A Heart as Big as a Mountain

I met Keiko Wright at the Japanese American National Museum this summer at a screening of her touching and powerful film Hiro.

Heart Mountain, photo by crew of Hiro.

Heart Mountain, photo by crew of Hiro.

The documentary starring Keiko’s grandfather Hiroshi “Hiro” Hoshizaki, follows him to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where he was imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II.

Hiro and Keiko during filming, 2010.

Hiro and Keiko during filming, 2010.

A new visitor center and museum opened two years ago at Heart Mountain to interpret the events of the Japanese American relocation camps (see my post on Manzanar). Like Manzanar, Heart Mountain falsely imprisoned more than 10,000 Japanese Americans under the auspices of Executive Order 9066, which ordered that all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast be removed forcibly by the U.S. military to prison camps far from home.

Issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland. In the next 6 months, over 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. From the National Archives

Issued by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, this order authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers further inland. In the next 6 months, over 100,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry were moved to assembly centers. They were then evacuated to and confined in isolated, fenced, and guarded relocation centers, known as internment camps. From the National Archives

Hiro as a historical record of what it was like to live through such injustice is important, but what stayed with me most was that Keiko achieved something miraculous in the collective endeavor to preserve our memories of World War II – she convinced her grandfather to talk about it. My own grandfather Frank, who during World War II served in the Navy in the South Pacific, was as stoic as Keiko’s grandfather Hiro.

Yet Keiko prevailed in coaxing Hiro to share his memories, and as a result, has made a film that demonstrates that two very different generations can see eye-to-eye, just long enough to remember the difficult past.

I asked Keiko how she persuaded her grandfather to speak so openly. She said that at first it was difficult, but eventually, once he realized that she was not only directing the film, but fundraising for it too, and that a lot of people were counting on her to complete it, he readily complied with her artistic direction. The result is a study in stark beauty, whether it is her grandfather’s face etched by the lines of time and his own powerful resilience or the semi-arid landscape near Cody, Wyoming.

Please support this terrific new voice in the history of our nation. Keiko is selling copies of her film Hiro here.

To hear more stories about Heart Mountain, have a listen to this wonderful Wyoming Public Radio program.

If you find yourself in Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Japanese American National Museum, where volunteers dismantled a portion of a barracks from Heart Mountain and transported it to Los Angeles, where it is now on permanent exhibit on the second floor.

Heart Mountain barrack at the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by the author, July 2013.

Heart Mountain barrack at the Japanese American National Museum. Photo by the author, July 2013.

I am certain that Keiko’s grandfather was mighty proud last year when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected Keiko’s film to receive the Gold Medal in its collegiate documentary category. Cuba Gooding, Jr. handed her the award. This woman is Oscar-worthy in more ways than one.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. presents the award to Keiko

Cuba Gooding, Jr. presents the award to Keiko

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