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Home » Archives » May 2006 » “From a Silk Cocoon” - Healing Each Other and Our World

“From a Silk Cocoon” - Healing Each Other and Our World

Wednesday, May 24, 2006 Posted: 10:22 AM JST

Next month, Dr. Satsuki Ina, trauma psychologist and award-winning filmmaker, will be visiting Japan and introduce her latest movie, "From a Silk Cocoon". It is an emotional and troubling real story about the imprisonment of American citizens during WWII. A story that holds lessons for us today as people seem to make the same mistakes once again. This month the US officially celebrates "Asia Pacific Heritage Month", yet a celebration it can hardly be called. Jean Miyake Downey explains and interviews Dr. Satsuki Ina.

(by Jean Miyake Downey) - "Stories serve to humanize what could be seen as ‘just another historical event.’  The names, faces, emotions of fellow human beings, especially children, can convey a message that no history book can. It is through this humanizing process that empathy occurs and therein hope for our humanity." - Dr. Satsuki Ina, Producer of "Children of the Camps" and "From a Silk Cocoon" (June 25 debut in Nagoya, Japan).

May, "Asia Pacific Heritage Month," celebrates the 14.4 million Asian-Americans and over 2.6 million Asian-Canadians, many involved in ongoing circular diasporas of people, culture, and trade back and forth across the Pacific Ocean.

May was chosen because the first Japanese immigrants arrived in United States on May 7, 1843, and because Chinese immigrants, the primary workers on the transcontinental railroad, completed the project on May 10, 1869.

government notice (29k image)However, May also holds other significant dates in Asian-American history, involving the expulsion of Japanese Americans from their homes to wartime prisons.

On May 20, 1942, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, "S.F. CLEAR OF ALL BUT 6 SICK JAPS:

"Last night Japanese town was empty. Its stores were vacant, its windows plastered with 'To Lease' signs. There were no guests in its hotels, no diners nibbling on sukiyaki or tempura. And last night, too, there were no Japanese with their ever present cameras and sketch books, no Japanese with their newly acquired furtive, frightened looks."

And on May 30, 1942, Fred Korematsu, a young Japanese American, was arrested because he refused to be "cleared" from San Francisco, not wanting to leave behind his Italian-American girlfriend.

His refusal began a political and legal saga spanning decades involving two Supreme Court cases, that finally ended in 1983, when lawyers proved that the government concealed of evidence in the first case showing anti-Asian racism, not military necessity, motivated the relocation order.

In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom award, the nation's highest civilian honor, stating that "In the long history of our country's constant search for justice, some names of ordinary citizens stands for millions of souls — Plessy, Brown, Parks. To that distinguished list today we add the name of Fred Korematsu."

Concerned about reports of harassment and detentions following the September 11 tragedy, Korematsu spoke out against the backlash against Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities that have increasingly become the targets of discrimination and violence, until his death in 2005:

"There are Arab-Americans today who are going through what Japanese Americans experienced years ago, and we can't let that happen again. I met someone years ago who had never heard about the roundup of Japanese-Americans. It's been 60 years since this happened, and it's happening again, and that's why I continue to talk about what happened to me."

Dr. Satsuki Ina, trauma psychologist and award-winning filmmaker, is another one of the "ordinary citizens,” who serves the world’s constant search for historical healing as well as justice.

Taking a broadly collective, even global approach, in her role as a filmmaker, she has enlarged the scope of her concern from providing community therapy for survivors of Japanese American historical intergenerational to telling the world about the profoundly traumatic consequences of racism.

Most recently, following in Fred Korematsu's footsteps, as a clear voice for human rights, she has spoken out on the importance of focusing on the individual human faces of people of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian descent, recipients of collective racist projections throughout history, recently, more than ever.

"So much of what happened to Japanese Americans stemmed from something similar to what we're looking at today, with anxiety about terrorism and looking for a scapegoat. So there's a parallel that's happening. It sounds like almost the same language that was used right after Pearl Harbor was bombed. We want to prevent a violation of human rights from happening again," Ina explains.

prison camp (27k image)Born in a prison camp, along with six thousand other children, Ina knows personally about what happened to Japanese Americans. After being forced from their homes, they were “relocated” to dirty racetrack horse stables where they were given body bags to fill with straw, strewn with manure, for their “beds.” They were then moved to barracks with inadequate heating, no hot water, and minimal food, while surrounded by barbed wire, and guards with guns in turrets.

