of WWII.

When PAAFF first presented this film to the Philadelphia audience last November, JACL Philadelphia chapter member Ed Kobayashi shared his family’s experience at Tule Lake, including photos of his father, C. Y. Kobayashi, who was detained in the stockade and separated from his family as punishment for his role in the resistance movement.

Director Konrad Aderer is expected to be in attendance at the convention, where he will participate in a post-film Q & A and discussion with Tule Lake incarceration survivors.

“For the Sake of the Children’s” Misako Shigekawa.

Offering yet another perspective on incarceration is director Marlene Shigekawa’s film “For the Sake of the Children,” which focuses primarily on the unique challenges faced by mothers who either gave birth in camp or otherwise raised young children during the incarceration.

Largely centered around the Poston camp, the film addresses a complex interplay of culture, racial prejudice, history and intergenerational differences as it explores the legacy of incarceration.

“And Then They Came for Us” is a film by Abby Ginzberg.

The last feature in this program is titled “And Then They Came for Us,” a 2017 film from experienced documentarian Abby Ginzberg, whose 2011 short “The Barber of Birmingham” was nominated for an Academy Award.

Ginzberg’s latest project retells the story of incarceration from the framework of contemporary discourse around the Muslim travel ban, drawing parallels between our communities’ respective experiences.

Narrated in part by George Takei, this film presents a direct call to action for individuals and organizations to oppose legislation made on grounds of ethnic or religious discrimination.

In addition to the feature documentary titles, a collection of short films will be presented as a thematic program called “Legacies of Camp,” a version of which premiered at the 2017 PAAFF. Short film titles will be announced at a later date but are anticipated to address a wide array of subjects spanning Issei immigrant experiences, wartime incarceration, reintegration and assimilation after camp, as well as intergenerational trauma experienced by descendants of the incarceration survivors.

While the full feature version of the film is still making its way through the festival circuit, JACL will also be presenting a short excerpt from director Dianne Fukami’s documentary biopic “An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy.” Having recently premiered at the Center for Asian American Media Festival in San Francisco, the film is the first to tell the life story of former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mineta, which includes an emphasis on his role in the Redress Movement.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the convention film program is the plenary panel discussion that will be held on the afternoon of July 19. In an effort to better contextualize the role of Japanese Americans in the film and media industry, both historically and today, three leading artist-activists will share their experiences on the frontlines of Hollywood.

Confirmed panelists include documentary filmmaker and Nikkei Democracy Project member Tadashi Nakamura (“Mele Murals,” “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings”), Japanese Canadian actor-producer Peter Shinkoda (best known for his role as Nobu in Marvel’s “Daredevil” series) and Japanese-born actress Mayumi Yoshida (“The Man in the High Castle”).

Mayumi Yoshida

Peter Shinkoda

Tadashi Nakamura

Considering that these programs are just one aspect of the convention, nondelegate members and guests will find plenty to do in Philadelphia this July. Screening times for each film will be announced at a later date and will be shown between July 19 and July 21 at the convention hotel.