Responding to forced exclusion and incarceration with storytelling and art
On this edition of Your Call, we’ll talk about cultural responses to exclusion.
Earlier this year Japanese American activists organized a pilgrimage to a former internment camp and an immigration detention center to protest the separation and indefinite detention of families. They brought with them thousands of paper cranes folded by people around the nation to express solidarity. As part of our series "HEAR: Histories of Exclusion and Resistance," we spoke with two women who participated, about the protest, and their own projects exploring the legacy of internment.
Nancy Ukai, project director of 50ojbects.org, a website exploring the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans through objects belonging to camp survivors
Judy Shintani, artist focused on remembrance, connection, and storytelling to bring to light important topics like incarceration and exclusion, including through exhibitions and community events
Rose Aguilar: Welcome, I'm Rose Aguilar and this is a special live taping of Your Call recorded at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Today's show is part of a series of events our team is producing called, HEAR: Histories of Exclusion and Resistance. Over the past few months we have done shows on the connections between the forced removal and imprisonment of more than a 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and other US policies that violate civil rights and liberties.
120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered to evacuate from their homes along the west coast in 1942, including an estimated 17,000 children under 10. Many families had just a week to whittle down their belongings to what they could carry with them, many were sent to temporary detention centers where in many cases conditions were deplorable.
Here in the Bay Area, families were forced to live in former horse stables at what used to be the Tanforan Racetrack, currently the site of a mall. From these centers families were sent to camps across California, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado. They were held there surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards in some cases for years.
In April, 60 Japanese American activists visited what was formerly the Crystal City prison camp in Texas. And that is where four thousand Japanese Americans were held during World War II. Just 40 miles away from there there's now the South Texas Family Residential Center were about a thousand immigrants were incarcerated as of late March. This is the largest detention facility in the country and it has beds for 2,400 people. So activists traveled to the detention center with 25,000 handmade paper cranes to place on the fence as a symbol of solidarity with the moms and the children confined inside and it's part of the campaign Tsuru for Solidarity. Tsuru means crane.
Today's guests Nancy Ukai and Judy Shintani attended the pilgrimage and the protests in Texas, and we're going to talk with them about how people incarcerated in Japanese internment camps kept their cultures alive and the significance of the objects that they had with them. We will also talk about how art and culture can shape the way that we think about human rights and civil liberties and how it can respond to abuses of power.
Judy Shintani is a transformative art facilitator, mentor and narrator who creates visual stories to bring light to important topics. Judy has shown her work internationally and has conducted community events at museums, galleries and colleges throughout the United States, and these events really bring people together to talk, to create, and in some cases heal, because the topic of intergenerational trauma is brought up.
On Judy's website, she writes "In the 1940s, my family's only crime was having the face of the enemy. They were incarcerated for four years at Tule Lake Segregation Camp along with 120,000 others of Japanese descent. Making art about the unjust imprisonment of my family's of Japanese descent is my healing and meditation for my family, ancestors, culture, and America."
RA: Thank you so much for joining us Judy.
Judy Shintani: Thank you.
RA: Nancy Ukai is a Project Director of 50objects.org, a website exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans through 50 objects belonging to camp survivors. These include a wooden chair made in the camp, a wedding photo and a Quaker quilt. Nancy's mom, dad and relatives, who were based in the Bay Area, were taken to the Tanforan horse stables in San Bruno for six months, and then they were transferred to the Topaz Camp in Utah.
Nancy, thank you so much for joining us.
Nancy Ukai: Thank you for having me.
From Tanforan Horse Stables to Tule Lake, Personal Histories of Internment
RA: The theme of all of the shows that we have done — I should say from the majority overwhelming majority of the guests — is that their families rarely talked about what happened. In fact, Norm Ishimoto — who you know Nancy — was on the show and it was the, I think one of the first times that he ever told his story. And he said that he was so affected when he saw the images of the moms being separated and the dads being separated from their kids because it really brought back memories of what his family went through. And Judy, I understand that for you, you really didn't really start exploring your family history until you were in your 40s.
JS: Well, that's true. Before that, I was really working on my career and you know, making money and finding myself and then I decide to go back to school and study art, which is my true love, which my family was not that supportive of me going into originally. And I started doing research about what happened to my family and how did that affect me and other people of Japanese descent and America, actually.
RA: What is the process been like for you to learn about your family? I understand you had family members who were oyster farmers in Puget Sound and they lost everything when they were taken to Tule Lake.
