Emiko and Chizu Omori on lessons from WWII Incarceration

Emiko Omori, the filmmaker behind "Rabbit in the Moon."
Emiko and Chizu Omori on lessons from the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans and its relevancy today. Emiko Omori is one of CAAM's Spotlight honorees at #CAAMFest35.

In 1942, sisters Emiko and Chizu Omori were sent with their family from Southern California to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. Emiko was one and a half. Chizu was 12.

Decades later, Chizu became involved in the redress movement to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese Americans for their forced relocation and incarceration during World War II. By this time, Emiko had become a respected cinematographer. She had started her career at KQED as one of the first camerawomen to work in news documentaries. The sisters felt there should be a film about the Japanese American incarceration during WWII.

“And we said, well, who better to tell the story than us? We were there,” Emiko recalls.

The resulting feature length documentary, Rabbit in the Moon, was directed and narrated by Emiko and co-produced with Chizu. The Omoris explore their childhood experiences in the internment camps and the divisions that split generations and the Japanese American community along political lines. The film played at the 1999 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and won the Best Documentary Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival the same year, as well as an Emmy.

This year, CAAM honors Emiko for her long career in filmmaking, which includes Curtis Choy’s The Fall of the I-Hotel, Barbara Sonneborn’s Regret to Inform, Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, and Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World. Rabbit in the Moon as well as Emiko’s new wordless short film, When Rabbit Left the Moon, screen at this year’s festival. These films are part of special programming in this year’s CAAMFest that mark the 75th anniversary of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. The Fall of the I-Hotel, for which Emiko was a cinematographer, screens at the Manilatown Heritage Foundation at this year’s CAAMFest.

This year also marks the 35th anniversary of CAAMFest, formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Emiko premiered her short film, Tattoo City, at the inaugural festival in 1982.

I talked to Emiko, 76, and Chizu, a writer, 86, over the phone.

—Melissa Hung

Emiko, how does it feel to have the CAAMFest spotlight on you?
Of course I’m completely honored to be invited to this exclusive club of illustrious, luminary media people like Wayne Wang, Joan Chen, Arthur Dong and Loni Ding. And I’ve been thinking of the irony of this year, because NAATA at the time and now CAAM, was a big supporter of our movie Rabbit in the Moon, and we probably couldn’t have finished it without their infusion of funds. [It’s] about our family and our community experience in the concentration camps during World War II, and talks about “What is an American?” and “What is loyalty?” These are some of the big questions we posed. … And so it just seems kind of ironic — here it is back in the news big time now. And it’s because of the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. I think prior to this time, we vaguely knew about executive orders and presidents signing them when leading office. We didn’t pay that close attention to the meaning of them. Now with this administration and executive orders, people are quite aware of what they mean and the consequences of signing something — which sounds like you sign a piece of paper somewhere and that’s that — but it has real consequences. And then obviously the other connection is this whole thing of rounding up people and possibly putting them in camps. Like, here we are — again. It’s a good time to be bringing [the film] back and reminding people of what can happen. And you know it’s at this point we don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of scary.

Do they think something like the camps could happen again?
Chizu: Yes. They keep referring to Executive Order 9066 as a kind of an aberration or mistake or something. However…

Emiko: It set a precedent.

Chizu: That’s what I mean. It set a precedent that is still on the books more or less. There’s a lot of legality to all of this. I mean, you say, “Oh, it can’t happen here again.” It easily could — and very quickly.

Emiko: And in some ways it already is. There’s already Mexican immigrants that are being held in prison-like situations awaiting their immigration hearings. They’re in camps or prisons.

Chizu: Yeah, like in Texas. I have a friend who has actually gone down to visit one of these detention centers. And she’s also a survivor of camps and so she said it was eerily parallel to our situation. It’s happening in various ways already. Could it happen again? It’s happening already.

Still from “Rabbit in the Moon.”

