The history of Otomisan Restaurant in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood is welldocumented in the press. It was first opened in 1956 as Otomi Café, by a couple who are remembered today only as Mr. and Mrs. Seto. At that time, Boyle Heights was a melting pot of diverse, working-class immigrant groups that included Jews, Russians, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexicans. The Japanese had begun spilling over from nearby Little Tokyo in the 1920s, at the same time that a critical mass of Jewish migration turned the neighborhood into the largest Jewish enclave west of Chicago. In its early years, Otomi Café was just one of many Japanese establishments in the multiethnic community.
A Los Angeles Times profile from 2007 offers this account of the restaurant’s bustling business during its first decade: “During the weekends, Japanese people from the neighborhood and throughout LA would have prefectural meetings during picnics at places like Griffith Park and Elysian Park. The restaurant would make bento box lunches, hundreds of them, for the meetings.” The clientele was mostly Japanese then, and there was often a wait to get into the tiny eatery.
In the early 1970s, the Setos sold the restaurant to a Mr. and Mrs. Seino, who changed its name to Otomisan. By that time, the neighborhood’s demographics were beginning to shift. Many of the various immigrant groups had moved on, and Boyle Heights began to emerge as a predominantly Mexican American community. Then, in the early 2000s, Mr. Seino passed away, and Otomisan closed down for six months. In addition to being the owner, he had been the sole cook. His widow seemed to be on the verge of giving up the place.
Yayoi Watanabe, the owner of a nearby dry cleaner, had other ideas. She felt it was important to maintain a Japanese presence, keep up a Japanese tradition, in the neighborhood. She convinced Mrs. Seino to sell the restaurant to her, and she has been running it ever since.
A group of JANM staffers recently paid a visit to this historic restaurant. It still sits in its original location on First Street near Soto. The place is remarkably small; there are only three booths and a handful of stools at a short bar. Walking into it does feel like going back in time; the furnishings look original, and vintage pictures and knickknacks are pleasantly cluttered everywhere. Watanabe was working behind the counter, as she always does. Behind her in the small kitchen, a lone cook filled all the orders.
We ordered from the menu of classic Japanese comfort dishes: tempura, beef cutlet, chirashi bowl, oyakodon, croquettes, soba noodles. The amiable Watanabe confirmed that the offerings had not changed much since the 1950s; the most recent addition was probably the curry, and that happened in the 1970s. She wanted to stay as close to the original offerings as possible. When our entrees came, we all marveled at how good the food was and how home-cooked it tasted. It felt like we were hanging out in our grandmother’s kitchen—the most nourishing of places. A steady flow of people came in and out of the place while we were there, some looking like they were regulars. The clientele was diverse: Mexican, Japanese, Caucasian.
When asked if she had any news for our readers, Watanabe thought of her impending hire of a second cook, which is indeed significant given the restaurant’s long history of operating with just one. Perhaps the real news here, however, is simply that Otomisan still stands, serving comforting and authentic Japanese diner food to a diverse clientele much as it always has, even as the world around it continues to change.
Otomisan is located at 2506-1/2 East 1st Street in Boyle Heights.
On Saturday, February 17, JANM will present the 2018 Day of Remembrance in partnership with Go for Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District, the Manzanar Committee, Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, Nikkei Progressives, OCA-Greater Los Angeles, and Progressive Asian Network for Action (PANA). This year’s theme is “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988: The Victory and the Unfinished Business.”
In addition to marking the 76th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, an act that led to the forced evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, this year’s Day of Remembrance also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the legislation that provided a formal apology from the US government and monetary reparations to survivors of the incarceration. Years in the making, this landmark legislation went a long way toward providing vindication and closure for the Japanese American community. Over 82,500 survivors received the President’s apology and the token monetary compensation provided by the CLA.
Today, however, we again find ourselves living in a climate of fear and scapegoating, in which several different immigrant populations have become vulnerable to unfair targeting. At this year’s event, we hope to strengthen our collective voice as we strive to prevent a repeat of what happened to Japanese Americans 76 years ago. Featured speakers will include Alan Nishio, community activist and founding member of National Coalition for Redress/Reparations (now Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress), who will speak about the importance of the Civil Liberties Act, what it did not accomplish, and its ongoing relevance today. The DOR program will also continue its tradition of paying tribute to the Issei and Nisei generations.
