The Silent Minority

  • by

The Silent Minority

Jazz musician Tatsu Aoki is making a documentary film about the experience of Chicago’s nisei, many of whom settled here after the internment camps of World War II.

Michael Tanimura’s parents—both nisei, or American-born children of Japanese immigrants—were in their early 20s in 1942, and living in Gardena, California, when they were forcibly evacuated to an internment camp on Arizona’s Gila River Indian reservation. They were among more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans removed from their homes during World War II, allowed to bring only what they could carry. In Arizona they lived in mostly unfurnished tarpaper barracks without plumbing, insulation, or cooking facilities, surrounded by barbed wire and watched from towers by guards with machine guns.

 Yet “they never talked about being bitter,” says Tanimura, a 54-year-old marketing executive and board president of Chicago’s nonprofit Japanese American Service Committee. “They never talked about it at all.”

Raised in Lakeview, Tanimura first learned about the internment camps when he went away to college in the 1970s. “I asked my parents, ‘What’s this about the camps?’ And they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there.’ Like it was summer camp or something.” And he began to learn some of the details of their ordeal only when his son David interviewed them about it for an eighth-grade school project in the late 90s.

Now, under Tanimura’s leadership, the Japanese American Service Committee is producing a feature-length documentary, Origins of Now: Stories of the Chicago Nisei, directed by musician and filmmaker Tatsu Aoki (whose Asian Improv Arts Midwest is coproducing) and scheduled for completion in 2011. A 25-minute segment of the work in progress screens Sunday, April 5, as part of the Asian American Showcase at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Most Japanese-American internees were held until the Supreme Court declared their detention unconstitutional in 1944. Drawn by light manufacturing and grocery jobs, as well as the belief that there was less anti-Japanese discrimination in Chicago than elsewhere in the country, Tanimura’s parents were among those who swelled the local Japanese-American population from 390 in 1940 to nearly 30,000 by 1945. (It shrank back down to around 10,000 in the late 40s.)

After the war, Chicago’s Japanese-Americans were careful to avoid calling attention to their institutions. “One internee told us that… Buddhist temples in Chicago would only let worshippers exit in groups of two or three,” says Kim Turley, JASC development director and project manager on the documentary. “They didn’t want to scare the neighborhood.” They never built a Japantown, and by the 1960s they were heading for the suburbs. “A lot of people lost touch with what community there was,” says Tanimura.

Wartime persecution propelled assimilation. Internees “blamed themselves for having been put through this,” Tanimura says, “so the thing to do was to become as American as they could as quickly as possible.” He grew up with little sense of cultural identity. “We were raised to be American, much more than to be Japanese-American,” he says.

Initially called the Chicago Resettlers Committee, the JASC was started in 1946 to help former internees find homes and jobs, then shifted its focus to cultural programming and caring for the aging population of issei, or first-generation immigrants. For decades, it’s been the closest thing to a center that the diffuse local Japanese-American community has. Tanimura’s family participated in some JASC events when he was a kid, but it wasn’t until David’s judo school moved into the JASC building in 1996 that Tanimura reconnected with the organization.

In 2006, when the JASC observed its 60th anniversary by hosting “Origins of Now: Rebuilding Community”—an exhibit commemorating the internment and resettlement—Tanimura says he experienced a cultural awakening. “It was like getting hit over the head,” he says. “It never struck me before that I was a member of a minority or an immigrant class.”

Aoki, meanwhile, had been trying to get his documentary off the ground for several years; the heightened cultural consciousness brought on by the anniversary exhibit helped get the JASC behind it. Founder of the Chicago Asian American Jazz Festival, Aoki had first collaborated with the JASC when his Miyumi Project Big Band performed his musical composition Rooted: Origins of Now at a JASC photo exhibit about the internment at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2001. A mostly instrumental, nearly hour-long set of four suites, Rooted combines jazz and Japanese musical idioms to tell the story of Japanese immigration and resettlement in Chicago. Still, Aoki says, “There were things I could not express through the abstraction of music. I wanted to do more with the oral tradition.”

Born in Tokyo in 1957, Aoki spent much of his childhood in the geisha house his grandmother ran. “My grandmother didn’t know what to do with this little kid,” he says. From age four, “she’d put me in the music classes that she taught to the geisha girls.”

Aoki was part of Tokyo’s underground art scene in the 1970s, where rock music, visual and performance art, and experimental film all cross-pollinated. But he says he knew from an early age that he wanted to leave Japan. “Growing up in that kind of family, you’re not respected,” he says. “I thought it was too much of a burden on my life.”

He came to Chicago in 1977, attracted by avant-garde musicians like Sun Ra, Fred Anderson, and Anderson’s colleagues in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. “I never imagined that I’d be playing with these people,” says Aoki, who now plays bass in Anderson’s quartet. He enrolled at the School of the Art Institute in 1978, studying film and playing bass in a new-wave band called the Fudds. “That was my time of refusal of everything Japanese,” he says. “I wanted to be like an American as much as I could.”

But in the 1980s Aoki discovered San Francisco artists like Francis Wong and Glen Horiuchi, who incorporated Japanese instruments into jazz arrangements. “They had everything that I refused,” he says. “I was moved by it. I didn’t have to reject all these things. That was my time to rediscover the importance of my roots.”

Aoki began weaving Japanese classical influences into his own film and music, and helped establish the Japanese classical music education and performance programs Tsukasa Taiko and Toyoaki Shamisen, which were absorbed into the JASC in 2004.

At around the time of the JASC anniversary exhibit, Aoki began combing through the organization’s historical archive, which contained photos, audio recordings—and, to his surprise, a few hours of 16-millimeter film from an aborted documentary from the 70s. “It was in terrible condition,” he says. “Some of it was taped together with electrical tape. Some of it was stapled together.” He plans to combine the archival footage—which includes interviews as well as scenes of festivals and ceremonies—with new interviews with the nisei about their experiences during and after the war. He’ll also add music from Rooted and incorporate elements like time-lapse and the use of vintage cameras to illustrate the process of remembering.

Aoki’s conducted about 20 interviews so far, including 7 or 8 with internees and several with Japanese-Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War II. He’d like to get 50 more local nisei on tape, but says it’s a struggle to get them to talk. Even Tanimura’s mother refused to be interviewed for the film before she died last December.

“My mom worked at JASC, but she wouldn’t do an interview,” Tanimura says. “It was still too painful for her to think and talk about.”

“We missed our chance with the isseis, to get their stories,” he adds. “They’ve all passed away. Now there’s only a handful of niseis left and they’re in their late 80s or 90s. Once we’ve captured their stories we’ll move on to my generation, looking at what happened to us and why we feel like we were cheated out of part of our personal culture and history. My reawakening came late in life, through my son. We’re seeing this resurgence in his generation—kids who are involved in Japanese culture, really making it their own.”