People say that we Japanese Americans are very non-confrontational. I know that's not true for everyone, but for me, I tend to avoid conflict when situations arise. If someone bullies me, or cuts in front of me in line or on the freeway, I will often just back down and let it go.
Maybe it's a female thing. Or maybe it has something to do with having parents who were sent to camp as children, and grandparents whose rights were taken away during World War II. Who knows. I like to say that I am a peace lover and a passivist.
But this year up at Manzanar, I got into the biggest fight with someone that I can remember. 2004 was a big year for The Manzanar Committee. An estimated 2500-3000 people came to the 35th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and to see the Grand Opening of the Interpretive Center of the Manzanar National Historic Site. In the evening, after all the festivities and carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the grand opening, we had our 8th annual Manzanar After Dark (MAD-ness!) program in Independence.
The MAD-ness program began in 1997 as a way of engaging young people to learn about the Manzanar experience and make connections to present-day issues. We provide a space for sharing, educating and learned from intergenerational group discussions, poetry, spoken word and cultural
One of the things that people enjoy the most is the intergenerational group discussions. We gather the former internees, usually between 65-85 years old, to serve as storytellers, and match them with a student or community person to act as a group discussion facilitator. Groups range from 10-15 people and the idea is to give a chance for Nisei to share their memories and stories about the internment camp experience with young people eager to hear the stories, the ones you don't find in a high school history text book.
This year, after we broke into groups, a student called me over to her group and complained that a woman was interrupting the group. The young people in the group were rolling their eyes, and this woman was trying to get the address from the former internee, completely halting the group converation. I asked her very nicely if she could please stop.
She told me she was a Hollywood producer and she was going to make a movie about the camp experience, the next Schindler's List. She told me that I should help her. She also mentioned that she had brought a Japanese translator with her. Umm, I told her that we didn't need a translator. I said that I was happy to help her during the break, or after the discussions, but that she could not interfere with the discussions. I invited her to join the group and participate. She asked me repeatedly who was in charge, and I said that I was. She wanted me to give her a guarantee that I would give her interviews with each of the internees before they left. A little ridiculous, but I said I would do what I could to help during the break.
About 3 minutes later, I turned around and saw that she had ignored me, and moved on to the next group and had caught the attention of the internee, who was turned away from the group of students. I couldn't believe it. I marched over to her and told her firmly that she needed to stop immediately, that I had already explained that this was not the appropriate place and time. We proceeded to get into a lengthy argument for a few minutes, going back and forth, and getting no where, and I realized we were making a scene.
I took her outside and we continued our argument. She tried to bully me into helping her. She said that if I was an educator, that I would see that I should help her. She tried to guilt me. If you don't help me, no one will hear the story because of you. She said that she was obviously older than me and had access to Hollywood, and that how dare I tell her what to do. She told me to get outside of what was happening in my little world.
She was yelling at me, pointing her finger in my face, and at one point I thought she might hit me. I was so angry, and feeling protective of the great stories happening inside. I yelled right back at her, continually repeating my point of not interrupting the discussions that people come to participate in every year.
I told her that what was happening inside was important, because young people were listening to first-person stories in an intimate setting, and that very few opportunities like this occur. I thought about how well-intentioned people in Hollywood often put their own spins on real-life stories. I thought about the Japanese American filmmakers like Karen Ishizuka and Bob Nakamura in the room, who have been making quality films for 30 years on budgets a fraction that Hollywood does, and how we had just shown "Stand Up for Justice," the story about Ralph Lazo, a Chicano teenager in camp, produced and written by Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and Visual Communications.
After we argued for almost half an hour, she decided to join a group, and did. During the break, she interviewed a few people. At the end of the night, she apologized somewhat, but it didn't really seem sincere. It was a big reminder to me how important it is that we are able to tell the Japanese American experience in our own voices, and on our own terms, and not let the glamour and power of Hollywood sway, guilt or bully me into allowing a rude, insensitive woman like that interrupt this important part of our program.
In the same way, the Manzanar Committee has compiled a book, "Keep it Going... Pass it On: Poetry Inspired by the Manzanar Pilgrimage." In it, we document the poetry and spoken word from Manzanar After Dark, and cultural performances from the Manzanar Pilgrimage. We collected pieces from 23 different contributors. On Saturday, September 18, at 2:00 pm, the Manzanar Committee and the Japanese American National Museum will join to present an afternoon of poetry and performances, followed by a brief question and answer period, and book signing with the contributors present.
Jim Matsuoka, a Nisei, will share the poem that he read at the first pilgrimage in 1969; Lee Takasugi, vocalist and songwriter from Visiting Violette will perform; San Francisco spoken word artist and poet Yukiya Jerry Waki will read his poem; music from David Iwataki and a talented young rapper will add to the program. We are also fortunate to feature Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a Nisei writer and playwright who will share some of his experiences from Tule Lake.
Like how the Manzanar After Dark program encourages cross-generational dialogue, we hope that people of all ages will come to our event to hear the wisdom of the Nisei elders, along with the passion and conviction of the younger generations who indeed, "pass it on, and keep it going."
And for me, a normally non-confrontational person, I will continue to try to speak up when necessary, and not let fear or guilt prevent me from remembering that the stories need to be told, but by ourselves, and on our own terms.
Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida has volunteered with The Manzanar Committee since 1997 and is the Project Director of the Manzanar After Dark program. For more information, see www.manzanarcommittee.org. © 2004
Originally published in The Rafu Shimpo, September 1, 2004.