The discovery of a small metal box filled with censored letters and diary entries that uncovers a family story shrouded in silence for more than 60 years is the starting point of Satsuki Ina’s powerful and revealing documentary “From A Silk Cocoon”, available this month on Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On-Demand. Uncovering a personal history of the Japanese American internment during WWII, “Cocoon” examines the experiences of a young couple who are driven to renounce their American citizenship when they are unjustly imprisoned in internment camps.
Your film’s full title is: “From a Silk Cocoon, a Japanese American Renunciation Story,” and looks at the circumstances around and legacy of thousands of Japanese Americans who renounced their US citizenship, after being forced into internment camps during WWII. Why did you select this particular event as a way into exploring the history of Japanese American internment?
SI: The story about the renunciants has been shrouded in secrecy and misunderstanding and since my parents were renunciants I felt it was important to research and uncover more about their story after finding the 180 letters they exchanged while held in separate prison camps during WWII. Those who renounced their American citizenship were labeled as “disloyal” not only by the US government, but by their own people. Many Japanese Americans believed that the only way they would be accepted back into American society after the war was to demonstrate that they were 110% American citizens. The oppressed often internalize the oppressors’ perceptions and so those dissidents who protested their unjust incarceration were deemed “trouble makers” and “pro-Japan loyalists.” They were shunned and denounced and their story was suppressed. The experience was much more complex and the reasons for renouncing, were much more about keeping the family together, disenfranchisement, and despair than about a simple dichotomy of loyalty. It seemed important to share one of these alternate realities of the Japanese American experience.
“From a Silk Cocoon” is built around the newly discovered censored letters, diary entries and haiku poetry of a young Japanese American couple, who find themselves in an impossible situation when interned. Tell us about these artifacts, and the couple, Shizuko and Itaru.
SI: After my father passed away, my mother and I were cleaning up his desk when we found a packet of letters tied with string. My mother was surprised and said, “I didn’t know daddy had saved the letters I sent to him. Somewhere around here are the letters he sent to me.” Out of despair and anger about their unjust incarceration as American citizens, they felt that their only hope for their children, who were born in the prison camp, was to find their way back to Japan where they had lived during a time in their childhood. My brother was 4 and I was 2 when my father was taken from us and removed to an enemy alien internment camp in Bismarck, North Dakota. After my mother passed away, I gathered up all the letters, found my mother’s diaries and my father’s haiku journal with plans to have them translated for our family history. As the translations unfolded, I learned about their love for each other, their children, and their struggles in the face of insurmountable odds. From my mother’s diary entries I learned that my father would strip his bed sheets and write messages which he would then sew into the belt lining of his pants or inside the pockets to avoid the censors. Several of these cloth letters were found in the letters that my mother had managed to save.
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You yourself were born in the Tule Lake internment camp during WWII, and for the past several decades have been researching the long-term impact of the internment as a licensed psychotherapist. How has your investigation into how the mind processes trauma and the past influence how you make films, not only in terms of content, but also form?
SI: It is interesting to me that I have spent a lifetime as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma work, but it wasn’t until much later that I recognized my own trauma. Not unlike other trauma victims, I had compartmentalized much of my own early childhood experience being held in the arms of a mother who wrote in her diary, “I wonder if today is the day they’re going to line us up and shoot us?” This internalized oppression often led to our parents’ and elders’ silence about their experience in the prison camps and certainly no one was referring to this experience as “trauma”. In 1986 when the Civil Liberties Act was passed and surviving Japanese Americans received a presidential apology and $20,000 in reparations, a major shift happened in our community. With these American concentration camps deemed as a tragic violation of constitutional rights, the Japanese American community was, to some extent, freed to tell the truth of their experience. For this reason it has been important that the stories shared about this travesty be told through the voices of those who actually experienced it. Our first film, “Children of the Camps” was an unscripted group process consisting of six men and women who were children while held in the prison camps. In this film, they share from an adult perspective, the ways in which they believe the experience affected their lives. Bringing this awareness into consciousness allows the individual to express the unresolved emotions of grief, fear, and anger that are often repressed by trauma victims. “From A Silk Cocoon” was also an unscripted dramatization of excerpts that were taken directly from my parent’s letters and diaries as well as actual government documents. Just as in psychotherapy, it is important to me that the voices of the people who survived the experience be heard.
There have been many films made about the Japanese American internment, from an enormous range of perspectives; it is a subject that is both intensely personal, and also continues to be incredibly relevant to contemporary politics. What kind of treatment of the internment history do you see important to be made still? What is missing from the canon?
SI: I think the characterization of the “quiet Americans” who were herded into prison camps without protest is a common image for those who have learned about the Japanese American experience during WWII. I think many more deeply complex and disturbing aspects of this unjust deprivation of civil liberties is yet to be known and understood. Not only is the story of protest and dissidence limited in the narrative, but also the darker side about the brutality, manipulation, and failure of political leadership that not only broke up families but also hearts and spirits, has yet been fully exposed. I have conducted over 200 screening events in Japanese American communities across the country and as a result have heard many tragic as well as heroic stories about the victims and their perpetrators. I would like to see a more in-depth, feature length film that addresses and exposes how the government actually contrived, distorted, and ignored the truth about the loyalty of the Japanese and Japanese Americans for political and economic gain.
What are you working on now?
SI: I am currently working on three books. One is the actual compilation of all of the letters and diaries and poetry that my parents saved during their incarceration. So much had to be cut out to meet the requirements for our PBS broadcast format. I am writing the narrative links, but continue to preserve the story as told directly through the writings of my parents, Itaru and Shizuko Ina. This book will have the same title as the documentary, “From A Silk Cocoon”. The second book, “Snow Country Prison” is a collection of my father’s haiku poetry, written in Japanese calligraphy and English translation, while he was separated from us and held in Bismarck, North Dakota. The third is an ethnic identity book for children. After leaving the prison camps, my parents enrolled my brother and me in public schools where teachers advised my parents that their children should have “real American” names. My brother Kiyoshi was re-named “Kenneth” and I was re-named “Sandra”. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties, when I had occasion to locate my birth certificate, that I realized that my true name was “Satsuki”. The title of this book is My Name is Not Sandy! It is written in a petulant child’s voice to encourage children (and parents) to be proud of their cultural and ethnic heritage. I am hoping to complete all three writing projects by the end of 2012.