This experience resulted in widespread post traumatic stress disorder, which has passed down to descendants, including Ina, who after becoming a psychologist, recognized that she and others who were incarcerated suffered from chronic PTSD.

In recent years, therapists who work with survivors of different forms of collective trauma have begun to recognize similarities in patterns of injury and healing. Increasingly, they are dialoguing, and joining forces in their mission of repairing those collectively broken by this world – including Holocaust, Aboriginal, Native American, South African apartheid, African American, Irish Potato Famine, Chinese Cultural Revolution, Soviet Gulag, September 11, Asian Tsunami, Pakistan earthquake, and wartime survivors, among so many others in our repeatedly violently traumatized world.

Ina's first film, "Children of the Camps," was broadcast on American public television from 1999 to 2003. This film exposed the fact that over half of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated were children. Some were even motherless infants who were removed from orphanages.

Following the lives of six people who experienced this incarceration as children, Ina delved into the ongoing emotional, familial and psychological consequences for these "children of the camps", and documented their personal journeys of healing from the wounds of racism:

"Former internees report lifelong struggles with chronic depression, psychosomatic illnesses, low self-esteem and the stresses of over-achieving. Consonant with Japanese American values, these individuals have internalized their suffering in an effort to secure their acceptance in their own country."

movie poster (47k image)Ina's second film, "From a Silk Cocoon", is an even more personal film, unlocking memories of how this period of American history shattered her parents' lives, psyches, and hearts:

"The discovery of a small metal box leads to the uncovering of a family story, shrouded in silence for more than 60 years. Woven through their censored letters, diary entries, and haiku poetry, is the story of a young Japanese American couple whose dreams are shattered when, months after their wedding, they find themselves held captive, first in race track horse stables and later, in tar paper barracks."

As a baby and toddler in Tule Lake, Ina's earliest and most primal memories are of her parents' fear, anger, despair, and heartbreak over the unfair and inhumane treatment by a country they trusted.

Her parents, Itaru and Shizuko, were first-generation American citizens who loved the United States. They also loved Japan, where family and friends remained behind -- they traveled back and forth -- true cosmopolitan and bilingual Americans. Itaru was an accomplished calligrapher who wrote haiku. And Shizuko, before she married Itaru, represented Japan as a "Silk Girl" in the 1939-40 World's Fair. Both of her parents were felt so betrayed by the United States, they renounced their citizenship, as did thousands of others:

"In her diary, Shizuko writes, 'because our children have Japanese faces, I don't want them to be Americans.'"

Itaru went as far as to associate himself with the Hoshi Dan, who shaved their heads, wore headbands, encouraged renunciation throughout the camps, and rebelled through non-cooperation.

Seeing the Hoshi Dan on film deeply pained me, because with historical perspective, I knew that Japan was not the protective haven for them that they fantasized it would be in their heartbroken desperation.

I empathized with their sense of feeling trapped, with no way out in an unjust society. My own Japanese grandfather, had been arrested in Japan, for speaking out against Japanese aggression. He was a friend of Toyohiko Kagawa, a Christian labor organizer and pacifist, who founded the National Anti-War League in 1928, and who was arrested in 1940, for apologizing to China for Japan's attack on that country.

This story of Itaru and other resisters who protested the incarcerations is still a hidden story, as pointed out by historian Mark Selden in “Remembering 'The Good War' The Atomic Bombing and the Internment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. History Textbooks":

"…not a single text mentions the fierce Japanese and Japanese-American resistance against the violation of their constitutional rights. In particular, there is no reference to the members of the 'Fair Play Committee' who refused U.S. demands to register for the draft so long as Japanese and Japanese-Americans were deprived of their constitutional rights…

And not a single text hints at the existence of the fierce struggle waged by internees who demanded repatriation to Japan, refusing to declare allegiance to a nation that imprisoned them solely for having committed the crime of being born Japanese…by January 1, 1945, 20,067 Japanese and Japanese-Americans had filed applications for repatriation… And none discusses the U.S. government apology and reparations to Japanese-Americans four decades after the war in terms of the movement for justice by Japanese-Americans and others...