JS: Yes, they originally had a houseboat out in the sound and raised oysters. And then when Pearl Harbor happened my grandfather was taken first and then my grandmother who didn't speak English took the rest of the family and you know were put on an army truck and taken to Tule Lake. So it's hard for me to imagine her having to do that with four kids. And them leaving and not knowing if they're going to come back or what was going to happen to them. I think it would be terrifying, actually.
RA: When you learned about this did you reach out to other family members to talk about it? And what was that experience like?
JS: Well, my father would give us a little tidbits and we had to write a book report or something or a report for school but after I encouraged him to go with me to the pilgrimage for Tule Lake, I learned a lot more. And he had gone to visit the site before but he hadn't gone on a pilgrimage with hundreds of other people, people his own age. And that's when I found out that my father actually thought about his incarceration every day, and he was in his 80s at the time we were at the camp. And I was shocked that he never, you know, spoke about it in great detail, but he thought it every day.
RA: Nancy, what about you? Did your parents talk much about it when you were growing up?
NU: Actually, I'm one of the rare examples. My parents did talk about it. Anecdotes would come up at the dinner table. And one thing I really remember is that my mother would get extremely emotional and angry about a man who was shot to death walking a dog at the fence in Topaz. And she would just say — he wasn't deaf — but she'd saym “He was deaf. Why did they shoot him?” And then oddly enough when I was helping to do research on the Topaz Museum in Utah, I ended up researching this man's life and going to the National Archives and reading the reports which showed that he fell down parallel to the fence inside of it, shot from 200 yards away, which is two football fields. There was supposed to be a warning shot, but he was clearly just shot through the chest and died. He was an immigrant. He went to [an] elite college in Tokyo. But in the sort of oral histories that you might hear from family members: He was a deaf man who was a cook. And so in doing research I learned about him as a human being, you know, as a person who had a life. And so it's an interesting thing that I've been able to tie some of my childhood stories that I heard from my parents to the kind of research I'm doing now, which is looking at artifacts and trying to humanize the history through family stories and the biography of the object.
RA: Did you learn who shot him?
NU: That's on the record, because there was a court-martial trial and he was acquitted. And then the government, War Department, had written a press release saying he was going through the fence. That was never corrected. So all of those facts are available, but it's just one of those things that happened nearly 80 years ago and some people might know about it, but you have to really dig to get that history – certainly don't get it in textbooks or among families. Even the prisoners within Topaz were kept in the dark. So they wanted to have a funeral at the spot where he was killed, but the administration didn't permit that because they thought there would be a riot. So I thought: oh a riot. So people were angry because our image is that people were very passive and took everything that happened to them without protest and that wasn't true.
RA: Tell us more about your mom, dad, and relatives were based here in the Bay Area and then they were taken to the Tanforan horse stables in San Bruno. They were there for six months and then they were transferred to Utah.
NU: Yes. My grandfather was an immigrant from Shizuoka Prefecture and he had a cut flower nursery on 6th Street near University before there was an on-ramp to the Bay Bridge. And he had several properties where they grew flowers. And my mother was in art school in Los Angeles and she knew that the camp, the mass removal was coming. So she decided to take a train back to Berkeley so the family would not be dispersed to different camps across the United States. In order to come up here she saved — and she showed me and I still have it — a document which says alien enemy permit to travel. Well, she's an American citizen. She was born in Berkeley. And it says in the spot where you're supposed to put in the country of the “alien enemy” it says native of USA. She was fingerprinted and when there were redress testimonies in San Francisco, she showed that as evidence that as an American citizen she had to be fingerprinted and processed before she could return home so that the family could be together and be incarcerated together.
RA: What about your dad?
NU: He was taken out of school at USF [University of San Francisco] and never went back to school. The family had grocery stores and they all went to camp together and it did end up breaking up the family because the young people would try and get out. If they knew somebody or could find a job in the non-military zone that is in the midwest or the east they would leave. So the families did break up and some people came back and some people didn't.
RA: It was incredible to read Nancy that your mom was able to leave the camp because she was sponsored by a University of Chicago professor and his wife, but she faced deep racism from the neighborhood that she was moving to. Can you tell us more about that?
NU: Well, actually Robert Platt who was a geographer at the University of Chicago, his wife Harriet visited the Topaz, Utah camp and Harriet offered to sponsor my mother and a friend out of Utah to Chicago but the neighbors in Chicago protested that bringing in two Japs who they said, “would run amok and kill the Platts in their sleep.” But they sponsored my mother and her friend out. And my mother ended up actually naming all three of her children after the Platt family children. So I'm named after the Platt daughter and my brother and my sister are named after the family. And my mother said, “You know, I really never trusted white people before that.” But she didn't have a lot of direct experience and that kind of humanity really changed her life.
