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Teen sister filmmakers keep stories of Japanese prison camp survivors alive

By COLLEEN BIDWILL | The Marin Independent Journal | Published: September 17, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — Chizu Omori was just 12 years old when her life drastically changed. Forced to leave everything behind, she and her family were among the near 120,000 Japanese Americans forced into prison camps during World War II. After being held in a camp in Arizona for nearly four years, they were released with nothing to their name but $25 and a ticket to wherever they wanted to go.

This life-altering and traumatic time led Omori, now 90, into activism, from fighting for restitution for Japanese Americans during the Redress Movement to more recently, protesting the detention of immigrant children in the United States.

It’s stories like these that Redwood High School students and sisters Hina and Kana Kojima want to keep alive through their short documentary, “Relive to Remember,” which premiered on YouTube earlier this month.

With time on their hands due to the pandemic and with the help of funding, mentorship and guidance through the Dragon Kim Foundation’s seven-month fellowship for California high schoolers, the pair spent the last few months interviewing Omori and five other prison camp survivors in person or over Zoom.

“We started thinking we’d do a film telling some stories but then we realized that what they were talking about was about a bigger story of racial injustice in America,” says Hina, who along with her sister combed through more than 18 hours of footage to create the 23-minute film. “The prison camps are just a part of a long history of racism and racial injustice that’s been part of American history since the very beginning, from taking land from the Native Americans, to slavery, Japanese prison camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the detention centers at the border today.”

In a time when racial inequities are being brought to the forefront through the Black Lives Matter movement, sharing these stories now felt more timely than ever, they say, as the people who survived the camps are getting older.

“You read about it through a textbook and it’s really impersonal. You just learn about the facts. I think people absorb it better when stories are personalized,” says Hina, a junior at Redwood.

The Kentfield residents are the first project from Northern California for the Irvine-based Dragon Kim Foundation’s fellowship program. While the nonprofit organization has supported a wide variety of projects over the years, there have been some that shed light on the experiences or struggles of different — and often marginalized — groups, like a 90-minute play about missing and murdered indigenous women and a curated art show for tapestry artist and Holocaust survivor Trudie Strobel, says fellowship program manager Arie Grace Lugo.

“Watching their documentary, it was really beautiful,” Lugo says. “I am Japanese Korean. I don’t know anyone who was part of the camp process, but just watching these different people being interviewed, sharing the Japanese experience and how hard it is when you feel like you’re painted a certain way cause of your heritage and it being negative, I resonated with that. We are at place where people who lived in these camps, many are old and passing away. This was another instance where we had the chance to tell this story.”

‘Not talked about’

Although the two grew up making videos on iMovie for fun, they never dreamed of making a documentary — especially on such a topic. But, the sisters, who are three-fourths Japanese, started to take an interest in social justice issues when they were living in Singapore. And while their grandparents lived in Japan during World War II and were not imprisoned, it’s when they moved to the U.S. that they really started to understand the scope and horrors of the Japanese prison camps.

“Last year in my freshman English class, I learned about the camps and then that’s when I thought to myself, ‘Why haven’t I learned this before and why I am just learning about the details?’ I did some extra researching on my own. I thought about it for so many days. We knew we wanted to do the project about the prison camps because we thought it was not talked about enough,” says Kana, whose plans to attend the New York Film Academy this summer were postponed due to the pandemic.

They also learned about the camps in part through Tsuru for Solidarity, a nonviolent, direct action project of Japanese American social justice advocates working to end detention sites and support front-line immigrant and refugee communities, whose co-founder Satsuki Ina and others involved in the cause are featured in the film.

Ina, a psychotherapist and award-winning filmmaker, was “born out of desperation” in the Tule Lake Segregation Center, a maximum-security prison camp in California, after a rumor circulated that the more children a family had, the less likely it would be for them to be separated.

“By then, my parents were very disheartened about their future, what could happen, what kind of life would there be for their children,” she says in the film.

Form of protest

For the Kojimas, it was an eye-opening experience, learning everything from why survivors don’t use the word internment to describe the camps — it diminishes the experiences they went through — to the stories from the survivors themselves.

“After they were released from the prison camps, they wanted to protect all their children from the trauma that they had been through, which is why they never talked about it. That was something Hina and I had no idea was the case,” Kana says. “We thought that people would be mad and frustrated that happened and they would try to get the compensation that they deserved right after they were released, not decades after. That was a huge surprising thing to us that basically every single person that we interviewed talked about.”

They say Ina summed up their project’s purpose perfectly toward the end of the film by reflecting on how remembering is a form of protest.

“We interpreted it in a way that was like as time goes on, stories will be less and less remembered, and people are going to tell it less. That’s why we are lucky to have captured it on film,” Kana says.

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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