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Film Recounting Japanese Americans who fled imprisonment through banishment

What would be your reaction if this had happened to you?

You’re told by the U.S. Government to pack what you can carry in a suitcase and get on a train with your wife and children and your grandparents. You’re under arrest because of your ancestry and you’re going to be imprisoned in a guarded barbed wire-enclosed jail somewhere in the desert of Arizona.

They’re doing this to you because you and your family are (they say) a threat to national security.

Or, they give you an option.

You can avoid imprisonment if you abandon your job, give up your house and property and the life you have known, and flee to Kansas where you’ve never lived and currently have no job.

Because in Kansas, they say you’re not a threat to them anymore.

If this hadn’t been such a tragedy, it would almost be comic.

Apart from their malice and racism, the perpetrators of this obscenity, the U.S. Government, were apparently so stupid they couldn’t even see the absurdity of their own actions.

“What was eye-opening about it was how much of a land-grab (Japanese American farms and property) it was by the U.S. Government,” Antonia Glenn said.

Another word for it Glenn agreed would be outright “theft.”

Glenn is the producer of the newly released documentary film, Before They Take Us Away. The film recounts the Japanese Americans who chose banishment from their homes in California during World War II and fled into the interior of the country leaving behind property, possessions and their jobs.

The film, produced by Glenn’s company Unwashed Masses Productions, premiered at the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival held virtually because of the COVID pandemic on April 1-10. The independent festival is held to tell the history and stories of Asian Americans. 

The film has become available to be broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations throughout the country in June.

In 1942 in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack setting off World War II, the U.S. Government decided to lock up 120,000 mostly American citizens of Japanese descent including children and the elderly accusing them of disloyalty. The prisoners were kept in more than a dozen concentration camps many in remote desert regions of the Southwest. Still more were confined in Dept. of Justice (DOJ) prisons scattered throughout the country.

“The project started when my mother (Evelyn Nakano Glenn) had the idea,” Glenn said.

“She is professor emeritus in gender and women’s studies and ethnic studies at the University of California Berkeley. When she was living in Massachusetts she had talked to a Japanese American neighbor, Mary Nagatomi, who had self-evacuated (fled California) during World War II. Nagatomi told my mother told about her experiences.

Some people have heard about the (concentration) camps and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (highly decorated World War II U.S. Army unit composed of former Japanese American camp prisoners),” Glen added. “But the story of those who fled into the center of the country was mostly unknown.”

To preserve the remembrances of those who chose banishment over prison, Nakano Glenn began to conduct filmed interviews 10 years ago. She recorded 30 interviews with survivors, some at her house or the homes of the self-evacuee survivors. A few interviews were held in Southern California.

Evelyn Nakano Glenn today lives in the Bay Area.

Antonia Glenn said her mother realized the interviews could make a memorable documentary film and came up with the idea, asking Antonia to produce it and serve as director. The project started two years ago.

“The original goal from the interviews had been to publish a book,” Glenn said.

The first step was to assemble a talented film production crew.

Antonia Glenn had already produced a documentary The Ito Sisters. Released in 2017, it is the story of a Japanese American family and three sisters who struggled through the anti-Japanese years of racism in California, the World War II prison camp period and the rebuilding of their lives after the war.

The Ito Sisters was screened at a number of film festivals and was broadcast on PBS stations around the country. The film won praise from film critics and the public.

“People were hungry to hear the stories,” Glenn said. “I had one person, a college student, tell me her grandmother was in a camp and never talked about it. She was ashamed. Now her grandmother had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t tell the story. The student told me she came to view the film to learn the story.”

Glenn said it is remarkable about how people with camp experiences are now opening up to tell what happened to them.

“There was so much hostility (during World War II),” Glenn said. “Japanese American boys on the school bus going to school were slapped and thrown around the bus and the driver did nothing about it. Girls had their clothing pulled off and asked their mothers for long dress coats to wear to school so they could protect themselves on the school bus. They were spit on.”

For Before They Take Us Away, Glenn brought in David Iwataki, a composer, keyboardist, and pianist. Iwataki is also a founding member of the band Hiroshima; that incorporates Japanese instruments in its music.

“David is amazing,” Glenn said. “He elevates story telling.”

Patrick Glenn, Antonia Glenn’s brother, also served as producer and did camera work. Tim Becherer served as a producer and film editor. Leah Nichols was motion designer producing graphics and maps for the project.

Glenn said a lot of research for the film was performed such as studying old records and documents. She said she was particularly stunned by how much the U.S. Government had simply stolen the property of the Japanese Americans it dispossessed.

“The Government created farmers leagues for white farmers to take over property that had been owned by Japanese Americans,” she said. “Over 6,000 farms were taken. The value of this land and the crops in California was $32 million (1942 dollars). This was land Japanese and Japanese Americans had been working for generations.”

One of those interviewed, Glenn Kameda, was a child when his father moved from the family home in San Carlos, giving up a flower-shipping business, to move to Colorado to avoid imprisonment. He took up residence in a shack with no water or electricity. Living in poverty, Kameda’s father was now forced to find work as a farm laborer. The family lived in primitive conditions in poverty.

Desperate, the father sent a letter to U.S. authorities asking them if he and his family could be relocated into a concentration camp.
“They (government) said no, you’re a national security threat,” Glenn said.

Glenn is of half Japanese ancestry.

Her father Gary though he was Anglo, became an advocate for Japanese Americans and served as president of the New England Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL). He helped his wife Evelyn Nagano Glenn to prepare the film production. He passed away in 2018 and the new documentary had been dedicated to him.

Glenn’s own family members on her mother’s side were imprisoned during World War II, her mother, grandmother, and grandfather, at the Gila River War Relocation Center (concentration camp) in Arizona.

“My grandfather (Mike) left the camp in 1944, found work in Chicago and moved there,” Glenn said. “But my grandmother was in the camp (Gila River) and contracted tuberculosis. My great grandmother was in a camp in Wyoming (Heart Mountain) and got a note that her daughter was sick in a camp in Arizona. She (great grandmother) was four-foot-nine inches tall. She got on a train in Wyoming and went to Arizona where she picked up my grandmother and her daughter, who was just a toddler, and brought them back to Heart Mountain.”

Glenn’s grandmother survived the TB and lived to be 98.

Glenn grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and attended Wellesley College where she majored in English and theatre studies (also attending classes in London). The holder of a PHD in theatre from the University of California San Diego, she moved to Southern California where she worked for theater companies, while co-founding a theatre company, the Troy Rep.

Today she lives in the Bay Area and works as an independent producer.

Glenn said a PBS station that broadcast the film on May 18 was Sacramento station KVIE. The film can be viewed at the station’s website at www.kvie.org. Glenn said she hopes other PBS stations such as KCET in Los Angeles and KQED in San Francisco will follow suit and show the film.

A website has also been set up by Glenn at www.beforetheytakeusaway.com.

 

EDITOR'S UPDATE: This film have been accepted for the Japan Film Festival Los Angeles this September.

 

*This article was originally published on the NikkeiWest in June 2022.

 

© 2022 John Sammon / NikkeiWest

Antonia Glenn Before They Take Us Away David Iwataki documentary Kansas self-evacuated World war II