RA: It's just one generation ago.
History Lessons Told Through Material Objects and Art
NU: It's just one generation and I'm actually very interested in researching artifacts and how those objects can tell a personal story. We all have things in our family that we may or may not think are important. But if you ask a little bit about it, it might have some really important value to your understanding of yourself and your history. And my generation and Judy's generation, which is our parents went through this, they’re the World War II generation and as we know, we're losing them and they're almost all gone.
And so many of us are actually dealing with family belongings — trunks, papers, photo albums — things from the camps stuck in the attic, stuck in basements ,stuck in the back of closets, and then people don't know what to do with them and they also don't value them and they may not know anything about them. And so it's kind of like a bit of detective work to try and say, “Oh this belongs to that category of wood carving that was really done quite intensively in the Amache camp in Colorado.
And actually what got me started in looking at artifacts was that there was going to be an auction of a very famous collection of artifacts in 2015. And it was announced in The New York Times and many in the community said, “Is our camp artifacts? Is that worthy of being in an auction and in New Jersey and with you know, 450 things and you know estimated values.” And that actually activated a lot of people to think, “No, this is our cultural heritage. These are not commodities. This is not merely art. Art is sold. Art is purchased, but these are actually representations of people's lives and those stories need to be preserved in a museum.” And that’s sort of what got a lot of people interested in material objects.
JS: I think also the fact that they were art of incarceration, art that was created by people that were imprisoned under duress, and yet they had time to create some beautiful things, some functional things and they are really part of history.
RA: And Judy, in reading some of the work on your website, you talk about how, you know, reading about this history is one experience. And unfortunately, we just don't get much in this country, but engaging with the art and having these community events is just another experience all together and that's how I feel with these shows because you can go deeper and you're talking to the people who are directly affected by it. So, can you just talk about the importance of art, especially when it comes to keeping this history alive and really teaching people about what truly happened beyond what they get in the history books?
JS: I think art is just an amazing way for people to experience history on a different level and a more personal level and they can touch it. Well, at least my art. I allow people to touch it. They can walk around it in a three dimensional fashion. They can see the texture and a lot of my work includes stories that I've collected and I put out calls for memories of internees and some of them came through the mail. Some of them came through email. I put it on Craigslist and people I didn't even know sent some stories in and I've become friends with them later. And in fact that one woman whose mother turned in some things through Craigslist, that was the first time she told her daughter those stories. She wrote the stories for my art piece. And that's how her daughter got to learn about her family's experience.
When Then is Now
RA: The other theme of a lot of these shows is so many of our guests said, our families felt like no one stood up for us, and it is our responsibility to stand up for immigrants from Central America, from the Middle East, from Africa, what have you. What are your thoughts on that?
JS: I definitely think it's one of my biggest drives right now politically is to stand up for other people that are going through similar things. I feel a real connection to what they're experiencing and it just really touches my heart. And going to the detention center and going to the bus station to meet children —it's just my mission really to make sure that I'm protesting and bringing awareness to connecting the past history and the current time.
NU: I think one thing that surprised us on the pilgrimage was when we told our stories, people responded and many times cried. And if we go on a pilgrimage, which is all Japanese Americans, and we talk to each other, there might be tears and there's a sense of we have the shared history, but it was a surprise to me to tell it to a group at the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in Austin and a legislator from Houston, Gene Wu, stood up and said, “What you've done is come from California, New York, Colorado. You don't have to be here. You're here for people who don't have a voice.” And then he started to break up and he couldn’t speak anymore, and he caught himself by surprise, but it made us cry. And so it's been a very emotional experience and it just shows the importance of showing up and people say, oh you should go there and okay, it takes trouble you do have to organize it, but there's nothing that replaces that human connection.
Pilgrimages Connecting Internment to Migrant Detention Centers
RA: Can you talk a little bit more about the idea behind the pilgrimage? I mean Nancy, you've been to many and former internment camps and I understand this is the first time that you have also gone to a protest at a detention center.
NU: Well, I would really say that Satsuki Ina who is a Oakland-based expert on trauma and a family therapist, and Chizu Omori, who is here, and there were just a handful of people who said we want to actually have a protest in Dilley [Detention Center]. And Satsuki herself was a child at the Crystal City Family Internment Camp. And so it was decided to combine — after a long discussion — to combine a short trip to both the Crystal City site and also to the prison, the immigrant prison, which is only an hour drive east. There was just so much interest because people wanted...the connection was extremely visible to everybody in prison in 1942, in prison now: different population, same kind of racism, same kind of victimizing of innocent children, of babies.
