Lest we forget history

Sixty years after her parents were labeled ‘enemy aliens’ by the U.S. government, Satsuki Ina tells their story in From a Silk Cocoon

Stephen Holsapple and Satsuki Ina hold a document ordering evacuation for Japanese-Americans living in San Francisco during World War II.

Stephen Holsapple and Satsuki Ina hold a document ordering evacuation for Japanese-Americans living in San Francisco during World War II.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Satsuki Ina was born in a California prison camp in 1944. Her parents were Japanese-Americans who met at the 1939 world’s fair. Ina’s mother, Shizuko, began a diary on her wedding day in March 1941. The diary was supposed to chronicle a long life full of love, family and realized dreams. Instead, only months into her marriage (and lasting for the next four-and-a-half years), Shizuko’s entries spoke of war and incarceration, separation from her husband, outrage and frustration, censored letters, and a crisis of faith and loyalty.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Shizuko and her husband, Itaru, were included in the roundup of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry on American soil. The two were held captive, first in racetrack horse stables and then in tarpaper barracks in rural concentration camps, like the one at Tule Lake. Later, Shizuko and Itaru were temporarily but tragically separated by a world war in which they were branded as security risks by their own country.

For the past 60 years, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II has been treated as a sort of historical footnote by the American public educational system. It is also a story whose details mostly have been left untold by the Japanese-Americans who experienced it.

“There was this great fear that we would be labeled as disloyal and always be suspect,” said Ina, “so the Japanese-American community kind of dedicated themselves to showing their loyalty. The front story for the community was that all of our young men that were drafted and volunteered for the military and lost their lives made it possible—this was the myth—that we were released and able to be integrated back into American society.

“Other stories of dissidence and resistance were all buried,” Ina continued. “Since reparation happened, and there was a public presidential apology to the Japanese-American people, it made it possible for these alternative stories that had been suppressed in our own community to be told.”

Now Ina—along with fellow film producers Stephen Holsapple, Emery Clay and Kimberly Ina—has encased one of those stories in a compelling hour-long documentary. From a Silk Cocoon, which premieres Saturday at the Crest Theatre before moving on to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, tells the story of Ina’s parents’ experience in the camps. Recently, the quartet of filmmakers met at the Family Study Center in Sacramento, where Ina is the director and a psychotherapist, to discuss their project.

From a Silk Cocoon stretches beyond the basic facts of the Japanese-American internment experience into the dark and thorny corners of a perceived “military necessity” that is just as frightening and relevant now as it was when it happened. It is a story of war panic, racial profiling and the manufacturing of militants (a side effect of persecution that should not be ignored in the chill of post-9/11 America). The film deals with acute peer pressure, the fine line between democracy and national security, forsaken protection and shattered allegiance. It delivers all these concepts with a focus on snowballing causes and effects, rather than sensationalism.

During the Inas’ internment experience, an attempt was made by the U.S. government to separate the “loyal” and “disloyal” adult prisoners. The indignities of living behind barbed wire were pushed past the level of acceptance for Ina’s father when he was ordered to sign a document denouncing Emperor Hirohito and accept being drafted into military service. Itaru, along with other prisoners, refused to comply until he was first granted the same freedoms as America’s non-Japanese citizens.

For demanding the return of his civil liberties, Itaru was labeled “an enemy alien dangerous to the public peace of the United States.” He became part of a movement of prisoners who would rather renounce their American citizenship and be deported to Japan than be treated like war criminals. Itaru was shipped to another prison without his family.

“My father was never a political activist or radical,” said Ina. “He was a man who wanted to protect his family.”

In the film, this story of a people turned against their own government—and even divided among themselves—is told with the use of archival photographs, FBI documents and Department of Justice files. An intimate portrait of a family under siege emerges from Shizuko’s diary, Itaru’s haiku poetry and actual letters exchanged by Shizuko and Itaru (which they somehow managed not to lose as they were shuffled from camp to camp).

