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From left: Mary Murakami, Carolyn Hoover, Takashi Hoshizaki, Connor Yu, Sam Mihara, Reed Leventis, Shig Yabu, Halle Sousa and Karen Ishizuka during the Smithsonian Day of Remembrance at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Helen Yoshida)

The 2017 Smithsonian Day of Remembrance bridges experiences of incarcerees and youth as well as highlights the relevance of the World War II Japanese American experience

By Helen Yoshida, Contributor

“As Americans today, we need to keep telling these stories to make our country better,” said Reed Leventis, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., on the World War II Japanese American incarceration experience.

Leventis was one of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation (NJAMF) digital storytelling students that spoke alongside Heart Mountain and Topaz incarcerees about the importance of this history at the Day of Remembrance program on Feb. 19, held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

On the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 — which forcibly removed nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into 10 camps across seven states — five NJAMF student films on Amache, Heart Mountain, Manzanar, Poston and Topaz debuted on the museum’s national stage.

Leventis, Carolyn Hoover, Halle Sousa and Connor Yu then joined Takashi Hoshizaki, Sam Mihara, Mary Murakami and Shig Yabu for a panel discussion with Karen Ishizuka, author, filmmaker and former senior staff member at the Japanese American National Museum.

More than 420 people listened to the incarcerees as they shared their recollections of the attack on Pearl Harbor and life behind barbed wire.

“I was at a movie theater three blocks away from my house [in San Francisco], and when I came out, the newspaper headlines said, ‘Japanese Bombed Pearl Harbor,’” recalled Mihara when asked how he found out about the infamous attack on American soil.

“I knew that whatever happened to us, I wanted to further my education,” said Murakami, who felt it was challenging to attend high school in Topaz. In 1945, she was part of a group of 50 Japanese Americans who attended the University of California, Berkeley, thus paving the way for others to enroll in the UC system, too.

Yabu regaled everyone with humorous and positive memories of Heart Mountain, including how he won his first fist fight when he arrived at camp and how he adopted an abandoned baby Magpie. Named Maggie, the bird was a fixture in the community, often mimicking sounds and words heard in the camp.

“Her favorite was the wolf call,” he said, to much laughter.

Hoshizaki brought a different perspective to the conversation. At 17 years old, he was one of 63 Heart Mountain resisters who refused to fight in the U.S. military until his civil rights were restored. When he answered, “No. When my citizenship rights are restored and land-owning rights must be cleared” to Question 27 on the War Relocation Authority’s “Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry” questionnaire — which asked if he was willing to fight in the U.S. Armed Forces — and “Yes” to Question 28 — which asked if he swore “unqualified allegiance” to the U.S. and “foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization” — Hoshizaki took a stand for what he believed in.

Although the resisters tried to right a grave wrong from within, they were all tried at the Cheyenne federal courthouse in June 1944 and sentenced to three years in prison.

It still remains the largest mass trial in Wyoming history.

“You captured this story very well,” Hoshizaki said to Yu, who featured the resister in his digital story on Heart Mountain.

NJAMF, who partnered with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation on this project, sponsored five students to participate in a Digital Storytelling Workshop led by Emmy Award-winning producer Jeff MacIntyre and teaching assistants Hana Maruyama and Vanessa Saito Yuille at the 2016 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. Their stories, which were aired at the Pilgrimage banquet dinner, not only strengthen the connection between visitors to the D.C. Memorial and the camps but also connect the camps to the nation’s capital and inspire people to experience the original sites themselves.

“The hardest part [of the project] was trying to maintain the honesty and accuracy of the experience,” said Hoover on her digital story about Topaz. A 2016 graduate of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., she is now a freshman at Duke University. “Preserving, maintaining and honoring what my grandparents left behind — that’s what’s important to me.” She interviewed Murakami, her grandmother, as part of her story on Topaz.

Sousa, a senior at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, Calif., explained what drew her to creating a digital story and how she wove her archeology internship experience with the University of Denver at the Amache confinement site into her project.

“When I found out about this project, it was something that I knew I had to take part in. Looking at footage and photographs after my internship and incorporating them into this story was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life,” Sousa said.

Yu, now a junior at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., reflected on the importance of this part of American history on current events.

“Before, I was always kind of confused. I thought, ‘Why spend an hour talking about history? How does this affect us now?’ Now, I’ve seen that we have to fight to make sure a mistake like that shouldn’t happen again,” Yu said.

NJAMF anticipates recruiting five more high school students to tell the stories of the remaining camps — Gila River, Jerome, Minidoka, Rohwer and Tule Lake — this year. Upon completion of all 10 stories, the foundation will then upload them to a mobile application that will be used by visitors to the Memorial. The stories will also become the heart of an interactive companion website that will tie back to each of the confinement sites’ websites; space will be created for those sites that do not have a website. NJAMF’s efforts today will help preserve the stories of incarcerees such as Hoshizaki, Mihara, Murakami and Yabu for future generations.

The Smithsonian DOR event was held in conjunction with the opening of the new yearlong exhibit “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” at the National Museum of American History, which features Executive Order 9066 along with various camp artifacts. Given today’s political climate, the exhibit, the students’ digital stories and the first-hand experiences from incarcerees resonated with everyone.

“No one will remember history if people don’t want to tell it,” said Sousa, whose grandparents were incarcerated at Amache.

Her words ring true.

Seventy-five years later, the aftermath of E.O. 9066 still matters today. With initiatives like the digital storytelling project, which binds this important history to today, it is hoped that this never happens again.