RA: What was the experience like for you Judy?
JS: I was excited because since I'm working on this subject, I thought I should go protest at a detention center. I should have my feet on the ground. I want to see for myself not just be my studio. And also I felt such a joy to meet other Japanese Americans I hadn't met. We all were on a mission. It just felt so powerful to be up all night unpacking boxes of cranes, a 125 boxes of cranes and all of us running around organizing the cranes to take them to the protest the next day. I just felt very proud and very connected.
RA: 25,000. And these are handmade paper cranes.
NU: Yeah, and that actually came from a New Yorker named Mike Ishii and he said let's call Tsuru for Solidarity – tsuru being the Japanese word for crane. And so he said why don't we call — this is very ambitious — for 10,000. Within one week, 10,000 that was blown through and we found that there were school children and they wrote their names on it or love each other don't hate. People from Maine, Pittsburgh, Florida, Hawaii Portland all over the country. A woman in Sacramento, who was a child in Tule Lake, her mother had always organized local Nisei, or second generation Japanese American women to fold cranes and sent to Hiroshima in advance of the Annual Peace Ceremony there. And she said this year, I want to donate 1,000 cranes to South Texas in solidarity for the women and the children. And when I showed her a graphic of origami cranes on the fence to me they were just kind of laying there as sort of decoration, of course a symbol of solidarity, but for her, she said that's the crane entangled in the fence unable to get free. So they have meaning, different meanings for different people.
RA: And I understand that some of these cranes were also made by men behind bars in San Quentin.
NU: Yes and Jun Hamamoto, who is here, has been teaching origami and she told me that by folding the cranes they feel they're a part of a community that they're unable to join from inside the fence and some of them also might face deportation when they get out.
50 Objects, 50 Stories
RA: Let's talk about your incredible project, Nancy: 50 Objects, 50 Stories. I have to say I spent probably a couple hours reading about the various objects because I think what I love about it is you you write about the person who either created the object or had the object before they were at the camp. So there's a human side to people, whether they were in school or they owned a flower business or they worked or whatever it was, and then all of a sudden just taken from their home. And I have many favorites, but why don't we just talk about a few. Can you talk about “Shizuko's Quaker Quilt, comforter thrown over the fence provides warmth and solace to a pregnant mother.”
NU: So Shizuko was an American citizen and she was pregnant in San Francisco and she and her husband, also an American citizen were taken to the Tanforan Temporary Detention Center. And apparently every day Quakers, women would come to the fence and throw over to the Japanese American prisoners canned food and daily goods. And one day Shizuko, according to her daughter Satsuki Ina, noticed a woman throwing a quilt to her that was a handmade quilt and the woman said to Shizuko, “I hope this helps.” And so Shizuko kept that quilt for decades and actually was always on the bed, but her daughter didn't understand the significance of it until her mother was extremely ill and near death and said, “Mom this is such a ratty quilt, let's get rid of this.” And the mother said, “Don't throw that away.” And then she learned for the first time the story of how this stranger had thrown a quilt over the fence to her. And she said, “Why did you keep it and what did what did it mean to you?” And her mother said, “It always reminded me that someone on the outside cared.”
RA: I was so struck by that. “I held onto this blanket in camp because it helped me to remember that someone on the outside cared.” So the American Friends Service Committee was throwing things like food over the fence.
NU: The Quakers were one of the you know rare religious, one of the only religious groups, which actually really helped the Japanese Americans by also helping getting them placed — young people — into colleges so they could get out of the camps. But at Tanforan, that was the case where they would come to the fence every day. And so we really felt: Fences can be circumvented. And we heard in Texas, stories of local Mexican American families going to the fence at Crystal City and giving tortillas and trading them for oranges with the prisoners.
And so I think that thing too about knowing people care is why people responded to us.
JS: Right.I think so too.
RA: Before we take a quick break Nancy, the photos of the bag, the quilt, we'll talk after a break about the chair, they’re online for everyone to see and to read these stories. Where are the objects?
NU: The objects are mostly in the possession of the families or various collections. And we're really lucky that we have this incredible artist photographer named David Izu who takes them and really animates them. So they are available to see on the website. And we're really honored that people trust us to tell their story and lend us images of their family treasures.
RA: And that website is 50objects.org.
