A group of U.S.-based filmmakers has taken a different perspective on the March 2011 disasters in northeast Japan in a documentary that draws on the wartime experiences of Japanese-Americans.
“We saw that there were a lot of similarities between what our parents and grandparents have gone through during World War II and what the people at the temporary housing in Tohoku are experiencing now in terms of restricted housing situations, uncertainty about the future and dramatic changes in lifestyle,” director Dianne Fukami said.
The film, “Stories from Tohoku,” tells the struggles of some of the victims of the megaquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that wreaked havoc on the region and links them with the wartime experiences and insights of Japanese-Americans, including students who visited the disaster-hit areas to learn more about how the tragedy affected the land of their ancestry.
Fukami, a third-generation Japanese-American, together with a team that included co-executive producer Debra Nakatomi, began filming in 2011.
The idea of a documentary emerged when Fukami was president of the board of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, based in San Francisco. After raising more than $4 million to help the survivors, they thought of making a documentary about it as well. The result was a film showing the connection between the disasters and the Japanese-American community.
“Stories from Tohoku” was broadcast this year on U.S. TV and shown at film festivals in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Japan, including the prefectures that were hit hardest, Miyagi and Fukushima.
In one of the screenings in Tokyo last month, Nakatomi, also a sansei, said the audience felt the “insights we brought as Japanese-Americans, as outsiders telling the survivors’ stories, were different from what they have seen before.”
For Fukami, 58, and Nakatomi, 61, making the documentary gave them a way to reflect on their parents’ experience with the war.
In 1942, the U.S. government interned more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans residing on the West Coast at camps set up in remote parts of the country.
“I wonder if that’s part of the reason why (the Tohoku disasters) resonated so deeply within the Japanese-American community back home. It was not completely a new experience for us,” Fukami said, recounting how the blocks of temporary shelters in Tohoku were reminiscent of the barracks that dotted the internment camps.
She said seeing how the residents tried to beautify their temporary housing, similar to what their grandparents did, made her appreciate more what they had to go through.
“It’s one of those defining experiences for Japanese-Americans of that generation, just as we know that Tohoku and the disaster would be the defining experience for those families and residents . . . for generations,” Nakatomi said.
After many interviews and research, the two women said they were amazed by the resilience of the survivors, including a woman who creates small dolls out of kimono fabric and a farmer struggling in Fukushima Prefecture, and hope to continue telling their stories and triumphs.
“I want the people of Tohoku to know that they have not been forgotten,” said Fukami, who hopes that their documentary will someday be aired on Japanese television.