Admission to this event and to the museum are both pay-what-you-wish on this day. Last year’s event drew standing-room-only crowds, so RSVPs for this year’s Day of Remembrance are strongly encouraged. For updates on the day’s program, please visit janm.org or the Facebook event page.
On Saturday, February 10, JANM will host a screening of Resistance at Tule Lake, a new documentary from director/producer Konrad Aderer that tells the long-suppressed story of 12,000 Japanese Americans who dared to resist the US government’s program of mass incarceration during World War II. Branded as “disloyals” and re-imprisoned at Tule Lake Segregation Center, they continued to protest in the face of militarized violence, and thousands renounced their US citizenship. Giving voice to experiences that have been marginalized for over 70 years, the film challenges the nationalist, one-sided ideal of wartime “loyalty.” A panel discussion with the filmmakers will follow the screening.
Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps that were hastily built to house the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent who were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Located in Modoc County, California, Tule Lake was the most conflict-ridden of the ten camps. In its first year of operation, it was beset by labor unrest, including strikes over a lack of promised goods and salaries and a mess hall workers’ protest. Then, in 1943, it was designated as Tule Lake Segregation Center and essentially became a prison camp for those perceived as “disloyal” to the United States.
Tule Lake was chosen to be a segregation center partially because of its size and capacity, but also because the infamous “loyalty questionnaire”—an awkwardly worded document circulated by the US Army in all 10 camps in an attempt to determine who among the prisoners were patriotic citizens and who were not—was mishandled by authorities at the camp, leading to more unrest, turmoil among the inmates, acts of civil disobedience, and the largest number of presumed “disloyals” of any of the camps.
Tule Lake Segregation Center soon became a maximum-security prison as “disloyals” from other camps were relocated there. The “disloyals” lived alongside original Tule Lake inmates who had answered the questionnaire with “loyalty,” but did not want to be displaced a second time. Home to a deeply divided and disaffected population and constantly beset with strife, the center was for a time ruled by martial law. The emotional fallout from living under such hostile conditions led some inmates to become disillusioned with America and to plan for a return to Japan after the war.
Come to our screening on February 10 to learn more about this dramatic episode in Japanese American history. JANM members may also attend an exclusive pre-event reception with filmmaker Konrad Aderer. Visit our website for more information and to RSVP.
To learn more about the film, read interviews with Konrad Aderer on Discover Nikkei:
It’s a thrilling experience to examine the display, which has been meticulously laid out in the museum’s Hirasaki National Resource Center (HNRC). The entire collection consists of over 450 pieces, most of which are historic photographs—copies of these photographs are collected in a series of thick binders labeled by location. All of the three-dimensional objects, which include wood carvings, jewelry, and pins, along with most of the original two-dimensional objects, such as paintings and watercolors, are on display. Some that were too fragile for display, such as the calligraphic scrolls, appear in facsimile form.
The first thing one notices when exploring the collection is the exquisitely high quality of the craftsmanship that went into these artifacts. The carved wood panels as well as the watercolors, both of which depict classical scenes from nature, rival items seen in art galleries and expensive antique stores. The second realization that occurs is how resourceful and creative these prisoners were while enduring remote and rugged conditions; the beautifully carved furniture and nameplates, fashioned out of scrap and scavenged wood, added personal and homey touches to otherwise bare-bones camp barracks.
Very little is known about the individual items in the collection. Who made it? Which camp did it come out of? Where are the creators today? A case full of rings and pendants made from semi-precious stones brings up the question, where did these stones come from? Eaton, author of the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps, acquired much of this collection from inmates who passed them on when they learned he was working on the book. Now, the questions they pose are up to us to answer.
Contested Histories exists in large part as a fact-finding mission: the public, particularly camp survivors and their families, are invited to review its contents and assist our staff in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle back together. Forms are provided as part of the exhibition for interested parties to write down what they know. After its exhibition at JANM, the display will go on tour to diverse locations and venues, including museums and community spaces across the country, where it is hoped that more people with connections to the artifacts will come forward and share their stories.