We are also joined today by Judy Shintani, an art facilitator, mentor and narrator who creates visual stories to bring light to important topics. She has shown her work internationally and has conducted community events across the United States bringing people together to talk, to create, and heal. And this is a special live taping of Your Call recorded at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Today's show is part of a series of events our team is producing called HEAR: Histories of Exclusion and Resistance. And we've done some incredible shows over the past couple of months, you can find all of them at kalw.org. This is Your Call and we'll be back after this.
RA: This is Your Call. I'm Rose Aguilar. This is a special live taping recorded at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Today's Show is part of a series of events our team is producing called HEAR: Histories of Exclusion and Resistance. Over the past few months, we have done many shows on the connections between the forced removal and imprisonment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and other US policies that violate civil rights and liberties. And you can find all of the shows at kalw.org. Click on Your Call and then under the tab you will see HEAR.
Today we are joined by Judy Shintani, an art facilitator, mentor and narrator, who creates visual stories to bring light to important topics. In the 1940s her family was incarcerated for four years at Tule Lake Segregation Camp. We're also joined by Nancy Ukai, project director of 50objects.org. It's a website exploring the incarceration of Japanese Americans through 50 objects belonging to camp survivors. And I hope you can take some time to look at the objects and then read the stories. Nancy's mom and dad and relatives who were based in the Bay Area were taken to the Tanforan horse stables in San Bruno for six months, and then they were transferred to the Topaz Camp in Utah.
And we are here in front of a live audience. Thank you again for coming. If you have any questions or comments, please step up to the mic and let us know your name. We'd love to hear from you.
Nancy, before the break you were talking about what an honor it is to tell the stories of the families whose relatives either owned these objects, created these objects in the camp. What was it like for the families to tell the stories and then for all of us to have access to learn about them?
NU: Well, this is quite interesting because I'll just tell you about this one object, which is a gold pocket watch. And actually I learned about the case of a Japanese immigrant man who married a woman who was Native American and Mexican American, an American citizen.
They married and had five children. I noticed in the National Archive file that the family, all were taken away together. Him because he's Japanese. His children because they're half Japanese — even if you had 1/16 amount of blood you were taken away as being you know, a suspected spy or a troublemaker — and then the wife, who was Mexican American-Native American, didn't have to go but she wasn't going to let her family be separated. So at any rate they were in this the Santa Anita race track together.
Anyway, I followed through and contacted the family through actually seeing them on ancestry.com and showed them this hundred page file. It turns out the immigrant man was sent to Wyoming by himself. His biracial children were sent back to Southern California with their mother. They tried to get him out. They tried to get him sent to a camp closer. At any rate, he ended up dying of a heart attack by himself in the camp.
What I did learn after I met the family and 30 of them got together for an interview they said, they didn't know a lot about him, but that call came out in the file and they said, oh, you know when he retired “from his job” he actually was such a prized irrigation expert at the Sunkist Citrus Farm in Southern California that he was given a gold pocket watch. And actually his boss, which is very unusual, wrote letters to Wyoming trying to get him out of the camp and back to Southern California. They brought the pocket watch out and the person who now owns it had wound and it still ticks. And there are five generations there, so this object brought them all together and they were very curious about their Japanese roots because Wasuki Hirota, the immigrant man, passed the names — the name passed down through the through the male line. So there's a fifth generation child who has the name Hirota who doesn't look Japanese at all. And he says to his father, “Why is my name Hirota?” And now they want to have a town meeting and tell their story to everybody in the town.
RA: That's amazing. I mean it must be so interesting to you to hear these stories and then compile all this information and to see the experience with the family members.
NU: It is and then the other really interesting thing is in the National Archives there's a photograph of an infant girl getting fingerprinted as her family is about to get permission to leave the camp. And when you got paroled you were given an ID card. And they actually, the government wanted to show that there was a process and people were safely being vetted before they were let out into society. So there's actually a picture of a six month old girl getting her fingerprint and it turns out she's from the same town as his family with the gold watch. This kind of coincidence happens a lot and it makes you realize that there was a very vibrant close knit community, but then after the war everyone got broke up, ended up in different places, they didn't have land to go back to. And so in a way bringing these objects together as a bit like a jigsaw puzzle and you're kind of fitting things back together and sharing what you've learned with them because they may not see the government records.
RA: And that's why I was wondering when you're talking about government records: Did they keep meticulous records for some and not others? Can you talk about that and how easy or difficult was it for you to find that information?
