Film created by professor, students tells story of Japanese Americans after WWII

Hikari Sugisaki ’17 and Paul Sullivan ’17 interview Jim Kirihara for ‘Beyond the Barbed Wire.’ The documentary film project, led by Associate Professor of Chinese Ka Wong, tells the stories of Japanese Americans who came to Minnesota after the Pacific War.

Beyond the Barbed Wire: Japanese Americans in Minnesota, a documentary film created by St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Chinese Ka Wong and several student researchers, explores an emotional and challenging chapter in perhaps one of the darkest moments of 20th-century American history.

The film, which Wong worked on for nearly two years with the assistance of Hikari Sugisaki ‘17 and Paul Sullivan ’17, presents the unique experiences of Japanese Americans who came to Minnesota after the Pacific War. Approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps after Pearl Harbor, and some of them relocated to and restarted their lives in Minnesota in part because of education opportunities at schools that included St. Olaf.

“The purpose of this film is to preserve this part of history as well as present these individual stories to inform and educate the newer generation, who might not have much knowledge about it,” Wong says. “The film will be distributed through educational channels, and perhaps several Asian American film related programs.”

The next showing of Beyond the Barbed Wire will be at the Northfield Public Library on Saturday, January 20, at 1 p.m. in the Bunday Meeting Room.

“The story of the interment and its aftermath is not just about the struggles and sufferings of the Japanese Americans but also the courage and comradeship of others who stepped up, spoke for, and helped them during such difficult times,” says Associate Professor of Chinese Ka Wong.

The project began as a Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) summer project in 2015 and gradually developed into a documentary film with the generous support of funding from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), Digital Humanities on the Hill (DHH), as well as the Interdisciplinary and General Studies and the Asian Studies departments at St Olaf.

Wong was inspired by Yoshiteru Murakami ’51, a second-generation Japanese American (Nisei) from the internment camp who attended St. Olaf and later served in the military.

“His story made me want to explore this unknown part of Minnesotan history and, of course, in the context of the larger yet seldom discussed WWII experiences of Japanese Americans,” Wong says.

Both Sugisaki and Sullivan wanted to further explore the history behind the internment camps and the stories that came after.

“I thought this was a good subject to research because the attitude in the United States today toward some minorities, especially Muslim Americans, is unfortunately reminiscent of how the Japanese American community was viewed pre-internment,” Sullivan says.

Initially the film was not meant to be a documentary, but after hearing the stories of their interviewees the group was moved to help their voices be heard.

“Generally they were happy to share their experiences,” Sullivan says. “I think most of them were open to being interviewed, despite their stories being full of hardship, in hopes that through sharing nobody else would have to go through what they went through.”

The group hopes the documentary will bring awareness to a series of events that is both often forgotten and, unfortunately, incredibly relevant today.

“There are rich and untold stories about Asian Americans everywhere, even in an unsuspected place like Northfield or St. Olaf, that we should not overlook,” Wong says.

“The story of the interment and its aftermath is not just about the struggles and sufferings of the Japanese Americans but also the courage and comradeship of others who stepped up, spoke for, and helped them during such difficult times,” he adds. “The fight against injustice is never simply about, or can it ever be reduced to, just race/color. Under the current political climate, both on campus and nationwide, it’s crucial to give more thought and time to discussing the past, so we can better prepare for present challenges, and hopefully work toward a better future.”