Friday, February 5, 2010

Giving It All Back

Warning: this is really long.

Last night was our opening reception for A Thousand Cranes. I would be doing myself a huge disservice if I didn't document everything I remember about this night. I will add pictures as they show up on Facebook and the web.

So just to refresh your memory, here's the description of this event from the news release:
"Along with the production, BYU’s Department of Visual Arts will host an exhibition featuring 123,000 origami cranes, which represent all those who were in detained in the U.S. internment camps. It will also include artwork by Chiura Obata and other artists who lived in Utah’s TOPAZ Camp. The exhibition will run through Feb. 15 in the Harris Fine Arts Center’s B. F. Larsen Gallery.
There will be a pre-performance reception Thursday, Feb. 4, at 5:30 p.m. featuring special guests, speakers and musicians, including BYU political science professor Byron Daynes, who teaches a course on the TOPAZ Internment Camp; Jane Beckwith, board member of the TOPAZ Museum in Delta; Michelle Reed, co-pilot of the 123,000 crane project; Ty Imamura, a descendent of Sadako’s family, who also had an uncle in the TOPAZ Internment Camp; and musicians Hatsumi Bryant and Kimiko Osterloh, who will play the Koto, a traditional Japanese instrument. The public is welcome to attend."
Here's an article by the Deseret News about the evening.

I walked into the Harris Fine Arts Center right at 5:30, ate some costco sushi and grapes served by the BYU Japanese club and spoke to a few of the people attending. We had Topaz board members and direct descendents of Topaz internees, most notably, Mine Okubo, one of the featured artsits in our lobby display. I had just a few moments to take in the presence of the people in the gallery and the koto players before I had to rush downstairs and change into costume. After the cast was in costume, we snuck into the back of the theater to listen to a couple of the speeches before we had to go back behind the stage.

Although we had already performed this show for audiences several times, the nerves for this night were beyond any opening night I've ever experienced. The energy we felt in that room before going back to warm up was tangible. The people that were going to watch us had an investment in this story that put all kinds of pressure on us as a cast. As one of our cast members said our group prayer before we went out to perform, she had to pause for a couple seconds and then said something about letting all of those who were affected by the bomb and those who were interned to feel some sort of release tonight. Behind two walls, there were descendants of those people, but after that prayer, we could feel the presence of those who had actually lived through these tragedies.

As I stood on the wings of the stage, after feeling the presence of those souls who had passed on, my nerves began to get the best of me. My focus shifted more to the technical and logistical issues of the production. I was running through all of the problem spots in my head over and over again. My only concern now was to make this show perfect.

A few minutes into the show, I realized that my performance began to feel the same as it always had. I wanted to feel different. I wanted there to be a certain energy about this special night. I wanted this performance to be the one that people were lucky to see. All of these thoughts were going through my head as I was performing. However, just as we hit the halfway mark, I let all of it go. I realized that the production itself didn't need to be any different that night, it was already accomplishing its objective. Our performance is constant, it is our audience that changes. The show felt different this night because of our audience's openness and reception, not because of some minor cue that ran more smoothly. I was at ease for the rest of the performance.

After the performance, Julia Ashworth (our director) conducted a question and answer panel with Ai Yasufuku (the cultural consultant for our production), Byron Daynes (BYU political science professor), Jane Beckwith (Topaz museum board member), Shinsuke Tsuchiya (president of the BYU Japan Club), Michelle Reed (co-founder of the "120,313 Cranes for Peace" project) Hatsumi Bryant (one of the koto players for the reception, originally from Hiroshima), and Ty Imamura (descendant of the real Sadako Sasaki and also of Topaz internees). The discussion was rousing; probably the highlight of my night.

Jane discussed how artists like Chiura Obata and Mine Okubo found beauty whilst they were interned and how that kept them alive. She also commented on our production's ties to Topaz. Although our production tells a story very separate from Topaz, it is the beauty of both that mellows the two injustices. We learn to move on but also to never forget.

16 year old Michelle Reed spoke with eloquence and power about why she felt moved to take on this huge accomplishment. It started as a competition. After Michelle and her friend (Carly Gutzman) didn't make it to nationals with their documentary about Japanese internment, they decided to begin collecting cranes in order to raise awareness about Japanese internment. She said that the sheer magnitude of the cranes themselves can hopefully make people understand just how many people were affected by that order from President Roosevelt. The number of people who are completely unaware of this event in history is astonishing. The fact that these two young girls felt the drive and motivation to complete this project really took me back. I was already impressed, but after hearing Michelle speak about it, I felt even more of a responsibility to be aware.