NU: They kept very good records and everybody was given a family number and so you were known by this number. And that's how it appears on the record and each “evacuee” or each prisoner has a file and some files are very voluminous depending on if you were moved from different camps and thought to be a suspect, families were separated. And so anyway in the case of Wasuki Hirota, he had a very thick file because he went to several camps. And there was a lot of petitions to get him out. And so every petition was in there and anybody can go to the National Archives and get their file. There's a lot of FBI files of immigrant men who are bachelors and they didn't have families to lobby for them. And so when you look at linear feet of these untouched alien, enemy FBI Files, it's profound because these are histories which aren't known and probably they were bachelors. No one will probably even look at them unless they're researchers.
Little Known History of the Tanforan Mall, Once a Japanese Internment Camp
RA: Brieanna, do you have a question?
Brieanna Martin: So I grew up shopping at Tanforan and it's funny because it appears this mall picks and chooses what aspects of its history it wants to use. For example, it uses its horse racing history almost as a token and mascot for the mall and I only recently learned just as many of my family members who shop there that it was an internment camp and I was wondering and curious of the people that you've spoken to that were held at this camp. What did they say about life there?
JS: So your own family was there right, Nancy?
NU: My own family was there and for example, my uncle said he immediately left the family. He didn't stay at the barrack they were assigned and decided to stay with his friends. And so this was the beginning of the erosion of the family. My mother used to talk about the fact that there were group latrines, you know, there was no running water and the bath and toilet facilities were all in these kind of special group areas, and she said, sometimes her father would accompany her to the latrine at night because she was a young woman. And she said well at least he had a sense of humor because whenever they served pork the same people were the latrine at night because they had upset stomachs.
But anyway, they would tell stories like that and people were trying to make do with what they could. They were shocked and I've heard from many people that was the initial shock of leaving home, being able to see what does it say Southwest San Francisco on the hill? You can see that you can see that from the camp and then sometimes people would come visit you and they get would get permission and maybe bring you something, but you still were imprisoned. Then after that people didn't know where they were going to go next. And then there were rumors that you're going to go to Utah and then they were put on a train and the curtains pulled down and taken to 800 miles away to Utah.
JS: I heard … they quickly tried to whitewash the walls, but you can see hay and you know all kinds of evidence that you know, they were in horse stables and the smell of the horse stables. And actually one of the pieces I recently made which I call Innocent Dreamer was made to talk about the children that were kept at Tanforan. And so I did a drawing, a life-size drawing of a girl on a cot and it's filled with hay and I actually went and bought hay and stuffed it myself and it was quite an experience because it was so itchy and dusty and I was stuffing this mattress cover. And I just felt like I was transported back to being a young person at the racetrack filling this bag with hay, it was really emotional.
RA: Sticking with the project ‘Innocent Dreams,’ you write that this piece really moved people to tears. Can you talk about the reaction that people had to that?
JS: I recently had the Innocent Dreamer piece at the Peninsula Museum of Art and I had a woman stand in front of it and she was just weeping. And so I went to talk to her and I said, “You know what's coming up for you?” And she said, “It just reminds me of me being that age, 7 years old, and being in the camps.” And it just all came rushing back to her things she hadn't thought about in a long time.
RA: It's so interesting Judy. What has this been like for you given that you started learning about your family's history in your 40s? And now I mean, I spent a lot of time on your website too. You have done so many incredible projects on a number of issues, but many on Japanese Americans, Japanese internment, and now you're in a position as an artist to really educate people but also to hear all of these stories.
JS: It's quite amazing and I feel like it's quite an honor to get these to have people tell me their stories and a lot of them they haven't told their own family. So the fact that they feel they trust me to present their stories in a way that is respectful to their families and that they want to bring it to the public. And right now this project Innocent Dreamer is expanding to be 20 cots or 20 sleeping children, and I'm connecting the stories of children that were in the Indian boarding schools and also the current asylum seeker children. And recently I shared the drawing, a photograph of the cot of the girls sleeping on the mattress and two women from Honduras — and I didn't speak enough Spanish to really understand what she was saying — but what she was telling me was that they had no cots where they were kept. They had to they were on the floor. So, you know, she was saying if you're going to do our stories they have to be on the floor. So that really was, kind of hit me.
Historical Parallels in Stripping Language and Culture
RA: Wow, and have you heard from Native Americans who were either in boarding schools or have family members in boarding schools?
