By SHARON YAMATO
The message of this year’s Minidoka Pilgrimage, “Who Are Our Ancestors?,” was captured beautifully in the opening address by poet Brandon Shimoda, who answered this question with brilliant words from everyone from his six-year-old daughter (“A dead person you love”) to filmmaker Rea Tajiri (“Benevolent ghosts”).
Perhaps because I am not as young as Brandon and others who are contemplating how they got here, and old enough to worry about how I will leave this Earth, his speech prompted me to think about our descendants — who and what will be left on this Earth after I die.
Morbid yet unsurprising as it is, the older I get, the more concerned I am with death, especially as I see more people die around me. I’m struck with how fickle death is, and that we have absolutely no control over it. We are living at a time when babies are shot and killed, and a 93-year-old man climbs Yosemite’s Half Dome. It doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially when it happens to people close to you.
Since March and as recent as last week, three women in our own Japanese American community died who should not have: community leader Cathy Tanaka, poet Amy Uyematsu, and writer Martha Nakagawa. All three had so much more to offer to ease the chaos in our world.
Perhaps religion and spirituality can help salve the pain of such untimely losses, but I, for one, do not have any such strong walls to lean on nor words to say to explain why them?
In searching for consolation, I turn to young people who are said to be our (apologies for the use of a worn-out cliché) “hope for the future.” Because I have no children of my own, the phrase seems a little implausible as I remember a sentiment expressed by my Nisei hero Michi Nishiura Weglyn, who chose not to have children because she didn’t want them to endure the trauma that she and her Holocaust survivor husband Walter bore.
I can’t help wondering how she would feel today in the face of continuing racist bigotry, insane political division, hopeless homelessness, horrific immigrant detention, deadening climate change, and so much more that makes it seem like living in our 21st-century America has never been worse. One must only see the movie “Oppenheimer” to realize that our life on Earth is as fragile as the touch of a button.
And yet it was people like childless Michi who did so much to change our future. She was one of the first to change the way we look at the WWII incarceration by pointing the finger not at ourselves but at the government who imprisoned us. It was Michi who was never afraid to speak out against injustice, not in whispers but in screams, and it was Michi who was still fighting while on her deathbed.
While looking around at the young(er) people who came to the Minidoka Pilgrimage, I was heartened by what I saw and heard. People like archaeologist Koji Lau-Ozawa, who is working tirelessly to uncover and tell his family’s Gila River story; NPS’ Kurt Ikeda, who breathes life into the camp story with his poetry and vibrant personality; Portland’s Japanese American Museum of Oregon’s new executive director, Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, who is taking her years of expertise to the Pacific Northwest; and so many others whose youthful drive makes me proud to be JA.
As usual, Minidoka Pilgrimage’s Planning Committee is devoted to engaging young people in its planning. Dozens of college-aged students in fluorescent vests vigilantly assist pilgrims in planning, directions to buses and food lines, and much more, to make this pilgrimage unlike any other. Best of all, they are the “hope for the future” who, one by one, are committed to making sure that our history is not forgotten.
As our dear Little Tokyo poet laureate Amy Uyematsu would say,
Let us bridge the generations and remind all who will listen
that it only takes one woman sitting on a bus to inspire hundreds
one farmworker, one union activist, one parent
to build a movement based on the power of the people.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.