BeHere/ 1942 and Sutra and Bible – Explore the Japanese American Incarceration in New Ways

By Eddie Wong. Posted Aug. 22, 2022.

My wife Donna and I finally made it down to LA to see friends and family. It was our first trip to LA in three long years.  The pandemic and subsequent waves of variants delayed our cherished visits with old friends and denied us opportunities to enjoy the cultural riches of Los Angeles.  When I was growing up in LA, there were a few major museums but today there are a plethora of interesting small and medium-size museums with a rich diversity of content.

Our first stop was at the Japanese American National Museum. Several exhibits drew our interest.  We had to see “The Interactive StoryFile of Lawson Ichiro Sakai,” a renown leader among Nisei veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and at one point in my life, my father-in-law.  StoryFile utilizes “capture technology” to create a holographic exhibit where visitors can ask any question to Mr. Sakai about his life and military service in WWII. Lawson Sakai won four Purple Hearts medals and a Bronze Star. Mr. Sakai was asked over 1,000 questions over five days of filming, which created a large database of answers that could match questions posed by visitors.  It was an odd experience to “talk with Lawson,” who passed away in 2020 at age 96. But this exhibit presents a rich resource to bring history to life and that’s why Lawson Sakai agreed to do the interview.

 

We were also intrigued with two other exhibits on the Japanese American incarceration during WWII in US concentration camps. “Sutra and Bible: Faith and the Japanese American WWII Incarceration” views the imprisonment of Japanese Americans through the lens of religion as practiced in the camps.  Artifacts such as Buddhist altars and Christian Bibles were displayed and contextualized by commentaries of people who sustained their faith in these forlorn and forgotten corners of the U.S. The co-curators of the exhibit explain their intentions in the following statement:

From the confines of concentration camps and locales under martial law to the battlegrounds of Europe, Japanese Americans drew on their faith to survive forced removal, indefinite incarceration, unjust deportation, family separation, and war combat at a time when their race and religion were seen as threats to national security. Sutra and Bible explores the role that religion played in saving the exiled Japanese American community from despair.

Sutra and Bible tells the stories of those faced with sudden, heartbreaking exile through an array of astonishing artifacts: from the prayer books and religious scrolls they carried into camp, to the Buddha statues, crosses, and altars they handcrafted to keep their spirits alive. At the heart of the exhibition are sacred scriptures created in camp: ink-inscribed stones that were unearthed from the Heart Mountain concentration camp’s cemetery that make up a section of the Lotus Sutra, and heavily annotated bilingual Bibles, handwritten by the Salvation Army’s Captain Masuo Kitaji during his incarceration in the Poston concentration camp.

This exhibition, co-curated by Duncan Ryuken Williams and Emily Anderson, shares the many ways that the Buddhist and Christian communities provided refuge, instilled hope, and taught compassion as Japanese Americans survived behind barbed wire, under martial law, and on the battlefield.

In 1956, a metal drum containing nearly two thousand stones was unearthed at the former Heart Mountain concentration camp’s cemetery. The meaning and purpose of these stones remained a complete mystery until 2001 when a team of scholars examining the stones realized that some of the characters written on them could be combined to form Buddhist terms. Could they be part of a sutra or sacred Buddhist text? Using computational analysis, the research group found the first six volumes of the Lotus Sutra perfectly matched what were known as the “Heart Mountain Mystery Stones.” – JANM

Memorial tablets honoring soldiers from Hawai’i who were killed in action during World War II . On loan from Liliha Shingon Mission to JANM.

Another stunning exhibit on display at the Japanese American National Museum was “BeHere/ 1942 – A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration” which was created by artist Masaki Fujihata. There are familiar aspects to this exhibit such as the display of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the removal of Japanese Americans from San Francisco. Several of these photographs are iconic images that convey the sadness of the circumstances, a poignancy highlighted by spotlights that bring out the rich tones of Lange’s prints. And there is the eye-opening, immersive sensation of being present at the historical moment when Japanese Americans were gathered, suitcases and bags in hand, waiting to board buses in Little Tokyo to relocate to points unknown. You won’t forget the young boy as he bounces a tennis ball against the wall or the families rushing by you loaded down with baggage.

Screenshot of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple augmented reality installation in development. In the augmented reality application, accessible through a smartphone or tablet, three-dimensional renderings of people and vehicles are layered over the environment. Courtesy of JANM.

Artist Masaki Fujihata highlights the themes of his exhibit:

On Saturday May 9, 1942, the lives of Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, were forever changed. They were given until noon to dispose of their homes and possessions; then they were made to leave. In the euphemistic language of U.S. government policy, Japanese Americans all along the West Coast—some 120,000 individuals, 37,000 of whom resided in Los Angeles—were “evacuated” to “relocation centers.” In reality, they were put on buses and trains and shipped off to concentration camps where they would live for years, in some cases until after the end of the war.

Opening exactly 80 years after that Saturday in May when Little Tokyo’s streets were emptied, BeHere / 1942: A New Lens on the Japanese American Incarceration mobilizes a variety of media forms to let visitors engage in new ways with this dark historical moment. The forced expulsion of Americans of Japanese descent from Los Angeles and other cities was extensively  documented by professional photographers; images of families waiting to be taken off to the camps have come to stand as icons of the incarceration. Through careful curation of little-known photographs by Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, some presented in hyper-enlarged form or reimagined as video, BeHere / 1942 invites visitors to see things in the photographic archive that they never knew were there. Cutting-edge augmented reality (AR) technology takes the discovery a step further, inviting visitors to become photographers themselves, actually participating in the scene.

To give you a sense of these two exhibits, I’ve created the following short video. It is followed by video in which the creative team describe the process of creating the augmented reality installations.

 

 

Both exhibits have been extended to early 2023.  It is well worth the trip to Los Angeles just to see these new innovative works.

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Author’s Bio:  Eddie Wong is the editor and publisher of East Wind ezine.

 

1 Comment

  1. Frako Loden on August 23, 2022 at 9:01 am

    I’ll urge my students to go to JANM and report on these exhibits for their final projects. Beautiful video, Eddie!

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