JS: I've heard it from five different people have come forward to tell me their stories. I've heard woman that's from the Blackfoot tribe from Lakota and a woman from Alaska and yes a lot of stories. And they're kind of all over the place a little bit, you know, but basically a lot of them were restricted from carrying on their traditions or their language. So I mean basically trying to make them “American” and some of them had to go to...were sent out to work for families as sort of free labor. They were under the idea that they were they were learning to become American by going to work for an American family, but horribly taken advantage of.
NU: So I think the themes of losing your language being accused of being loyal or disloyal. If you're the wrong color, you have the wrong religion or family separation, of course with enslaved families, this is part of our American history from the very beginning. And so when you talk about separation of families, it starts there and it continued with the Native Americans and with the you know, Japanese Americans and currently with the Central Americans.
And so one thing that happened out of this spring pilgrimage to Crystal City is that number one, there's going to be another one in November of this year and it's going to be a lot larger perhaps 300 people instead of 60. And there's going to be an emphasis on inviting people of Latin American descent, Peruvian descent, to come together. And then secondly, Tsuru for Solidarity origami crane, the power of that was just surprisingly resonant across the country. And so Mike Ishii and the Tsuru for Solidarity committee has decided to gather up 125,000 cranes, one for each person who was incarcerated in the Japanese American camps and then take them to Washington DC and hang them on the White House fence. And that would be next year.
RA: If people want to get involved in that?
RA: That would be great and we'll put a link on our website. Nancy Ukai is Project Director of 50objects.org. You can find more information at yourcallradio.org. This website explores the incarceration of Japanese Americans through 50 objects belonging to camp survivors. And Judy Shintani is an art facilitator, mentor and narrator who creates visual stories to bring light to important topics, and this is a special live taping of Your Call recorded at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. This is part of a series of events our team is producing called HEAR: Histories Of Exclusion and Resistance. And we're here in front of a live audience and we have a question. Hi.
Wallace: Hi, my name is Wallace. I wonder if you heard people telling of stories they'd heard from the prisoners that were interned about the 442nd Army regiment that fought it so valiantly in Europe.
NU: That is actually a very profound topic which we haven't approached yet in our project. I'm a little intimidated by it because we only have a certain amount … we have to choose the proper thing and pay proper respect to that story.
RA: Thank you. We have another question.
Simone: Yeah, hi. My name is Simone. I was really touched by what you said about your grandfather and thinking about it every day for his life. And it really resonated with me. I wasn't going to comment, but I served in the Coast Guard and at a time when we rescued over a hundred thousand Haitians and repatriated them and had them in camps at Guantanamo Bay. And I wanted to tell you that there's never been a day that I haven't thought about what happened taking them back to Haiti when there were death squads waiting. And you know to be on the other side and hear your story really touches me. And I just wanted to let you know that on the other side of the fence, you know that our lives were destroyed also by the things that we are asked to do and without really understanding what we're doing. And so I volunteer at the Rosie the Riveter. And I feel it's my sacred duty to share the stories of the women and you know to have people watch the Blossoms and Thorns documentary and so I just wanted to thank you very much for what you do.
JS: Thank you. Thank you. That's such a way of healing to share those stories and share your voice. Thank you very much.
RA: We have another question.
Jun Hamamoto: My name is Jun Hamamoto and I teach origami at San Quentin. I just wanted to say on behalf of the men that they were so delighted to be part of the Tsuru for Solidarity project. They really embraced the project. They folded and we took out 4,000 origami cranes, you know each lovingly folded. The men really resonated with the project because they're behind bars and it's a way that they can connect with the community and show that they care, that they're more than their crime. And so it had a deep meaning for them. They also, a number of men have told me that they found origami to be very healing. They thought that they wouldn't like it. They thought that people would laugh at them in the prison, but they found more now they say origami is just spreading in the prison. So many men are folding and then teaching other men to fold, you know, my class is full and that they tell me that it's been quite healing for them.
Only Take What You Can Carry
RA: I wanted to ask you Nancy and the 50 objects project, there's no object from your family, but there is a story in your family about the importance of objects in the meanings that carry them and when I read about this, it really kind of stopped me in my tracks. I started smelling. So your father took a box to camp with him and he packed a case of eucalyptus leaves.
NU: Well, it was actually my grandfather and you could only take what you could carry and my mother said, “He had this cardboard box and we were all excited and thinking did he pack treats or what was in this? Tools, blanket.” And they get to camp and they open it up and it was filled with eucalyptus leaves. And she said, she yelled at him and she said, “You are an idiot! Why did you do this?” And he said, “I didn't know if I'd ever come back.” And he'd love Berkeley. He loved eucalyptus leaves and it's such a pungent smell. And then one thing she did tell us when we were growing up was that we should have gotten diverted my anger to the government not to my father because I made him feel ashamed. And so that's an example of a story that doesn't have an object. We don't have the eucalyptus leaves. We don't have the box, but we have that story. So we're privileging objects in our project but we understand that some of the most important stories are not going to have a material thing.
