Japanese Americans get the spotlight in Japanese American National Museum conference in Denver

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Japanese American National Museum‘s national conference was held in Denver. Sorting through the many bits of video I took over the conference, which ran July 3-6, my favorite parts were the tribute to JA veterans on the Fourth of July, and the July 6 bus tour to Amache, the internment camp in southeast Colorado.

The conference brought a bevy of famous and not-so famous speakers and panelists (I moderated a panel on Hapas, mixed-race Americans who are the future of the JA community) to Denver’s nice new Hyatt right by the nice new Convention Center. The famous included the likes of actor George Takei, a superstar in the JA pantheon; Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawai’i), a Medal of Honor World War II veteran of the all-JA 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team; Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who as a baby was interned at Amache with his family; former Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta; JA leaders and activists such as John Tateishi and Dale Minami; authors including mystery novelist Naomi Hirahara; Cynthia Kadohata, who writes books for pre-teens; and Uma Krishnaswami, who writes multicultural children’s books from a South Asian perspective.

The conference, which had the awkward and ungainly title but righteous theme of “Whose America? Who’s American?,” also brought more than 800 attendees and volunteers for the four-day span, meeting and greeting and learning about the history, present and future of not only Japanese Americans but also of Americans in general. One of the noteworthy speakers was Anan Ameri, the director of the Arab American National Museum, who spoke at a Plenary Session alongside JA scholars about internment, civil rights and the question of American identity posed in the conference title.

The veterans’ tribute was moving because it brought together almost 30 men (and a woman, a widow of a veteran) who were mostly elderly survivors of World War II, and had fought either in Europe with the celebrated 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, or in the Pacific with the lesser-known (they were sworn to secrecy by the U.S. government) Military Intelligence Service.

The tribute itself, in the Hyatt’s Grand Ballroom as the kickoff of the Welcome Ceremony and a panel about JA veterans, was a bit of a let-down because it wasn’t well-organized or smoothly run. But before the vets assembled outside the room to await their entrance, they met and mingled with each other in a private room, and it was a sight to see. Many of them knew each other, but some hadn’t seen each other in years.

But the camaraderie was plain to see, and at times, hilarious. When George “Joe” Sakato, a Medal of Honor recipient who lives in Denver, entered the room, another Denver veteran, Dr. Sueo Ito, looked up from his seat where he’d just been gabbing it up with Harry Honda, a longtime JA journalist and editor whom many in the room were familiar with. “Oh?” Dr. Ito feigned surprise. “You-sa mada ikiteru?” It translates to “You’re still alive?”

Sakato immediately retorted, “Well, I thought you died two years ago!” and added he was sure he’d attended Dr. Ito’s funeral service. The room broke out into laughter, and it was a warm reflection of these men’s shared experience as unassuming and too-long unheralded heroes. Sakato was joined on a panel that followed the tribute by another Medal of Honor recipient, Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, and Edward Ichiyama, the 442nd vet who led the effort to upgrade many of his fellow soldiers’ medals to the Medal of Honor during the Clinton administration, half a century after they’d fought for their country.

The conference featured big moments and small ones like the veterans getting together in the waiting room, and the veterans’ panel that followed, which was attended by a full house in the ballroom.

Among the small moments was the chance to meet and learn from high school students from New Mexico, who had learned about internment (and the Justice department Prison Camps that are less-known where Japanese community leaders like priests and martial arts instructors were held during WWII, including one in New Mexico) in school and came to Denver to share their projects and knowledge. Another was George Takei in his wonderfully rich baritone and proper enunciation, moderating a panel about how language and racism intersect.

Some of the other big moments included a Saturday luncheon with keynote speaker Adam Schrager, the Denver TV reporter whose book, Ralph Carr, vividly brings to life the legacy of the Colorado governor who lost his political career because he defended Japanese Americans and spoke out against internment during World War II. There was also a banquet dinner spotlighting Sen. Inouye, one of the most powerful men in Congress, and a Medal of Honor veteran himself who lost his arm fighting with the 442nd.

There were countless cool panels,and you can see the range of events here and the list of panelists and speakers here. In fact, if I hadn’t been moderating my panel about Hapas, I would have wandered in and out of three or four other panels held at the same time. I also enjoyed the panel about how children’s books can pass along cultural legacy, which turned into a discussion of book publishing in general. The authors signed books afterward.

The other big deal for us at the conference was the attendees’ trip to Amache.

Aside from volunteering during the event — Erin helped as a workshop room monitor and we both helped get media coverage — Erin and I were volunteer hosts for one of the four buses that made the pilgrimage to Amache. Seven buses had gone down to the camp — a three-hour road trip to the small town of Granada, east of the slightly larger small town of Lamar, almost to the Kansas border — on July 3.

We’ve been there before, but there has been more work done since our last trip, preserving the land where the camp stood,. In fact, the University of Denver has been conducting an archeological dig this summer, having students unearth the remnants and artifacts of the day-to-day lives of the internees from the 1940s. At one time, Amache, with its 7,000 prisoners, was the 10th largest city in Colorado. So there are lots of fragments still in the dry dusty dirt.

Plus, the bus trips stopped in the town of Granada where the students and faculty of Granada High School fed the attendees and gave a presentation of the student group, the “Amache Preservation Society,” which is led by a very dedicated history teacher, John Hopper.

The weather was miserably hot on Sunday, but the ride was pleasant. We had riders speak about why they had come to the conference, and had a woman who is involved in preserving the japantowns of California, and another who is very passionate and knowledgeable about the plight of Japanese Latin Americans (many were imprisoned in Texas during WWII and left afterwards with no citizenship). Congressman Mike Honda, a funny and likable man who spent his babyhood at Amache and later grew up with dreams of the camp, spoke about his life and why he had become a politician after being a teacher (shown in the video clip at the top). He hadn’t visited Amache in 28 years, so it was an emotional trip for him.

Visiting the camp made for a long and draining day, but somehow it felt right to wrap up the JANM conference with a pilgrimage to the one place in Colorado that still stands as a testament to the injustice suffered by Japanese Americans just two generations ago.

The attendees certainly won’t ever forget the the trip to Amache — and the conference.

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