By John Sammon
A new video film titled “We the People” produced in sponsorship by the California Museum (Sacramento) promises to tell the entire story of the “internment” of Japanese Americans during World War II, from the ruination of the lives of people imprisoned for no reason at all, to continued racism after the war; to the government’s belated tepid apology 40 years late.
Incarceration is a better word than internment, which is today more rarely used, because internment sounds somewhat benign, almost acceptable.
“Instead it was a monstrous wrong,” said Catherine Busch, independent documentary producer and director of the film. “Some people committed suicide. They should not have had to suffer like this.”
Les Ouchida, one of 20 camp survivors interviewed for the film, described it as a comprehensive look at the history right up to today where it remains an issue because of recent threats to remove the freedoms of Muslim Americans.
“At the end,” he said. “We ask ourselves—–can it ever happen again?”
Ouchida lives in Sacramento near the place where he grew up as a boy in the Florin District and where his grandparents had once worked a farm that grew strawberries.
“Florin was then known as the strawberry capital of the world,” Ouchida noted.
His parents Harold and Edith made their living in the shipping end of the business boxing and shipping grapes and strawberries during the 1930’s. California’s economy was crawling its way out of the Great Depression helped in no small measure by burgeoning fruit and vegetable industries—a result of the labor of Japanese immigrants and their American-born children who worked the fields.
In 1942 when the U.S. Government imprisoned 120,000 Japanese Americans living along the West Coast, men, women, children and the elderly for nothing more than ethnicity, Ouchida and his family were sent to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas.
“I was five years old at the time and stayed in the camps until I was eight,” he said. “Later during the war we were transferred to another camp, the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.”
Ouchida said he was partly protected from the shock of the imprisonment by his age, he was simply too young to realize the injustice of it or later remember it vividly. It was a different story however for an older brother.
“My older brother Kenneth spent his high school in the camp can you imagine that?” Ouchida said. “He missed dating and driving a car, all the pleasant experiences of that age. In that way I was fortunate for being younger.”
Busch grew up in Pittsburg, Penn. and was a former nun, nurse and teacher before becoming a film director. Not of Japanese American heritage, she said she had once been unaware of the World War II incarceration period.
“I came out to California when I was 30 and I was 40 when someone mentioned this had happened,” she said. “I thought they were joking. Later the California Museum hired me to do 20 interviews with camp survivors. The Florin District of Sacramento had once had a large population of Japanese Americans and we ended up with an hour-and-a-half worth of filmed interviews.”
The film project was begun a little over four years ago.
Busch said to make the film more interesting and easier to grasp a decision was reached to divide the material into a series of 15-minute chronicles that would start with the first immigrants arriving from Japan and leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack and then beyond. Additional segments include the camp incarceration period during the war and the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a U.S. Army unit nicknamed “Go for Broke” composed of Japanese Americans some of whom had formerly been prisoners in the camps. They fought in Europe to become one of the most highly decorated units of World War II.
One of those interviewed is a well-known veteran and spokesman for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Lawson Sakai.
The film also recounts the anti-Japanese American racism that didn’t end with World War II when the former prisoners left the camps and attempted to return to their homes and pick up the pieces of their lives.
“We say racism, but some people don’t get it when you say that, it’s also bullying, and many of us have been bullied in our lives,” Busch said. “Most people understand what bullying means and this was the bullying of an entire people.”
One of the little known chapters of the film will be those rare people, Caucasians, who helped Japanese Americans during the camp period in some cases holding properties for them until they could return. For this they were sometimes labeled “Jap lovers.” Governor Ralph L. Carr of Colorado was one of the few governors in the nation who spoke against imprisoning Japanese Americans which cost him his political career. He was defeated for a Senate seat in 1942 because of his stance on defending Japanese Americans.
Another Good Samaritan named Bob Fletcher held three Sacramento-area farms for former Japanese American owners until they could return from the camps. For this he was also labeled a “Jap lover.”
Busch said the film is segmented in such a way to explain the history in an interesting and easy to understand format.
“We felt this way it would allow educators to pose questions to school students who viewed the film (each separate segment), so it would really get the students thinking,” she said.
A volunteer committee of eight people six of them camp survivors including Ouchida are helping with the project. Grant money was received from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program but the funding has been used and an additional $35,000 is needed to be donated from the public. Total final cost will amount to approximately $90,000.
Ouchida works as a volunteer docent at the California Museum, which attracts about 5,000 visiting school children each year. He said one of his favorite pictures of the camp period shows imprisoned Japanese Americans in the yard outside their barracks saluting an American flag.
“I have a passion when I talk about these people because they were good citizens despite the way they were treated,” Ouchida said. “I tell the children about the impact of people losing their farms and their freedom and privacy. Prisoners particularly the ladies would put a bag over their heads when they went to the communal bathroom to try and gain some privacy.”
Ouchida also said the camp experience induced in some of the survivors, timidity — a meekness — a reluctance to speak up and state their mind perhaps because of fear and an unjustly imposed sense of guilt for a crime not committed.
“I recall one Japanese American who went to a job interview after the war and he seemed almost apologetic to be there,” Ouchida recalled. “That’s not good. You have to sell yourself at a job interview.”
Final segments of the film will focus on answering the question; can the illegal imprisonment of people because of their ethnic or religious orientation in violation of the U.S. Constitution ever happen again? Statements and proposals from U.S. lawmakers to punish Muslims in this country because of recent events in the Middle East will be examined.
About half of the uncompleted film can be currently viewed on the internet. Go to the museum website at www.californiamuseum.org. At the top click on “Education.” Then click on “Research.” Then click on “Japanese American Incarceration.” Then click on “California Museum Oral History.”
Donations to complete the project are being asked for and are tax deductible.
To donate send a check to Les Ouchida at 6443 Driftwood St., Sacramento, 95831. A check can also be sent to Gloria Imagire at 6689 Riptide Way, Sacramento, 95831.
Busch said “We the People” would tell the story of a grievous injustice suffered by Japanese Americans, and in so doing would benefit all Americans in understanding how democracy for a time broke down.
“It’s about keeping faith with the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “The film can serve to preserve history so it’s not forgotten and be a warning for the future. I want the film to empower people to use the Constitution to maintain the values it embodies.”
The California Museum website is located at www.californiamuseum.org.
Donation checks should be made out to “California Museum We the People.”
Caption: from left to right: Jonathan Sakakibara, Haruko Sakakibara, Catherine Busch, Gloria Imagire, and Lester Ouchida, at the kick-off luncheon April 22 at Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Gloria Imagire.