Grant Will Fund Films About WWII-Era Japanese-American Confinement Sites

Japanese Internment Trump Immigration
FILE - This March 23, 1942 file photo shows the first arrivals at the Japanese evacuee community established in Owens Valley in Manzanar, Calif., part of a vanguard of workers from Los Angeles. Roughly 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were sent to camps that dotted the West because the government claimed they might plot against the U.S. (AP Photo/File) -- The Associated Press

A Chicago-based production company has been awarded $400,000 in grant money to make two short films about the history of Japanese-American World War II incarceration that followed in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The nonprofit Full Spectrum Features has plans to make two short films -- scripted narrative films rather than documentaries -- focusing on resistance and resettlement.

According to Full Spectrum executive director Eugene Sun Park, "We think it's important to have dramatic narrative scripted films about this history because Hollywood doesn't make World War II films that feature Asian-Americans as the protagonists."

The production company has already made one film, called "The Orange Story" (which you can watch here) that Park said "captures the beginning of this history, when an older Japanese-American man finds out about the executive order signed by FDR authorizing the confinement sites."

The second film in the series will likely focus on draft resistance in a confinement site. "A very strange thing happened during this period," said Park. "The U.S. government, without charging 120,000 Japanese-Americans with any crimes, just put them in these incarceration sites -- and then not long after, went to the men and drafted them into the military. So they were asked to serve and possibly die for a country that basically took way their civil rights and jailed them for nothing. Some people saw that as an opportunity to show their patriotism and signed up very quickly to fight. The 442nd Infantry Regimental was an all-Japanese military unit of the Army. But there were also a lot of people who refused the draft and they were punished for it and moved to a maximum security location. We think it's a really important story to tell because one of the dominant narratives out there is of Japanese complacency and that they just went along with confinement. But there were people who objected and were punished quite severely."

The third film in the series will be shot locally and focus on resettlement in Chicago. "Outside of the West Coast," Park said, "Chicago is the single largest site of Japanese-American resettlement. I think a lot of people in Chicago don't know that.

Here's how it happened: "A lot of Japanese-Americans were prohibited from going back to the West Coast -- many of them couldn't go back to their homes even if they wanted to because they had been sold under duress or taken from them. So there was no home to go back to and people were put on the spot and told they could leave if they could prove they had employment in some place like Chicago or New York. If not, they could keep waiting in the camp indefinitely. So a lot of people got into the University of Chicago or got jobs in Chicago and were able to leave the camps after three-and-a-half years instead of after five.

"We've gotten to know quite a few Japanese-Americans who resettled here, including all four grandparents of Jason Matsumoto, who is my co-producer and director of the whole project." Matsumoto has done extensive interviews with those who lived these experiences firsthand.

The project is funded by the National Park Service, which recently awarded nine grants of more than $1.3 million to projects that help preserve and interpret World II Japanese-American Confinement sites.

Park says they still have a ways to go on the films. The first order of business is getting the scripts written. "Admittedly we're filmmakers, we're not scholars of this history. So we're working with the Heart Mountain Foundation. Heart Mountain (in Wyoming) was one of the places where the draft resistance built some steam. We're working with them to home in and figure out what specific story we want to tell."

Filming is expected to begin in 2019.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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