Guest post by Katelyn Wo.
The documentary And Then They Came for Us recounts the testimonies of some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in prison camps during World War II after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, ordering all Americans who held at least 1/16 Japanese heritage to leave everything they knew behind. The film features Japanese American actor George Takei and numerous others who were sent to prison camps across the US having “never committed a crime except (having) the face of the enemy.” The power of Satsuki Ina’s comment, a former child detainee and guest speaker in the upcoming virtual screening and Q&A hosted by IU Cinema on February 18th at 7 pm, holds throughout the film as viewers are subjected to the intense racism towards Japanese Americans as the country experiences “Yellow Peril,” or the perceived threat of Asians to Western civilization, like never before.
Furthermore, the experience intensifies as we are first introduced to the astonishing images of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, who captured the despair of Japanese American families as they were forced to leave everything they knew behind and relocate to prison camps all across the country.
Lange’s photographs of Japanese Americans both before their incarceration and while at the incarceration camps give us an invaluable look into the desperation and suffering of hundreds of Japanese American families as their lives were changed forever. Furthermore, Lange, who was hired by the government to prove that there was in fact “nothing wrong” with the incarceration, served an extremely ulterior motive. She wanted to capture the reality of not only the pain of Japanese Americans at the time, but also their sense of resilience despite the extreme challenges faced. However, many of the photographs were immediately buried away by the US government, along with the true narrative of the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans. Her photographs, along with those by Ansel Adams and Toyo Miyatake, serve as some of the only remaining documents of the painful reality of Japanese imprisonment, and the way in which this film weaves the images into the testimonies of those who experienced the camps firsthand is truly chilling.
In addition, the film expertly captures this vicious cycle of hatred in the United States as we see the similarity to the targeting of Muslim Americans after the attacks of 9/11. We see history repeating itself as mosques begin to be targeted, Muslim Americans become required to register themselves, and Muslim bans come into effect. And Then They Came for Us shows us how Japanese American populations were one of the first communities to stand in solidarity with the Muslim American populations that were hurting, showing just how universal this experience has unfortunately become.
Especially as an Asian American, this emotional film truly causes me to grapple with the pain and hurt that was caused to hundreds of thousands of Japanese American families across the United States, a narrative that was never properly taught to me in school. I think it also serves as a grave reminder of how close to home these racist sentiments were to our community. From 1942 to 1945, the time directly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 12 Japanese American students were denied admission to Indiana University. Countless trustees and members of the IU board held anti-Asian sentiments during this time, similar to this one from trustee Ora Wildermuth, who stated: “As I see it, there is a difference in Japanese and Germans or Italians — they are Aryans and can be assimilated but the Japanese can’t — they are different racially. I can’t believe that any Japanese, no matter where he was born, is anything but a Japanese.”
Fortunately, there has been some work done to acknowledge this portion of Indiana University’s past. Along with a dedication ceremony to the Japanese American students who were turned away, a commemorative plaque, new scholarship, and a course dedicated to the Japanese Imprisonment that will be taught by Professor Karen Inouye, there is numerous planned programming on campus with the intention of spreading awareness of the incarceration of Japanese Americans. In particular, the Asian American Studies Program and the Asian Culture Center will host a virtual webinar on Wednesday, Feb. 16, from 1:15-2:30 pm. This event will feature Professor Greg Robinson from the University of Quebec in Montreal, the author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans and A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, as part of the 80th anniversary of the Japanese American incarceration.
I believe that experiences like this one and the screening of And Then They Came for Us give us a lot of insight into portions of our history that are often overlooked and can hopefully contribute to the overall healing and understanding of Japanese American imprisonment in the US. The documentary does an extremely good job showcasing the experiences of unprecedented hatred and fear that Japanese Americans endured during that time and serves as a reminder that “Yellow Peril” is not an antiquated term. Especially after the Muslim ban and the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an extreme increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and hate crimes in the United States. This film helps to remind us of the importance of advocating for minority groups that are suffering in our communities and the responsibility each of us has to create change.
And Then They Came for Us will be shown in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room on February 18. Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg and one of the film’s subjects, Satsuki Ina, will be present for a virtual conversation and interactive Q&A.
Katelyn Wo is a freshman from Louisville, KY, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Public Health and Global Health. She currently works at the Asian Culture Center at IUB as a student assistant and serves as a freshmen representative for the Asian American Association on campus. She also works as a research assistant at the NICE lab in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences with interests in healthcare equity, social identities, and stereotype threat with a goal to attend medical school in the future.