Interview with A Bitter Legacy’s Claudia Katayanagi

A Bitter Legacy filmmaker Claudia Katayanagi. Photo credit: Claudia Katayanagi

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to the United States inland. This order resulted in the relocation of over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into incarceration camps.

In recognition of this 75th anniversary, the California Film Institute was honored to premiere Bay Area Filmmaker Claudia Katayanagi’s debut film A Bitter Legacy to a packed house as part of the CFI Education Community Screening series. The response was so overwhelming that we invited her back to the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center for a Member Screening on March 27th.

A Bitter Legacy documents the incarceration of Japanese American citizens during World War II, with a focus on the lesser-known secret prisons for Japanese dissidents and ‘troublemakers’ termed “Citizen Isolation Camps” now considered to be precursors to the contentious US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

We are so grateful to be able to provide the Marin community with an opportunity to learn more about this difficult, but vastly important chapter of American history.

Interview with Claudia Katayanagi:

CFI: What inspired you to make A Bitter Legacy?

CK: I got the chance to visit Japan for my film work, which gave me such a huge appreciation for my Japanese cultural heritage that I was inspired to explore my own Japanese American heritage when I returned to the US.

I had known about the imprisonment of people of Japanese heritage during World War II, and that family on both my mother and father’s sides had been incarcerated in the camps, but when I asked, none of my family wanted to talk about it on a deeper level.

I am a fourth generation Japanese American, or Nikkei Yonsei. Both sides of my family were very wealthy before the war. They had worked very hard and had flourishing businesses. During the war, the government seized the money in their bank accounts, and their businesses were closed or stolen. The majority of the Japanese Americans lost everything in the war.

My mother was a teenager during the time. She didn’t want to talk about what it was like to lose these part of their lives. This, I came to understand, was part of “social amnesia” as described in the film by Dr. Tetsuden Kashima, a survivor of the Japanese American incarceration camps and professor emeritus at the University of Washington.

My mother refused to be filmed about this until my son Matthew, her grandson, and a filmmaker himself, wanted to interview her. Only when Matthew said, “Come on, Grandma, let me film you,” did she acquiesce. Finding a record of my family during this time was difficult. I had to do extensive research at the National Archives, the Bancroft Library and other research facilities to find photos for the film.

Another important inspiration for the film happened when I went to visit the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. There was an exhibit in which they had moved and reassembled an actual barrack from Heart Mountain Incarceration Center in Wyoming. Upon seeing that, it brought to life the stories my mom told us about the thin walls, the sand coming in through the cracks in the walls and how dreary it was. It made it such a visceral experience to be inside of a barrack, which furthered my determination to tell this story.

CFI: What was the most interesting thing you learned during the process of making this film?

CK: To discover the existence of these almost secret Citizen Isolation Centers, with the purpose of isolating the dissidents from the rest of the American concentration camp populations.The government didn’t want to acknowledge the existence of these unlawful camps, which are seen now as a precursor to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.  Even among the Nikkei (person of Japanese heritage) people today, little is known.

Two kinds of people were put into these Citizen Isolation Centers — people who were labeled  “incorrigible troublemakers,” or “Kibei,” which is Japanese for a person who is born in America but who is sent to Japan for part of their education and came back to America. The Kibei were viewed as a more potential threat because of their perceived loyalty to Japan.

There was also a Citizen Isolation Center for the collaborators or informers who helped the US government. They were sent to the Cow Creek Citizen Isolation Center in Death Valley, CA (for their protection) — it was slightly nicer, they were treated more humanely in that the inmates were eating with the guards and were released early from this center.  When they came back to California, these people were shunned for their collaboration.

When the Citizen Isolation Centers were closed for being unlawful, these 83 men were not released back into the general population, but were sent to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California, where some men endured horrific treatment including being tortured and beaten with bats.

CFI: What was it like to premiere your film at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center?

CK: It was incredibly exciting and rewarding to see the crowds of people who came out to see the CFI Education’s Community Screening of A Bitter Legacy on January 30th, which is also Fred T. Korematsu Day, honoring the Japanese American civil rights leader who challenged the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, the decree that forced the incarceration of people of Japanese descent.

The response in the Q & A was so heart-rending, the people had great questions, showed they were really listening, understood the parallels to what is going on today with the current administration and the executive orders being issued almost weekly. Even Japanese Americans who were in the camps learned more about this history.

It was a wonderful experience and I am grateful to have been able to participate and even come back for a second screening of the film on March 27th for the membership.

CFI: How has your film been received by audiences?

CK: Pretty enthusiastically, especially in the present time when current events are bringing the specter of this idea back into the foreground.

Before this political time, I won a prize for best documentary at the LA Femme International Film Festival in Beverly Hills and the Women’s Independent Film Festival in Santa Monica, CA, and was an official selection the Portland Film Festival, and others.

Previous to my first screening at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, my film did not get accepted at any Asian American Film Festivals.  The day after my film screened there, I got invited to screen my film at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific Film Festival on April 30th.  I look forward to showing my film to wider audiences in the future.

CFI: How can we learn from this historical example in your film to make sure we don’t repeat mistakes in the future?

CK: I think the lessons to be learned are how important it is to speak up, to question authority, to resist prejudice and to realize we are one big family.  This is what makes America great. This country is founded as a nation of immigrants. For people to denigrate that notion – we all need to stand up to make sure we remain an open, diverse and culturally rich society.

Having the Women’s March on the 22nd of January and seeing how five million people around the world came and demonstrated, helped make people realize the strength they have in numbers. This will have a very big impact on the negative forces at work today.

CFI: Will audiences have another chance to see this film in the future?

CK: I haven’t gotten a distributor yet, but I am hoping I can get a wider broadcast version. I just applied for a grant to help pay to make a shortened version that can play in schools etc.

The Japanese American National Museum in LA is going to have a screening on November 18. For more information about upcoming screenings, please check my website or find me on Facebook.