Kasumi Yamashita is a nisei studying at Hitotsubashi University in suburban Tokyo on a yearlong research grant.
The 30-year-old Harvard University graduate said she aspires to teach anthropology at a university in the U.S. or Japan after completing her research on Japanese-Brazilians during World War II.
It was thus no surprise to find Yamashita among a group of some 30 students, teachers, counselors and local residents who recently attended an international exchange seminar by Satsuki Ina, a sansei, at Hitotsubashi’s Sano Shoin Hall.
Ina, a licensed family therapist and professor of counselor education at California State University, Sacramento, was in Japan to promote her prize-winning documentary film and educational project.
“Children of the Camps” portrays the stories and long internalized grief and shame felt by six Japanese-Americans held in U.S. internment camps during the war.
Ina herself was born behind barbed wire at one of the camps in Tule Lake, northern California, on May 25, 1944.
The Tule Lake camp was one of 10 camps used for the mass incarceration of some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry whom the U.S. considered a threat to national security after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. More than half of the internees were children like Ina.
It took three years for Ina and her team to produce the one-hour documentary, which revolves around a three-day counseling workshop in which the six participants — Marion Kanemoto, Toru Saito, Bessie Masuda, Howard Ikemoto, Ruth Okimoto and Richard Tatsuo Nagaoka — relate the impact of the internment.
Nagaoka, born at a relocation camp in Arkansas, says in the documentary, “I used to be so ashamed being Japanese. Somehow I envisioned as a child that I was responsible for World War II.” As a result, he said, “I tried as best as I could to be invisible.”
Kanemoto was interned for 11/2 years before being sent back to Japan in exchange for a U.S. citizen in Japan. At 14 years old, she said her ancestral homeland was as alien and hostile to her as the country of her birth.
“They (the Japanese) never accepted me. The culture never accepted my style or my belief,” she told the workshop.
After her internment, Okimoto, then a fourth grader, and her family settled in San Diego, but found life there still haunted by hostility and hatred.
“Kids threw rocks, spat and chased me around the school,” she recalled in the documentary. Years later, a black friend came to her aid. “She ran over to help me and sort of used her body as a shield,” she added.
Ina, who was forced by white schoolteachers to adopt the anglicized first name of “Sandy” after the internment, said in an interview, “Making this film has had a tremendous impact on their lives because they had to be very public about their experience.”
The documentary was broadcast on PBS stations in California, Hawaii, Texas and other U.S. states.
The U.S. government in 1988 formally apologized for the internment, and in 1990 started making a redress payment of $20,000 to each internee. Then U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said, “By finally admitting a wrong, a nation does not destroy its integrity, but, rather, reinforces the sincerity of its commitment to the Constitution and hence, to its people.”
Ina said in the interview in Tokyo, “I think the redress had a powerful psychological effect on the community. They gave us the freedom to speak more openly about it.”
The problems of internal conflict have long been suppressed because Japanese-Americans had to present a good face to the rest of the community, she said. “Now many of those internal conflicts are coming to the surface, and the conflicts are more open, and I think it’s healthy.”
Ina said her counseling work has led to the discovery of three significant aspects of the internment experience that may help explain the long-term psychological and intergenerational impact — trauma, racism and culture.
Some former internees suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, like many survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and lingering racism in the U.S.
Ina said Japanese-Americans are “a very functional group,” although they, like many other ethnic groups, are under a tremendous amount of stress.
“We work too hard, we sacrifice ourselves too much to be successful,” the veteran therapist said.
She treated some 200 people in 20 groups suffering from flashbacks, anxieties and other symptoms over a 10-year period before finally launching the “Children of the Camps” project.
Ina said the reaction in Japan to her documentary has been “fantastic, very positive, very supportive and encouraging.”
She spoke in Tokyo, Shizuoka, Osaka, Kyoto and Kagawa prefectures to different groups of students, counselors and those interested in the history of Japanese-Americans and their immigration experience.
“I think for me the most exciting part is the feeling that Japanese and Japanese-Americans could have a better understanding of each other,” Ina said.