In eliminating the terrain of resistance and social conflict we are left with the image of a U.S. government that moved in mysterious ways to right a gross violation of the rights of one of its hyphenated minorities and to reify the image of Japanese-Americans as a model minority, one that rallied unanimously to the national cause and fought heroically for the United States against Japan in World War II, even as their parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters passed the war in the camps.

It is an analysis that distorts fundamental elements of the Japanese-American experience and deprives substantial elements of the community of agency and history.

Ina has directed her entire life towards correcting this historical and human distortion by telling the truth about what happened. And she has worked at an even deeper level of psychological redemption, by helping to heal those who had been profoundly psychologically injured, including her parents and herself, as well as other survivors and the nation that allowed this to happen.

I had wondered most of my life why my Japanese mother stopped speaking to me in Japanese when we moved to the United States and why, in contrast to other Asian-Americans, Japanese-Americans did not congregate in "Japantowns," gave up their language, and assimilated so much more easily into the Anglo-dominated mainstream. I simply thought people of Japanese heritage were not attached to that heritage. Now I thought I knew a better answer: fear.

I realized that Ina's films, about the injurious consequences of racism sixty years ago, are still deeply relevant for our time. Anti-Asian, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-African American, and anti-Latino, and other forms of racism are all interlinked. And what we see in North America is mirrored in Europe and Australia as last year's race riots show us.

In the 1980's and 1990's, anti-Asian racism was masked as "economic competition" instead of "military defense," with manifestations ranging from racist imagery to physical violence, with people of Asian heritage, such as Vincent Chin, being murdered. South Asians have been increasingly harassed along with Arab-Americans since the tragedy of September 11. Similar to those who lynched African-Americans until the 1960's, Chin's murderers were only given probation. The 2003 murder of a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, in Arizona, reflects the same kind of hate crime that ended Chin's life. Recently a Sikh grandmother was assaulted while taking a walk.

Ina says that by helping to support those who are persecuted, Japanese-Americans are "doing for others what they could not do for themselves," and contributing to their own healing as well as to that of the others.

Until I saw "From a Silk Cocoon," I had no idea how close circular diasporan bonds were between Japanese immigrants to North America and their families in Japan until events almost broke them. Many went back and forth, as Ina's parents did. We are seeing some restoration of that circle, with people with ties to both countries, as well as throughout Asia, traveling back and forth across the Pacific. However, heightened entry regulations have obstructed this flow again, even preventing Asian performing artists from traveling, as Chinese-American cellist Yo Yo Ma testified recently before a congressional committee.

Even more deeply restoring her personal diasporan circle, Ina and her husband will be traveling to Japan this year, to visit "the Komagane Silk Museum where I met the Director and Curator while I was shooting footage for the documentary at the Miyasaka Silk Reeling Mill in Okaya in 2004.  The Silk Museum is very close to where my mother was raised so I have decided to donate the silk dresses that were hand-made for her when she represented Japan as a Silk Girl for the World's Fair in 1939-40."

Then she will attend a screening of "From A Silk Cocoon" on June 25 at The Japanese Association for Migration Studies in Nagoya. And she will also give a lecture at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies on June 26th. 

Ina emphasizes the power of dialogue and listening to each other’s stories in healing past collective trauma. She says there's so much power in the "compassionate witness."

Dr. Ina's response to some questions I posed to her are so lucid and insightful, I am sharing them here in full:

It seems that Japanese-Americans have been one of the most "assimilated" groups of immigrants in American society.  Might this be because of fear of being Japanese? 

There's something about the Japanese-American experience that reminds me of other "hidden" diverse peoples, including the Crypto Jews in the Americas and Hidden Christians in Japan.

"There is no doubt that the Japanese American WW II imprisonment experience has contributed to an accelerated level of assimilation of Japanese Americans.  We have the highest outmarriage rate of any ethnic group in America at a rate of 60% and increasing. 

I wouldn't say it is a result of the fear of being Japanese, but more the fear of being ostracized, excluded and disempowered. 

Today, even as our racial identity is slowly being diluted in the US, there is a sense of pride in our ethnic identity as Japanese Americans.  A small but growing group of young political and social activists who are "happa" or mixed race are expressing the need to identify with their different ethnic identities rather than just blend into the mainstream.

People throughout the world seem to be starting a process of acknowledging and rectifying "race trauma," while new forms of race trauma continue even now.   African-American historian John Hope Franklin says that "unacknowledged race trauma" is festering in the United States.  I think this is true for the entire world.