The idea for From a Silk Cocoon had been bubbling ever since its four producers joined forces to make Children of the Camps in 1996. Children of the Camps, which has been broadcast repeatedly on PBS in the last four years, examined the lingering effects of the World War II internment experience on Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned as children. The story of citizenship renunciation surfaced during its production but begged for a stage of its own. From a Silk Cocoon supplies that stage, while raising issues of its own that warrant further address, as part of the ongoing effort to understand the total ramifications of Japanese-American internment on the past as well as the future.

Initially, Ina and company gathered some 2,500 pages of material. The story began unfolding on a daily basis as requested documents and translations of letters arrived in the mail. They edited their sources down to a three-hour read and then to a nearly one-hour actual run time.

The director of photography, Clay, was well aware of the historical integrity of some of the photographs that surfaced. “When you start doing a search through [photo] archives,” he said, “you see the P.R. campaign that was put out at that time of all these classic, happy, Norman Rockwell staged photographs of the happy classroom and happy barracks. Then, when you look at all the other pictures, you realize how distant from reality all those staged moments were.”

Clay used a “foreground dominant” approach that he developed for Court TV more than four years ago, incorporating layers of dramatic imagery to enhance the emotional impact of the material. It is an effect that allows you to feel history rather than just physically see it. During more than three years of production, the film slowly evolved from its basic elemental pieces into a new state of consciousness—as symbolically implied by its title.

Holsapple, the editor, added, “Part of the job of any documentary that’s discussing or exploring poignant topics is to create dialogue. It’s not just a film that you get information from. One of the key purposes is to generate dialogue about it and explore it more within yourself, so you can express yourself.”

Kim Ina, the film’s outreach coordinator, is also Ina’s niece. Her father was born in one of the camps. Kim admitted that the internment period still carries a stigma of shame and silence, and that many Asians of her generation went to Asian-studies courses rather than relatives for information on the subject.

“How would you feel,” asked Clay, “if your country, that you’ve embraced and were born in, had scooped you up and plopped you in the middle of nowhere? You have no idea how long it is going to last, what is going to happen to you, and you’ve got barbed wire and gun towers and guys with guns.”

“Then,” continued Kim, “they want to draft you to fight for the country that’s imprisoned you!”

“Consider,” said Holsapple, “that a statement like ‘We want to be treated equal to the free people’ becomes a seditious statement. [That] is just so outrageous to think about now.”

Or is it?

“The language in the Patriot Act,” said Ina, “is chillingly similar to the legislation passed when the Supreme Court decided that the internment of the Japanese-Americans was within the law. Using euphemisms to characterize racism and politically self-serving decisions to justify ‘national security risks’—that was the key. And the same kind of dialogue is coming out of the Patriot Act. It is bone-chilling.”

Clay said that an important issue that just couldn’t be squeezed into the film is a discussion of the “gray area” of internment—in which people are detained but never charged with crimes and therefore not covered by the Geneva Convention. They just sort of fall into a crack in our justice system. “I think we all share a sense of responsibility that I don’t feel is necessarily being upheld,” Clay said, “a sense of responsibility to ensure that liberty and justice in America is really liberty and justice for all and that it is colorblind.”

Ina expects a backlash over her film. “Two things happened in the subsequent generations for myself and even my children. There was a kind of break in the family; there was always this level of secrecy and uncertainty.”

After World War II, Japanese-Americans were encouraged to Americanize their names, neglect their native language and strive to be “super Americans.” The pressure to be homogenized into American society and succeed was heavy indeed. In some circles, this pressure still exits.

A plaque at the site of the preserved Poston Relocation Center in Arizona reads, “May it serve as a constant reminder of our past so that Americans in the future will never again be denied their constitutional rights and may the remembrance of that experience serve to advance the evolution of the human spirit.”

That statement readily applies to From a Silk Cocoon. Let freedom ring.