Even if you are not a camp survivor, the Eaton Collection is eminently worth seeing as a testament to the ongoing resilience and creativity of the human spirit, even during the bleakest of times. For those who may not be able to see the collection in person, you can always visit our Flickr page of comprehensive, high-quality photographs (taken prior to conservation), where visitors can share information via the comment field beneath each image.
The Japanese American National Museum recently launched a new web resource, Exploring America’s Concentration Camps. Like our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community, which provides a key educational experience for 15,000 students and teachers every year, EACC showcases photographs, letters, artwork, oral histories, and moving images from our permanent collection. We selected and digitized artifacts from all 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps and organized them thematically for this new website. Our goal is to share our collection widely with students and teachers around the nation to help them learn more about the Japanese American World War II experience.
The above photo of a group of women making mochi in the Gila River camp in Arizona has a handwritten caption: “New Years a comin’.” At around the same time in Utah’s Topaz camp, artist Hisako Hibi painted two stacked pieces of mochi topped with a small citrus, a symbol of hope for a healthy and prosperous new year. On the back of her painting, Hibi wrote, “Hisako Hibi. Jan 1943 at Topaz. Japanese without mochi (pounded sweet rice) is no New Year! It was very sad oshogatsu. So, I painted okazari mochi in the internment camp.” These artifacts, like many others in JANM’s permanent collection, speak to how important it was for those in camp to find ways to maintain their traditions, despite being incarcerated in harsh environments far from home.
Other artifacts speak to the idea of security. For example, this badge and identification card are from the collection of Norio Mitsuoka, the inmate who would become the fire chief at Idaho’s Minidoka camp. The WRA created and ran camp entities like fire departments to ensure standard protections for the Japanese American prisoners. Such artifacts not only give viewers a deeper understanding of camp life, but they also surface broader questions about security, both physical and psychological.
A handmade chest of drawers, meanwhile, illustrates the dignity with which the Japanese Americans endured the camps. The collection of Frank S. Emi, who is perhaps best known for his leadership in the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, offers us a glimpse at another skill he possessed: furniture making. In an oral history interview for JANM, he shared what the furniture meant to him:
I built this chest of drawers from scrap lumber in the fall of 1942 while incarcerated at the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, concentration camp. The barracks were bare except for a potbelly stove and a single light bulb dangling from the roof. I had also built a vanity with a 36-inch mirror (purchased from a mail order catalog), which was my pride and joy.
This weekend, Glennis Dolce will be leading an exciting new two-day workshop called From Moth to Cloth, which explores the Japanese tradition of silkworm rearing. Participants will work with actual silk cocoons, learning how to reel thread using a traditional silk reeling device (zakuri) and make silk hankies (mawata) out of them.
Legend has it that silk was first discovered in China in 2460 BC by the Empress Xi Ling Shi, who was drinking tea under a mulberry tree one day when a cocoon fell into her cup and began to unravel. She became fascinated with the shimmering thread and proceeded to study it. She soon learned how to cultivate silkworms, reel their thread, and weave beautiful garments out of the material. Silk clothing became the province of royalty for many years, before the popularity of the material slowly became more widespread, eventually reaching across the globe. Empress Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.
After being kept secret in China for hundreds of years, the silk making process finally found its way to Japan, with various sources dating its arrival between 200 and 400 AD. By the eighth century AD, sericulture was thriving there, with Gumma Prefecture rising to become the country’s principal silk producing region. During the 20th century, the silk industry experienced ups and downs; the advent of industrialization, the invention of nylon, and the popularization of Western tastes finally brought about a decline in the global silk market at the end of the 1970s. Silk remains, however, an important and popular fine fabric, and fascination with the process of sericulture continues.
We asked Dolce, who has traveled to Japan many times to learn about this subject, what silk production there is like today. This is what she told us: “While sericulture in the past was a cottage industry widely practiced by Japanese small-scale farmers in their homes, today there are improved techniques that even small-scale sericulturists practice that allow them to produce large numbers of cocoons. Regional sericulture groups hatch and raise large numbers of silkworms in laboratory-style settings with perfect environmental conditions, and deliver the silkworms to farmers once they have reached their third instar, allowing farmers to finish the process (feeding with fresh mulberry leaf) and the cocooning. This allows farmers to produce up to four readings in a single season. Most of these sericulturists are small-scale operations, with the farmer living near or on the same property.”
