By John Sammon
The Yonsei Memory Project (YMP) is an ambitious plan to chronicle using art, story-telling, memory recording and sharing of dialog between generations, a connection between the Japanese American experience including imprisonment during World War II, with current struggles for civil liberties.
It is a project that will celebrate the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans that have so enriched American life, and also combat hate directed against Asians, recently on the increase.
“The heart of YMP is our motivation to animate our community histories and use our creativity to host events that engage everyone in memory keeping,” Patricia Wakida said. “Early programming seeks to make connections with other communities’ struggles for rights and justice.”
The Fresno Arts Council a nonprofit is a fiscal sponsor of the YMP Project.
Founded in 2017 by San Joaquin Valley artists Nikiko Masumoto, Brynn Saito and Wakida, the project is a collaboration; an arts-based inquiry. One goal is to connect generations in shared experiences and hopefully provide lessons on mistakes of the past, including a long history of anti-Asian prejudice in California and the U.S. Government’s race-based imprisonment of 120,000 innocent mostly Japanese Americans citizens during World War II.
Masumoto is a hapa (mixed race) artist, community leader and organic farmer who farms the same Central Valley-area fields her Issei (immigrant) grandparents did. Saito, of Korean/Japanese heritage and the author of two books, is also an assistant professor of the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program at California State University, Fresno.
Wakida is a writer, artist and community historian.
The YMP recently received a grant from the California State Civil Liberties Public Education Program administered by the California State Library to fund a “Living Memory Lab.” It is a project to enhance Japanese American history by generating a cross-cultural and inter-generational memory practice, historic remembrances for future generations.
The results of the project will culminate in an interactive “Day of Remembrance” weekend event.
Saito said currently the YMP Project is working towards building and expanding a collective network of memory and information gathering that can be duplicated by other communities outside the Central Valley.
“Right now we’re specifically working towards a ‘2022 Day of Remembrance’ program where YMP will host a virtual artists’ showcase featuring Yonsei and Gosei artists from across the state of California,” Saito said.
A Yonsei is a fourth generation great grandchild of a Japanese immigrant (Issei). Gosei are fifth generation great-great grandchildren of immigrants.
Masumoto, Saito and Wakida all have roots in the Central Valley. Their ancestors came from the Hiroshima, Kyushu and Kumamoto areas of Japan.
“I grew up in Honolulu and Fresno,” Wakida said. “I’m a community historian and an artist. I was exhibiting artwork at Fresno State University when I connected with Nikiko and Brynn on issues of Yonsei activism and community remembrances.”
All three co-founders had grandparents who were incarcerated during World War II in prison camps, at Gila River, New Mexico, or Jerome, Arkansas.
The U.S. Government finally apologized for its wrongdoing 40 years later in the 1980’s, and financial reparations were offered to survivors (many victims had already passed away).
Wakida said the origins of the Yonsei Memory Project came about after a meeting at a “Day of Remembrance” event.
“We began our journey in the hearts of our ancestors who had survived so much and seeded love, strength and creativity in us,” Wakida explained. “The immediate spark came when Brynn and Nikiko found themselves at the same Day of Remembrance. We realized as Yonsei artists, we wanted to give our energies and contribute to our community.”
Wakida said the contributions to American life made by Asian people are profound, a fact the YMP Project seeks to commemorate.
“I am humble and filled with respect when I consider the contributions that all immigrants have made to this country,” she said, “from the purity and complexity of their cultural traditions such as language, religion, cuisines, and artistic expression. But I also acknowledge the weight of their losses, experienced by leaving the mother country to come to the U.S., and the journey they made.”
Wakida added that part of the motivation for the YMP Project is to do historic research work that will showcase the creative legacy Japanese American writers and artists have made over the past 150 years.
“Daring to commit their Nikkei experiences and voices on paper or in visual language, from writers like Hisaye Yamamoto and Toshio Mori, to artists like Ruth Asawa and Chiura Obata— these are Japanese Americans whose visions have left an indelible mark on the American story,” Wakida said.
Recent acts of violence directed at anyone who appears to be Asian, by cowardly haters seeking scapegoats on which to blame their personal problems, Wakida said is an ongoing struggle with a long history.
“I firmly believe our country is perfected by constituting itself with people of many heritages and faiths,” she said. “The many talents they bring to strengthen the fabric of our shared American culture. At the same time our nation is struggling to repair itself from centuries of racism and abuse, which comes to the fore over and over again.”
Just in the period from March of 2021 to June there were 9,000 recorded acts of violence and hate crimes directed at Asians and those of Pacific Island ethnicity.
“These acts were reported to Stop AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Hate, a group (San Francisco) formed in 2020 to track abusive incidents and protect against the recent uptick in racial attacks,” Wakida explained. “How do we redirect these acts of violence, into recognition of the value of Asian American lives, to quell the fear and frustrations of a country on the brink of despair?
My simplest response is to let down your walls and listen to what people all around you need. They need to be seen, they need to be comforted, to live to their full potential, each and every one of us.”
Masumoto said a particular community can be targeted or scapegoated during a time of national emergency or fear, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is essential for media organizations and those in positions of leadership to condemn acts of hate,” Masumoto said.
Saito said the evil of racist hate should be confronted head-on.
“I see this historic moment of racism and xenophobia less about communicating the value of our communities as people of color and immigrant communities and more about building power, naming, challenging and dismantling the framings of white supremacy that discount our lives in the first place,” Saito said. “We don’t need to do anything to prove our worth. We need to push and fight like hell to re-birth our world where our lives and the lives of all black, indigenous and all people of color are cherished.”
The three were asked what they hoped people of non-Japanese ancestry would learn from the YMP Project.
“That we are people of Japanese descent, who feel a deep and profound need to connect with our ancestors and use creative channels to share memory and explore our futures,” Wakida said.
“That memory work is labor that can be done by any community, both as a project of healing and future-imagining,” Saito answered, “as a practice of understanding the histories of colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalist extraction on which this country is founded. The Yonsei Memory Project is a dynamic, multi-disciplinary endeavor that has attempted to adapt and respond to the need of the moment.”
“That honoring our ancestors and healing will only happen if we give our energies to it,” Masumoto added.
The three said future plans include resource and team building to generate involvement and continued development of community programs such as the Memory Bus Ride held in Fresno as well as Day of Remembrance observances held at historic sites in that city.
“The goals include inter-generational dialogue and inter-cultural healing,” Wakida noted.
Caption, top photo: Laura Tsutsui, former reporter for Valley Public Radio (now reporter/producer for WESA Pittsburg), Patricia Wakida, Nikiko Masumoto, Brynn Saito. Fresno, 2019.
Above: 2nd Annual Memory Bus Ride/ Day of Remembrance stop at the Simonian Farms Soul-Consoling Tower, built from barrack wood by valley farmer, Dennis Simonian at Simonian Farms, Fresno, Feb. 17, 2019.