I became interested in the history of the Traditional Japanese Arts in the American concentration camps during World War II through the experiences of my mother, who as a young Japanese American girl was sent to camps at Topaz and Tule Lake with her family. It was at these camps that she learned to play the koto. Her intimate story and the story of my grandparents in these camps have always struck a very deep and personal chord with me.
The Need for Hidden Legacy
Extensive study and research into what life was like in these camps already exists. There are ample chronicles about western music and dance being performed, as the prisoners used quasi prom dances and jazz band performances in an attempt to lead as normal a life as one can in isolation.
Yet despite all the books written on the historical, psychological, social and personal aspects of camp life, historical documentation of the Japanese Traditional Arts in the camps has largely been ignored. Although we know that many traditional Japanese art forms – such as koto, shakuhachi, shamisen, shigin, buyo, flower arranging, tea ceremony, karate and judo – existed in the camps, there has been little study of that evidence. Our Hidden Legacies project proposes to fill that void and preserve for future generation the legacy of how the traditional arts survived and continued in America. We are currently working on a film documentary on this subject, to be released around 2014.
Our project will show that even under dangerous and clandestine conditions, the artists of traditional Japanese arts were determined to practice and teach their arts, which helped fellow prisoners through this horrible experience. We will document how these arts flourished in the camps, passing from teacher to student, and sometimes from generation to generation, as the koto was passed on to me by my mother, who learned koto at Topaz and Tule Lake, and how I have been able to pass on the koto to my son, who is now the third generation koto teachers in my family..
We feel a sense of urgency in completing the Hidden Legacies project and preserving the legacy of the Camp artists for future generations. It is the personal stories – the hardships, ingenuity and personal sacrifices – of these dedicated and talented individuals that need to be told and passed on. Time is of the essence. Many of the artists are in their 80s and 90s.
In addition, there are many young people who today practice the Traditional Japanese Arts. A solid recording of this piece of history will show these generations, and ask where and how they came to learn these arts, and what draws them to continue their practice today.
We hope to encourage further dialogue about the Japanese traditional art forms in the camps and possibly allow for the discovery of other art forms that might have existed there and not yet been covered in existing documentation. We hope this study will be a catalyst to continue the research on this subject.