One question (or comment, rather) from the audience reminded me that not everyone is going to accept what we are trying to accomplish with this production. He said that he felt like we were forgetting about the American soldiers who didn't return home from "fighting a war they didn't start" and also that he did not feel ok with this production touring to elementary schools, teaching his children to "forget that the Americans died fighting a war they didn't start." To say the very least, I was furious. It was a mircale I didn't walk up to that man right then to give him a piece of my mind. Hatsumi Bryant, who had already been sniffling since the show ended, had to put her hands over her face to mask the tears that began flowing from her eyes. Ai , Shinsuke, and Professor Daynes gave answers to questions immediately following that perfectly responded to this man's insensitive comment.

Shinsuke said that when he visited the memorials of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he could feel the presence of the victims. He never mentioned anything about hostility, he said it was sacred and peaceful. Peace is the theme for both our production and our elementary school workshops.

Ai said that she has lived half of her life in Japan, half in the United States. She said that in order to provide the cast information, she actually learned a lot more about her culture. She said there are certainly differences, but also similarities. She also said that the biggest and most important aspect of this production is a similarity: peace is universal. Regardless of race, religion, or culture, peace is a universal principle. She said she realized midway through her work that that was the most important thing that was to come from this production.

Professor Daynes said that the Japanese internment, no matter how harsh the circumstances, was completely unjust and unconstitutional. To send people to desolate camps, away from their homes, away from their work, and away from their assets was wrong and bringing awareness to that is something that still needs to take place.

The dicussion ended with Julia asking Hatsumi and Ty, neither of whom had said a word up to this point, to share a favorite story of their's regarding Hiroshima. Hatsumi really had to collect herself to speak, she had been crying throughout the entire panel. She said her aunt was 12 years old when the bomb fell. Her family lived several kilometers outside of the blast radius, but her aunt's school was right in the middle of it. Her aunt had a feeling that she shouldn't go to school that day. She told her parents that she had a stomach ache and wanted to stay home. Her parents wanted her to stay home, but during the war, when children went to "school" they would labor for the war efforts. Her parents feared the reprimand they would face if she were to stay home from school. She didn't want to contribute to the war. She didn't ask for it. When she was on the train, it happened. Hatsumi said that now, whenever someone is sick in her family, they fold a thousand cranes.

When Hatsumi told this story, everything about my involvment in this project finally hit me. I hadn't shed a tear since the beginning of it, but now I couldn't control myself. Everything seemed to be crossing my mind at once. WWII has been a passion of mine since I was 12, I had read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes when I was 10, I am a Japanese-American. Was it really coincidence that BYU chose to produce this play this year? Was our connection to Topaz a coincidence? The stories that my grandparents told me about their lives during the war were all flashing through my mind. My family in Japan has been going through an extremely difficult year. I haven't been to Japan since I was 14. I've been praying that I could do something for them or that money for a plane ticket would magically appear in my lap. It was at this moment that I realized that this production was my responisbility for my family and the answer to my prayers. My grandma told me that when Americans would try to talk to her about the war she would say "I am not the emperor, nor am I the government. I never wanted to live through a war." Although I cannot help them with their current problems, I can help to accomplish my grandmother's wish for peace by bringing this production's message of peace to elementary schools and educating them about it. Art changes the world. As an artist, this is my responsibility. This is how I am giving back to my family and to the world.


  1. I think this was my favorite post-yet. I could really feel your passion about the subject. I would've been so offended if that man asked that question, and I was there. I probably would've slashed his tires. haha just kidding. Beautiful post. Peace :)

  2. WOW!! Thanks for sharing this! I look forward to more. You ARE giving back!

  3. Thanks for documenting this experience & for sharing it with us. It sounds like you had a very amazing & memorable night. Very touching post, I'm certain all of your relatives & ancestors who have gone before would be proud of your involvement in this project.

  4. While I didn't get a chance to see the play when I was in Utah, I was able to see the exhibit. It was amazing to see! Thanks, Jon, for bringing awareness to the project through your blog!

  5. This post is wonderful! I wish I was half as dedicated/talented at documenting this experience as you. I mean - I haven't written about that night and feel awful. But you inspire me!

    J-LOW! We love you!!!