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5th gen. Japanese American uses AI to record oral histories of internment (Pt. 3)

  • March 14, 2022
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

LOS ANGELES (Mainichi) — During the Pacific War, Japanese Americans were considered “enemy aliens,” and some 125,000 of them were sent to internment camps. Feb. 19, 2022, marked 80 years since then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans. As racism toward Asian residents in the U.S. surges in the coronavirus pandemic, how are Japanese Americans trying to pass down the scars of the human rights violations they suffered at the hands of the U.S. government?


Let’s say you’re at the Japanese American National Museum, and you’re looking at a man — Lawson Iichiro Sakai — on a black screen. If you ask him something like, “What camp did you and your family go to?” then Sakai, a former member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment made almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers during World War II, will respond that because his family moved to Colorado, outside the area subject to forcible internment, they were not sent to one.


The thing is, Sakai died in 2020 aged 96.


This “conversation” is an exhibit that began at the museum in Los Angeles, California, in November 2021 to help people learn about Japanese Americans’ World War II experiences. While Sakai was still alive, 27 cameras were used to capture footage of him answering at least 1,000 questions, and the footage was processed with artificial intelligence (AI) to create the finished product.


Cole Kawana, a 23-year-old, 5th-generation Japanese American and Los Angeles native, is behind the project. He is engaged in efforts to leave behind oral histories of Japanese Americans and their experiences of internment and other events throughout history in new forms. “There’s something very empathetic and powerful about talking to a person face to face … when you’re standing face to face and talking with someone and they said this is what happened to me, it’s very difficult to deny. And that’s the power of what this AI is. We’re capturing a conversation one-on-one with someone that was there when it happened,” he says.


Kawana’s maternal and paternal grandparents and great grandparents were all forced into internment camps. Kawana says his grandparents rarely spoke about their experiences in the camps. But because his maternal grandmother volunteered at the Japanese American National Museum, even as a small child he would often drop by, and he grew up learning about the forced internment of Japanese Americans.


He became interested in recording oral histories. Aged 12, he recorded a video of an interview he did of his great uncle about his experience of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. He edited the footage and burned it onto a DVD which was archived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


What pushed Kawana to engage in the work he does now was the shock he felt in his high school history class. Internment of Japanese Americans was covered in just a few lines of his history textbook, and the teacher’s explanation lasted just 15 minutes or so. It was a surprise that an event with such a great impact on the Japanese American community, including Kawana’s family, was barely taught at a high school in Los Angeles — a city with many people of Japanese descent.


Kawana enrolled in the University of Southern California (USC), where he gained experience interning at the university’s Shoah Foundation. Established with a large donation from the film director Steven Spielberg, the foundation is known for recording footage of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides to pass them on to future generations. There, Kawana learned how to make oral histories with AI. In 2019, he founded nonprofit organization Japanese American Stories.


For the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, Kawana plans to interview and make AI oral histories of other Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps. But not only is raising funds for the project difficult, the coronavirus pandemic has made it hard to interview elderly people who have the experiences. Their age also means they are becoming fewer by the day. Kawana says it’s a race against time.


In 1988, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans and signed an act granting reparations to Japanese Americans forced into internment camps. But Kawana says most Americans do not know about the forced internment of Japanese Americans. That’s where his project comes in. Years down the line, when survivors of internment have all passed away, Kawana says, “no one will be able to talk to them.” Therefore, his project aims to “capture the first-hand experiences of these … so that anyone, anywhere … in the future, can have a conversation with someone that lived it. It’s all about just remembering. I like to call it a snapshot of human memory. Basically, we’re using technology to take a photo of what the person would say to any question at any time in that moment.”


This is Part 3 of a three-part series.


(Japanese original by Hojin Fukunaga, Los Angeles Bureau)

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