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Emotions at War in WWII Tale of Internment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emiko Omori, a native Californian, was only 1 1/2 years old when she, her parents and two older sisters were shipped to the Poston internment camp in Arizona. It was one of 10 such sites in remote, harsh areas of the United States, either too hot or too cold, where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated after Pearl Harbor. And she was not quite 5 years old when the family returned to Oceanside in Southern California.

Now, what longtime documentary filmmaker Omori recalls from those critical World War II years are “vague memories of heat, dust and red ants that stung quite painfully; hot naps on cots and eating shredded wheat” in the camp preschool. With much else Omori wanted to tell, these memory fragments did not wind up in “Rabbit in the Moon.” Her 90-minute political and intimate familial treatment of the internment period took honors for best cinematography in a documentary at Sundance this year and is airing on PBS tonight. Omori, 58, is executive producer, director, writer and narrator.

What does emerge is intensely more personal. It started to sink in, Omori says from her San Francisco office, after she and her sister Chizuko, 69, a co-producer and key figure in the film, began making the documentary seven years ago: “Why I didn’t have children. I used to think it was not having a stable relationship or money. But since my child-bearing years are over, another possibility came to light. . . Could I conceal from my child how I wished he or she were more white so as not to suffer the rejection I had, just because of my face?”

At first, Omori did not intend to tell the family story. She says she didn’t think it was dramatic enough. It proved otherwise. A year out of the camps, their mother, who was 34, died very suddenly of bleeding ulcers. As Chizuko relates on camera: With her death “the door on the whole camp chapter in our lives was closed, and we didn’t open it again for years.”

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Presented by public television’s “P.O.V.” documentary series, now in its 12th season, and a co-presentation of the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn., the documentary is indeed television with a point of view. Unlike other internment films, “Rabbit in the Moon"--a cultural metaphor for what ethnic Japanese see when they look at the moon, a rabbit pounding sweet rice--focuses on the resistance and protest movement within the camps. It also shows how internment split families, creating divisions between the generations--Japanese-born Issei and the second-generation Nisei, born in the U.S.

Omori’s film points out that the Nisei were more than the famed 442nd Division that fought heroically in Italy. There were those who resisted administration of a loyalty-oath questionnaire, and those who resisted the draft because their rights had been taken away while their Issei parents could not even become citizens. As she maintains, the protesters were also loyal to America and the Constitution.

“I want to remind people that nothing is set in stone, that you have to be vigilant,” says Omori. “Even the Constitution can be subject to abuse.

“I want to bring a better understanding of what came down. A lot of people--Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans--don’t know what happened at [the camp in] Tule Lake, Calif., which became a segregation center for those perceived as disloyal, and the kind of grief around the questionnaire. It’s what my sister and I learned, and we wanted to share that.

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“Resistance in the camps is not widely talked about nor the conflicts within our community,” she adds. “We did not all go quietly. We did not wimp out.”

That the film has been scheduled for just after the Fourth of July weekend has special resonance for Omori. Says Lisa Heller, executive producer of “P.O.V”: “Amid images of fireworks and picnics, Emiko’s story offers a very different story of citizenship and [raises] complicated questions about loyalty and patriotism. It’s a painful legacy of what can happen when freedom is restricted or denied.”

With both sisters active over the decades in a variety of civil rights and anti-war movements, the idea for doing the film emerged after President Reagan signed a law in August 1988 providing $1.25 billion in reparations to internees and their beneficiaries, and offered them the nation’s formal apology.

Meanwhile, Omori was driven by the need to interview internees who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s before it’s too late. James Omura, English-language editor of the Rocky Shimpo newspaper in Colorado, who was jailed for supporting draft resistance, died three months after his interview in 1994. And Ernest Besig, executive director of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, who provided legal assistance in opposition to the evacuation order and is also on the documentary, passed away in November.

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Now Omori hopes that “Rabbit in the Moon” will serve as a means of reconciliation. In attendance at a recent showing of the documentary at the Smithsonian Institution were some veterans of the 442nd. “Several of them came up and shook my hand.”

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“Rabbit in the Moon” airs at 10 tonight on KCET-TV.


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