“Most commercial silk cocoons come from India and China these days,” Dolce added. “Japan’s production is rather specialized, focusing on domestic and high-end silk. I don’t think they export any silk cocoons at all. I believe that Japanese cocoons are almost exclusively reeled and used in Japan.”
This weekend, try your own hand at reeling silk, making mawata, and crafting and dyeing with silk cocoons. Sign up for From Moth to Cloth here. For inspiration, check out Glennis Dolce’s favorite silkworm website, Wormspit. You can also read about the history of sericulture in California, brought over by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. And if you can read Japanese, you can learn about Dolce’s teacher in Japan here.
Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.
This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.
JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?
Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.
JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?
SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.
In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.
JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?
SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.
I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.
JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?
SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.
JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.
SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.
Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.
Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.
I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.
There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.
The following guest blog post, announcing the launch of a new podcast exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, is contributed by Eric Muller, a law professor and longtime friend of the museum.
After the election of Donald Trump, many people were asking themselves: “How can I help counter what lies ahead?” I decided to create a podcast called Scapegoat Cities, which is launching today.
The idea is simple. Over the course of two decades of deep research in the National Archives for my books and articles, I’ve gathered many touching but unknown stories of the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II—stories that put a human face on the gross miscarriage of justice. Scapegoat Cities lets me tell a handful of those stories in an accessible and compelling way.
I believe that if we want to ensure that something never happens again, we need to first ensure that we really know what it was that actually happened. That’s what this podcast is for: to help listeners know in detail and also feel how Japanese Americans experienced unwarranted confinement by the US government. My hope is that this will contribute in some small way to resisting the dangerous religious and ethnic profiling that the policies of the Trump administration threaten to enact. It will remind people of the real human costs of these seemingly abstract policies.
The first two episodes, available now, give a good idea of what the podcast will do. “The Desert Was His Home” tells the story of the disappearance and death of Otomatsu Wada, an elderly Issei, from the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. In “The Irrepressible Moe Yonemura,” an extraordinary young man defies all odds and becomes one of the most popular and respected members of his class at UCLA. He brings the same indomitable spirit to his time at the Heart Mountain camp—and then he volunteers for wartime service as part of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both of these stories are based on real events that took place at those two camps. Each of the stories, in its own touching way, reveals something important about the nature and impact of confinement.
It’s surprising how much information survives that helps me tell these stories. I learned the story of the disappearance of the Issei gentleman from the records left behind by Gila River’s “Project Attorney,” the white government lawyer who both helped run the camp and who served as a legal adviser for inmates. The story was also extensively covered in the camp’s newspaper and in Arizona newspapers. I first learned about Moe Yonemura from the pages of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s newspaper, and then discovered the UCLA campus newspaper and yearbooks and the narrative records of his battalion’s service in Italy online.
There are lots of ways to listen to the podcast. The easiest is to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you like to find your podcasts. You can also go to the podcast’s website, which has each episode available for download along with additional background information, including photographs and suggestions for further reading.
I hope people enjoy the podcast, and that those who do will leave a review on iTunes and tell their friends!
Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Muller has for two decades focused his research and scholarship almost exclusively on the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He’s published two monographs and a third edited volume as well as many academic articles. He’s also proud to have led the creation of the main historical exhibit at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, which won museum awards.
On view through August 13, Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience. The exhibition is presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos form its substance.
To complement Instructions to All Persons, JANM has mounted an outdoor public art installation called Moving Day, which is on view in the museum’s courtyard daily from sunset to midnight, through August 11. The work consists of a series of projections of the Civilian Exclusion Orders that were publicly posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration. Each poster is projected onto the façade of the museum’s Historic Building, the site of Los Angeles’s first Buddhist temple and a pickup point for Japanese Americans bound for concentration camps during World War II, on a date that coincides with its original issue date.
