Never again: Nevada City filmmaker produces series on incarceration of Japanese during WWII
Tax-deductible donations for the completion of “We the People...” can be made payable to the California Museum/We the People and mailed to Lester Ouchida, 6443, Driftwood St., Sacramento, CA 95831.
The incarceration of Japanese American families during World War II is a deeply disturbing wound that lingers in the psyche of many Americans of the west.
But Catherine Busch, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was 40 years old when she first learned that an estimated 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry — most of whom lived near the Pacific coast — were forced into relocation camps in 1942 in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I laughed when I first heard about it — because I didn’t believe it,” said Busch. “Then I was horrified when I realized that many people back east didn’t even know about this important chapter in our history. It wasn’t taught in our schools then.”
That moment of realization was decades ago, but it was a turning point for Busch, who vowed to someday increase awareness about the shocking, racially-motivated incarceration of innocent American citizens. With ignorance of the past, she thought, comes the risk of repeating dangerous missteps in the future.
Today, Busch is a Nevada City award-winning filmmaker, who has produced, directed, written and edited productions for more than 25 years. Her work includes independent documentary films, environmental programming, educational video programs, medical videos, vocational video programs, projects for nonprofit corporations and more.
Most recently, however, Busch has had the chance to tell the story she wanted to tell so many years ago. Thanks to a grant from the California State Library’s Civil Liberties Public Education Program, she was awarded a $15,000 grant to produce “We the People …,” a seven-part educational documentary series about the Japanese incarceration and its relevance today.
While four of the 15- to 22-minute programs are now available on the California Museum website, more funds are needed to complete the final three, which are designed for use in classrooms and other educational settings. A labor of love, Busch has already put in many hours working pro bono, which is unsustainable. A committee of individuals in support of the project have raised an additional several thousand dollars, but she is now looking for organizations, schools and individual donors to help cover the $30,000 needed to complete the historically important project.
Part 1, “Uprooted,” documents the shocking upheaval of families who were forced to evacuate the West Coast, leaving their jobs, schools and businesses, regardless of citizenship. Due to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, these families were scattered among 10 guarded “internment” camps located in Idaho, inland California, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas.
Part 2, “Incarceration Camps” tells the story of life inside the camps, including powerful first-hand accounts of abhorrent and cramped conditions, such as the Santa Anita Racetrack, where more than 8,500 Japanese Americans lived in converted horse stalls.
Part 3, “Go For Broke,” is the motto of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an Army unit made up of Japanese Americans from the mainland U.S. and Hawaii. As Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) and American-born sons of Japanese immigrants, these soldiers were said to be fighting two wars — the war against the Germans in Europe and the war against racial prejudice at home.
Part 4, “The Return Home,” chronicles the anxiety, fear and uncertainty faced by Japanese-American families who feared they would be treated as enemies once they left the camps. Many faced economic devastation due to losing their businesses or farms. An estimated 85 percent of families originally from the Sacramento region did not return to their homes.
The remaining three programs, which are still in production and awaiting additional funding and donations, are:
Part 5, “People Who Helped,” tells the stories of individuals, organizations and congregations that helped the incarcerated, including neighbors who operated businesses until the owners were released, Quakers who helped Japanese-American college students finish their education and a couple who relocated 1,000 people out of the camps.
Part 6, “Racism and Redress,” is based on the report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a federal commission established in 1980 to review facts surrounding Executive Order 9066 and its impact on American citizens. Its conclusions, submitted in 1983, were deemed, “Personal Justice Denied,” a unanimous report that became the basis for the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted wartime survivors a public apology, individual reparations of $20,000 and a public education fund.
Part 7, the final chapter, is probably the segment dearest to Busch’s heart, as it examines a topic which she says has key relevance in today’s searing political climate. “Could This Happen Again?” encourages national dialogue on this unmistakably dark chapter in U.S. history and asks authors, lawmakers, academics and everyday citizens whether we have truly learned from a profound and blatant misinterpretation and/or disregard of the U.S. Constitution.
“Figuratively speaking, the Constitution is in a drawer somewhere and it needs to be out on the kitchen table,” said Busch. “The nugget in the document is the first part — ‘We the People,’ which sometimes seems to have gotten lost. We need to remember that the Constitution is a living document that changes with the times, utilizes the heart and holds the people as most important.”
Busch has taken on this massive project solo, including operating the camera, conducting interviews, accessing archival footage and photos, researching, editing and selecting music. But it’s all been worth it, she said, especially given the current fear-driven, divisive political landscape that hasn’t reared its head so powerfully since World War II. She’s determined to see the project through its completion and will not stop seeking grants and donations until the final cut.
“This project is an important way to talk about something that was horribly wrong,” said Busch. “The seven part series is designed as a catalyst for discussion and dialogue regarding civil rights — then and now. If people are aware of how and why it happened, perhaps it could never happen again.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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