Compassionate Witness

“There was no poetry in camp,” a man narrates.

“Unless you consider dust..poetry

“Unless you consider mud.. poetry

“Unless you consider cruelty.. poetry…

***

Dr. Satsuki Ina did not know she was going to make films. Or that those films would win awards. After teaching abroad for a year and returning to D.C. to settle reparations for her family, she stepped into an exhibit at the Smithsonian. “We the People”: a study on violations of constitutional rights.

She continued through the exhibit and froze in front of a large, black-and-white picture of a man standing in front of prison bars. Her father stared back at her.

The stark paradox between the political portrayal of her father and the silence with which the family regarded Japanese internment prompted a personal exploration. She began to reflect on how those events marked her identity and the lives of those who went through similar circumstances. After watching Lee Mun Wah’s The Color of Fear, an acclaimed documentary on perceptions of race in the US, Dr. Ina tried group therapy for intergenerational and community traumas. Eventually she filmed one of her sessions for Children of the Camps.

Years later, she discovered love letters in Japanese between her parents. They had been imprisoned in different camps.

Neither parent realized that each had kept the letters. Their written voices, translated to English, narrate From a Silk Cocoon.  

***

Dr. Ina was one of many children born in US Japanese internment camps during World War II. Her parents never spoke of the experience to their children. In fact, a good portion of the Japanese American community was shocked into silence in the midst of various institutionalized limitations.

Here’s a quick date list for context on the laws. Note that in the 1920s, there were various laws that prevented immigration or naturalization for certain Asian immigrant groups. A “Loyalty Questionnaire” passed to all peoples of Japanese ancestry wrote new narratives of citizenship and identity for interned peoples. Those imposed identities divide communities to this day.

Those barred from naturalization because of existing US law had no choice but to check “no” for the final question: will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States… and forswear any form of allegiance to… any other foreign power? Logically, then, they had to check “no” for the previous question: would he/she be willing to serve in the US military? Those born in the US ostensibly had more choice, but the different lives and sentiments regarding the questions, which imposed a certain way citizenship and belonging should be viewed, broke families apart and redefined the Japanese/American experience.

The greatest irony is, however, that each immigrant “group,” family, and the global history that forced transnational movement would all be conflated into an even grosser exaggeration. Twenty years after Japanese peoples in the US were interned or imprisoned, William Petersen would label the entire Asian population in America with a myth of submission. All, with their conflicting histories, lumped into one. The model minority myth and its implications bolster the idea that US is a level playing field for attaining the American dream. Perhaps it also contributes to ill feelings between racial minority groups, especially with those labeled with inevitable failure. It’s no new tactic. Divide and conquer.

These dates are, however, only the broad narratives that surround the intimate sufferings of Dr. Ina’s patients and documentary characters.

***

The room was silent as we watched old men in Children of the Camps fight about patriotism and betrayal.

You’re one of those patriotic, jingoistic jerks!… How can you fight for a nation that incarcerated you? That stripped you of your …dignity?

You know what, fuck you!… I couldn’t just sit in camps and wait to see what would happen to me next.

They continue. I feel uncomfortable.

The camera pans the faces of the people surrounding the men. Nobody else in the therapy group says anything or attempts to stop the altercation. Dr. Ina follows the conversation closely. In the Asian American Activities Center couchroom, I watch the Dr. Ina of twenty years later watch herself. Her arms are crossed.

In another scene, an old woman weeps in the middle of the therapy group. They create a circle around her and cry with her, soothe her, rub her back.

“It was psychological warfare,” a man says to the circle. They took parents away from children and told nobody what was going on. In her diary, Dr. Ina’s mother writes, I wonder if today will be the day they line us up and shoot us. When Hiroshima is bombed, a third of Tule Lake camp mourns for relatives. The entire community mourns. Later, the world mourns. But first, nationalism. When children return to school, they’re spat on. Identity crises ensue. What was so wrong about being Japanese? An African-American girl is the only one to shield “the Jap” from spit and stones one day at recess. She shields physically, with her body.

The stories are not surprising.

An old man begins sobbing as he recounts his relationship with his father after the camps. He shields his face with his hands from the camera. The camera zooms in.

***

Let’s pretend that poetry’s purpose is to comfort, as an instructor once told me.

Poetry only as a mode of comfort, to me, feels sinister. Because comfort, sometimes, is an alien feeling. And to depict only comfort would be dishonest.

Was there no poetry in those camps? Because there was no comfort?

I believe the instructor used the wrong words in that instance. Perhaps “healing” was what she meant. But certainly not through time.

One of my classmates brings this up in his response to Children of the Camps. Half a decade was hardly enough time for these people to comprehend the absence and abandonment in their childhoods. Especially when the nation and the rest of the world rushed them to forget it.

To heal: to face deepest discomforts until that insecure identity passes into a new one. “Sometimes,” reflects Dr. Ina, “we cling to a tortured being because we are afraid that nothing will come to replace it.”

In her Tule Lake symposium comments, Dr. Satsuki Ina writes: “Psychological defense mechanisms serve the immediate purpose of keeping us from being overwhelmed and disorganized.  However, when trauma is so severe and sustained, people will maintain their defenses even when the immediate source of the threat is no longer imminent.  So to repress, deny, and rationalize the significance of the trauma can cause long-term psychological consequences…”

***

Evacuation. 110,000 Japanese Americans – “non-aliens or aliens” – were “evacuated” from their homes into internment and concentration camps.

Evacuation is a comforting word. “We evacuate our homes when there’s a fire, a flood, an accident.” It promises order and safety.

“We were forcibly removed,” says Dr. Ina. Dispossessed. “The language is important,” she says.

Tell the right stories. Tell the true ones.

***

There was maybe one paragraph about this moment in history in my textbook.

In class that morning, we ask each other, what is history? What does that mean? I think, in high school, we learned the stories of the conquerors.

***

When making The Children of the Camps, Dr. Ina demanded that there be no white people on the production team. “I didn’t want triggers to happen, and I wanted the filming to be as comfortable and authentic as possible.”

Her request was denied, so she asked the production team to stay in a separate building. “It was reverse segregation I guess,” she said, chuckling.

On the first day of filming, while one of the therapy participants began telling her story, Dr. Ina and the group began to hear sniffling. It disturbed them so much they turned around and had to stop the session momentarily.

Stephen Holsapple, holding a camera, was bawling. Camera shaking. “Tears down, snot out.”

The therapy group stared at him in shock. Dr. Ina invited him to the circle.

“A dam broke. Everyone started crying and we all hugged. And we invited the film crew back to the main house, and we built deep relationships.

“That is when I realized that the most crucial part of this project and these sessions was to have a compassionate witness.”

Compassionate witness?

“Someone who hasn’t necessarily undergone such traumatic events, but can empathize and affirm that such terrible things happened. And then healing can happen.”

***

Poetry is not comfort.

It demands compassionate witness.

 

Photo, which depicts Shizuko Ina with her two children Kiyoshi and Satsuki in the Tule Lake Segregation prison camp, 1945, courtesy of Dr. Satsuki Ina.

For more dates/historical context, here is a basic list of resources for more information on Japanese incarceration in the US during World War II. National Archives. Or… take the amazing CSRE/ethnic studies classes offered here.

 

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