The museum has also presented a series of public programs to grapple with various aspects of the WWII Japanese American incarceration. Below is a video of the first of these events, which took place on March 23. JANM volunteers Tohru Isobe and June Berk, both camp survivors, discussed what it was like to be forcibly removed from their homes as children. The discussion was moderated by Clement Hanami, exhibition curator and Vice President of Operations/Art Director. Video clips from a 2013 visit to Bainbridge Island, where the forced removal of Japanese Americans began with Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1, were also shown.
Holly Yasui is the youngest daughter of Minoru Yasui, the legendary Japanese American lawyer and civil rights activist. She is currently at work on a documentary film about the life of her father, titled Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM will be hosting the Los Angeles premiere of Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up until the end of World War II. Holly will be present for a Q&A with the audience following the screening.
Below, we present excerpts from an interview with Holly, who graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions via email. The complete interview will be published on Discover Nikkei shortly.
JANM: Your father was an extraordinary man. What was it like to grow up with him?
Holly Yasui: Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an amazing experience to grow up with my dad, to be Min Yasui’s daughter. He was kind, loving, and patient. He taught me how to read before I started school, by reading out loud to me every night in bed before I went to sleep. He bought me books and a special illustrated encyclopedia, and when I showed interest in writing, he gave me my first typewriter and money to buy my first word processor. Though he worked almost all the time—he was a community activist, and like housework, that kind of work never ends—he was always home for dinner and he was always interested to hear from his family about our day. It never occurred to me that it was unusual that he went out to meetings and events nearly every night after dinner. For me and my sisters, that was normal—we thought everyone’s dad did that.
JANM: What inspired you to make this documentary?
HY: In 2013, JANM invited me to participate on a panel with Jay Hirabayashi and Karen Korematsu to talk about our fathers and their legacies at the museum’s National Conference in Seattle, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. I met up with Janice Tanaka, who was filming the event for JANM and who had been a classmate at film school in the 1980s. (I dropped out, but Janice made good!) We got to talking, and the idea for a film about my dad was planted in my mind.
After the conference I went to Portland to visit Peggy Nagae, who was my dad’s lead attorney in the reopening of his World War II legal test case. We discussed the conference and my dad’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, and we hatched the idea of a Minoru Yasui Tribute Project. Peggy took on the task of getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom for my father, and I took on the making of the film. Peggy was successful in mobilizing a nationwide campaign to endorse the nomination, which resulted in a posthumous awarding of the medal by President Obama in 2015.
On my father’s 100th birthday, we screened a work-in-progress in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon. On March 28, 2017, we premiered Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up to the end of WWII. March 28 is Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and this past year was the 75th anniversary of the day he deliberately broke a military curfew to initiate his legal test case. I’m still working on completing the film, hopefully in 2018.
JANM: Most documentaries are made by third parties. You are about as close to the subject as you can get. Does this make the process easier or harder?
HY: I think that the best films are made by people who have some kind of personal investment or interest in the subject. Yes, I am very close to the subject of Never Give Up! and that has made the process both easier and harder. Easier because I have access to wonderful materials that our family archivist, my aunt Yuka (Dad’s youngest sister) has saved—mostly photos but also documents. Harder because I idolized my dad in life, but that’s not an effective approach to portraying a complex human being.
JANM: If your father were alive today, what would his take be on the Trump administration and its policies?
HY: I think he would be appalled by the thinly veiled racism and bigotry inherent in many current initiatives such as the Muslim ban and the wall between Mexico and the United States, as well as anti-democratic efforts like supporting charter schools, taking away Medicare from thousands of people, and putting the fox in charge of the henhouse on environmental and civil rights enforcement. I have no doubt that he would vociferously oppose any and all policies rooted in discrimination based on race, religion, and/or national origin. I remember in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Iran hostage crisis sparked xenophobia and hate crimes against Iranian students, legal residents, and persons who “looked like” Iranians, he spoke out and unequivocally condemned such attitudes and actions.
JANM: What kind of advice do you think your father would give to young activists today?
HY:Never give up! Keep on fighting, stand up and speak out! Work for the common good, help to make the world a better place in whatever way you can, according to your own convictions and passions and life experiences.
Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice will be screened at JANM at 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 29. JANM members can also attend an exclusive pre-event meet-and-greet with Holly at 1 p.m.