RA: It's just really an amazing visual when you think about you know, the smell that you, the lovely smell going on a hike and to think that you might not smell that again. That really really hit me. And Judy, as an artist, I mean, what are your thoughts about the power of telling that kind of story? I mean what your art does is like I feel like what the eucalyptus does is it makes people kind of stop and just think, what would I have taken?
JS: Yeah, I think that when I heard that story I was like I was getting tears in my eyes, just thinking about that. You know exactly that: What would you bring? And I collect a lot of oyster shells I use in my work because that's a symbol of my family's oyster farm which they, you know, never went back to, their house boats gone. It's not there anymore. They don't have that livelihood. But for some reason, you know, I hold onto those oyster shells and I make a lot of art about it. And I made this one piece called Ancestor Chimes and I wrote the story of their time in the Pacific Northwest on the shells. And I tied bells to end of it. And I took it to the Puget Sound and I hung it in the park. It was a land art show and I wanted the wind to carry the stories and the ringing of the bells. And when I went to the park to hang the chimes the curator said, “Well, here's your tree.” And the tree branches were so high. There was no way anyone was going to see it. And I said, “Well this isn't going to work.” And so he said, “Well, there's this one other place, but no one really wants it because there's a barbed wire fence between the shore and the sound.” And I said, “That is the perfect place.” So just by happenstance, that's what worked out.
Life After Internment: Picking up the Pieces
RA: And before we end the other thing that we've been talking about on these shows is everyone's experience after they left the camp and just what it was like because they lost so much. So what happened when your family left the camp?
JS: Well, my grandparents and my father they actually left a little bit early to go work as farm laborers and so they were in the fields. They were living in immigrant housing and my dad when he got older said, “I am never going to work in agriculture again.” He was just you know, just felt fed up with it all and then he said my father died in a little shack with no electricity in an immigrant, you know, farm labor camp and he was an important person in his in his town. He employed many people and so it was really a come down for him.
RA: What about you Nancy?
NU: My uncle actually ended up going to...he went to Japan with the occupation and then he came back and studied design and architecture and he ended up staying in Massachusetts and never coming back to the West Coast partly because he had bitter feelings about it. And you do meet people in Chicago in different areas who have a deep sense of I don't know if I'd say bitterness, but certainly anger and feelings of not wanting to return. And so the government did succeed in dispersing the community all over the country, which is what they wanted to do: Break up the communities, what they call the ghettos. And so for so many people coming back was in a way worse because they had nothing to come back to and it's another chapter that really hasn't gotten as much attention as it should.
What can We Do Today?
RA: Final thoughts from both of you, what would you say people can do at this point to get involved? When we do shows about immigration and the separation of families people always call and say, what can we do? What would you say is most effective, Judy?
JS: You know I organized a very small crane making folding group at the Half Moon Bay Library and I had mothers, kids, all kinds of people come. I think there is only one other Japanese American person that came. Some of them had never folded cranes before and some of the little kids ones were fairly wonky but cute. And the library donated books in Spanish that the that we were able to read stories to the kids at the bus station. And so all those things made a difference, I think.
NU: And of course voting and educating yourself about, you know, who in your area of course in the Bay Area were fortunate to have people who I think are sympathetic to these kinds of causes. But we were very moved by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus who were lobbying hard for immigrant rights. And so I think that just getting involved in some ways is the most important thing.
RA: Well, I want to thank you both for your incredible work and thank you so much for joining us today. Nancy Ukai and Judy Shintani. Thank you so much.
JS: Thank you.
NU: Thank you.
RA: This is a special live taping of your call recorded at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Special thanks to the David Brower Center. Today's Show is part of a series of our team is producing called HEAR: Histories Of Exclusion and Resistance. The series is made possible by the California State Library, California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. Thanks to everyone who helped bring the show together. Laura Flynn, Laura Wenus, Phil Surkis, Taylor Simmons, Brieanna Martin and photographer John Orvis. Your Call is a production of KALW public radio in San Francisco. And thank you all so much for joining us.
Rose Aguilar, host
Laura Wenus, producer
Laura Flynn, project producer
Phil Surkis, assistant producer
HEAR is made possible by funding from the California State Library's California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.