Lawson Sakai at StoryFile filming in 2019. He volunteered for the Army and served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He received four Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, and the French Legion of Honor. (Courtesy of Cole Kawana)

A powerful new exhibition, “The Interactive StoryFile of Lawson Iichiro Sakai,” is now open at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).

The exhibit uses groundbreaking storytelling technology to give visitors a realistic experience of engaging with World War II veteran Lawson Iichiro Sakai.

The exhibition was sponsored by the nonprofit Japanese American Stories in conjunction with JANM using StoryFile Inc. technology. The new exhibition was featured Nov. 28 in a special hour-long prime-time edition of “CBS Sunday Morning,” “Forever Young: Searching for the Fountain of Youth.”

“Using StoryFile’s artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, visitors at JANM are now able to have a conversation with Lawson: ask him about his life experiences, passions, family, or even his favorite foods,” said Cole Kawana of the nonprofit Japanese American Stories. “Now, generations to come can continue to talk with Lawson and learn from his legacy.”

Kawana conceived the project and raised funds, while working with JANM and StoryFile to conduct Sakai’s extensive interviews captured with specialized filming. Sakai, a decorated member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history, and the founder of the Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans (FFNV), passed away in 2020 at age 96.

Lawson Sakai

More than 1,000 questions were asked of Sakai over five days of filming. Capturing Sakai’s oral history preserves a remarkable life – he received four Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star, having participated in all major campaigns of the 442nd, including the liberation of Bruyeres, France; rescue of the “Lost Battalion” in France; and breaking of the Gothic Line in Italy.

The interviews were filmed using StoryFile’s “capture technology” with 27 different cameras, positioned around Sakai for a 360-degree view. This special filming technique will allow the video to be projected as a holographic exhibit in the future. Currently, the Sakai JANM exhibition is presented on a lifesize screen.

StoryFile’s AI-powered conversational video technology gives visitors the ability to engage with someone that is not actually present. It allows a visitor to ask Sakai a question, observe him as he considers the question, come up with the answer, and reveal his emotions as he tells his story.

Kawana, 23, is founder and president of Japanese American Stories, a nonprofit he created in 2019 to produce oral histories of the Japanese American World War II experience. His interest in this field started as a youngster, and continued as he watched his parents, Yuji and Ellen Kawana, support JANM. His grandparents, Richard Murakami and Masako Koga Murakami, are dedicated longtime volunteers.

Kawana later volunteered and learned more about oral history at the USC Shoah Foundation. He realized that many others don’t have the chance for one-on-one interactions with important elderly Japanese Americans and their history. Kawana holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from USC.

StoryFile has previously created projects with survivors of 9/11, astronauts, the last living witnesses of the Tulsa Massacre and William Shatner. The Los Angeles-based startup recently launched StoryFile Life, a new at-home platform that empowers anyone to use AI-powered conversation video.

Lawson Sakai with Cole Kawana at StoryFile filming. Sakai’s service with the 442nd included the liberation of Bruyeres, France; the rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” in France; and the breaking of the Gothic Line in Italy. (Courtesy of Cole Kawana)

Heather Smith, StoryFile CEO and co-founder, said her company was proud to partner with JANM and Japanese American Stories to preserve Sakai’s legacy. “Lawson Sakai’s StoryFile ensures his story continues and interacts with future generations. It is very moving to see people talking to his StoryFile and learning about his experiences in these real-time face-to-face conversations,” Smith said. “Yet Sakai’s story is only one of many, and we look forward to creating many more StoryFiles together with Cole and Japanese American Stories and the Japanese American National Museum.”

Joanne Sakai, one of Lawson Sakai’s daughters, came from the Bay Area to attend a preview of the exhibit at JANM along with other family members. “Although Dad was very active speaking about his World War II experience after he retired, he was more like a typical Nisei when we were kids and didn’t want to talk about the war, which was traumatic for him,” she told The Rafu Shimpo.

“Family members had a short window to preview the installation before the reception and asked a variety of questions — of course, the smallest fraction of the thousand or so questions asked during the filming. It was like a sci-fi experience to be able to ask questions a year and a half after Dad’s death and hear his image answer with stories that we had not heard before. Quite remarkable.

“The entire team put so much into it — Cole, who had the vision and drive to  create the project, the StoryFile members with technical expertise and experience from similiar endeavors at the Holocaust Museum, JANM staff who mounted the exhibit and did extensive research to fact-check Dad’s answers, and others.

“It’s hard to express my feelings about the exhibit. I’m just happy that Dad will have an ongoing part in the mission to illustrate a part of the JA experience during World War II. The family is honored.”

Ask Lawson Sakai anything you like, but if you don’t know where to start, try asking:

Where do you live?

What do you remember about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

What was life like after Pearl Harbor?

Were your parents scared after the attack on Pearl Harbor?

What camp did you and your family go to?

What was it like living in Colorado?

When did you enlist or were you drafted?

What was it like to lose fellow soldiers?

When you were young did you feel American?

Tell me about the smells of war.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

JANM is located at First Street and Central Avenue in Little Tokyo. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entry at 4 p.m. Closed Mondays.

JANM will be closing at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 24, and closed on Dec. 25 for Christmas. It will also be closing at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 31, and closed on Jan. 1 in observance of New Year’s Day.

Walk-ups are available but ticket reservations are encouraged. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required for visitors 12 and older. Free admission for museum members. Thursdays are free for everyone.

For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

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  1. この記事を大変興味深く読みました。この記事の中で紹介されている コール・カワナは私の友人の孫であり、友人は記事の名で書かれている リチャード村上と妻のマサコです。
    またロサンゼルスを訪ねて時には、是非、この新しい展示をみたいと 思っております。

  2. この記事を大変興味深く読みました。この記事の中で紹介されている コール・カワナは私の友人の孫であり、友人は記事の名で書かれている リチャード村上、妻のマサコ村上です。ヤンムは、学びの下で、おとなしい。またロサンゼルスを訪ねて時には、是非、この新しい展示をみたいと 思っております。

  3. この記事を大変興味深く読みました。この記事の中で紹介されている
    コール・カワナは私の友人の孫であり、友人は記事の名で書かれている
    リチャード村上、妻のマサコ村上です。
    私はJANMを見学したことがあり、創立時のメンバーでもありました。
    またロサンゼルスを訪ねて時には、是非、この新しい展示をみたいと
    思っております。