I felt that you made this film as a "lesson" to the rest of the world about the tragic consequences of the collective demonization of groups of people. 

As a psychologist, do you have any view about why, after what happened to Japanese-Americans, Jews during the Holocaust, Native Americans, African-Americans, and Korean forced laborers in Japan, that so many in the world haven't learned from history?

"Yes, both of the documentaries I have made, "Children of the Camps" and "From A Silk Cocoon" were motivated by the hope that the experience of the Japanese Americans will serve as a lesson to be learned about the human consequences of race hatred, war, and the failure of political leadership. 

From a social psychology perspective, when there is an ever-increasing level of societal anxiety as a result of war, economic threat, diminishing resources, etc., the way to bind that anxiety is often to find a scapegoat to direct all the fear and anger. 

This process often requires that the scapegoated group be dehumanized so that inhumane treatment can be justified. 

Pearl Harbor was not the beginning of anti-Japanese hostility, there is clear historic evidence that anti-Asian sentiment in America was very strong many years leading up to the war.  Well, there are lots more and I could go on, but I'll just stop here.

How can we help to change history and to further healing?  Will learning that there are no "races," and that we are all related, with African ancestors, finally make a difference?
"There is of course no simple answer to this question, but my belief is that rather than minimizing our differences, we must create a world community that values the richness in our differences. 

So many of the political blunders that our American leaders have committed is a result of their lack of understanding of the cultural, religious, and social values of the different countries we are dealing with. 

This ethnocentric point of view can be changed through early education, person to person contact, and inspired leadership. One step for me is to bring the story of the Japanese American experience to the Japanese community so that we may exchange our views and experiences and have a better understanding of one another.

Has making this film helped to heal you?
"As a former prisoner myself, telling this story of my family and my community has been a powerful healing experience. 

As a psychotherapist I often see my work as helping individuals who have suffered trauma to develop a coherent autobiographical narrative as an important part of their healing process.  This applies to the individual as well as to the community.

What is the reaction among Japanese you have met regarding the experience of Japanese-American concentration camp victims?  Could sharing this experience be a means to counter historical forms of ethnic prejudice and discrimination in Japan?
"Most Japanese people that I have met did not know about the experience of the Japanese Americans.  They often expressed shock and sympathy. 

My hope is that by sharing our experience it will serve to increase people's awareness of the traumatic consequences of ethnic prejudice and discrimination.

Stories serve to humanize what could be seen as 'just another historical event.'  The names, faces, emotions of fellow human beings, especially children can convey a message that no history book can. It is through this humanizing process that empathy occurs and therein hope for our humanity.

June 25 debut of "From a Silk Cocoon" in Nagoya, Japan
There will be a screening of "From a Silk Cocoon", open to the public, at the annual conference of the Japanese Association of Migration Studies. The conference fee is 500 yen for those without membership. The conference will be in Japanese, although the film is in English with Japanese subtitles. Dr. Satsuki Ina will attend the reception party on June 24th and the screening on the 25th.

Location: Yamanohata Campus, Nagoya City University
e-Mail: jams [at] hum [dot] nagoya-cu [dot] ac [dot] jp

June 24 (Sat)
13:00-15:00 Presentation by members (Rm.# 203, 204, 206)
15:15-17:55 Symposium I (prepared by Prof. T. Murai of Nagoya City Univ.)
18:00-18:30 General Meeting of members
19:00-20:30 Reception Party (at Cafeteria of Nagoya City Univ.)

June 25 (Sun)
09:00-12:00 Symposium II (Rm. #201)
12:15-13:15 Special Screening of "From a Silk Cocoon," directed by Dr. Satsuki Ina (Rm. #201)
13:20-15:20 Presentation by members (Rm.#203, 204, 206)
14:40-15:20 Round Table (Rm.#206)

Jean Miyake Downey is a contributing editor at the Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia (www.kyotojournal.org), an award-winning English-language quarterly published in Kyoto, Japan. She covers multicultural and transnational issues. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and lawyer, she takes an interdisciplinary look at the nexuses between historical and contemporary hybridity and fusion; global cultural trauma and historical healing; the revival and survival of traditional and indigenous cultures; and global human rights movements.

Keywords: opinion_item discrimination racism xenophobia

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