Drawing on your own experience of advocating for redress and knowing what your family went through, what lessons do you think can be applied now?
Chizu: I think American Japanese — we’re forming informal organizations that can, as a group, show up at rallies and what not. And just by embodying what actually did happen in 1942 — we are living proof of the dangers of executive overreach — and so we would like to be the witnesses to anything of a similar nature that could be put into place right now.

A lot of us went to the Women’s March a couple weekends ago and interestingly, some people — some American Japanese — did have placards saying “Never again.” One of them said “Jailed by a president.” This big sign was picked up by a lot of news media. We saw that and said, “Ah, we should have put signs like that too.”

Emiko: I think we are trying to be vocal and out there because we didn’t have that much support in our position when we were taken to camp. So we want to be sure we show up to show solidarity with these groups. And that photo that went viral, it was an elderly woman in her 90s in a wheelchair. She had this sign and yes, there’s something about living proof. “I was there.” … It wasn’t history and a long time ago. We’re still here and we went through it.

And of course times have changed now with social media. We can suddenly gather up a group and say, “We’re going to do this.” And a lot of the movers and shakers in our group, we’re all survivors and we’re determined we’re not going to let this be forgotten. We are kind of the end of the survivors. Once our group is gone, there won’t be any eyewitnesses.

The film is showing at CAAMFest this year. What was it like to show your film the first time at festival?
Emiko: It is thrilling and gratifying to finally see something you’ve been working on — ’cause we worked on it for eight or nine years—to see it on a big screen in a beautiful theater and have people respond, and respond positively. … Just to know that you have communicated something to people and started a dialogue. We had people … come up and particularly younger American Japanese saying, “We never talked about it. But when my parents saw Rabbit, we talked about it.” So that was so gratifying to know it was helping the community to heal.

Chizu: It lifted the silence surrounding it in the community. [Camp] really scarred the community so that people found it very hard to talk about it. … They would say, “Well, we don’t want to burden our children with these sad memories and all that.” … I think people felt very helpless, that they weren’t able to do anything about it.

Can you talk about the new short film you made, which uses some of the footage from Rabbit in the Moon?
Emiko: The metaphor about the rabbit in the moon in the movie Rabbit in the Moon is the fact that in Japan, that’s what we see in the moon. We see a rabbit. And here in the West, we see a man in the moon. That’s my way of saying, why can’t I see both of those things? And yet in the camps because of the loyalty questionnaire, they want you to forget that part of you and embrace the western side of you. And so this little [film], which is called When Rabbit Left the Moon, is my way of saying that the camps did in a way give up our Japanese side. … Because before the camps, there was a lot of community. The American Japanese community was going strong despite all the restrictions and laws and everything. They were doing a successful immigrant community here. And then the camps said, “You got to forget that side if you want to make it here.”

Chizu: I think that the question that was raised is one of identity, like if you’re going to be so severely victimized and punished for your ancestry, then it’s got to set up confusion about who one is.

Emiko: And you do begin to not like yourself because you can’t shift that other whatever they’ve asked you to be. It’s really weird because in my mind — because I’m looking out from my mind — I’m American. But then you realize people looking at you make a lot of other assumptions.

It’s the perpetual foreigner problem.
Chizu: Japan has become a world power and obviously China. It’s practically overtaking over the United States so that in a lot of ways, we can’t escape the relationships that the United States has with Asia in general. … I can see where if there’s great hostility between the U.S. and China, which is possible, it will reflect on all Asian Americans, because they can’t tell us apart.

Where do you see Asian American media in 10 years and what advice do you have for emerging storytellers? 
Emiko: Let me put it this way — I started making films and working in media back in the late ’60s so certainly the landscape has changed tremendously since then. There’s a lot more American Asians. There’s a lot more young people — because technology changes and they can afford small cameras and that kind of thing — it’s pretty wide open. … Like this year, there were a lot of wonderful things being recognized — documentaries and feature films being made by African Americans. I don’t know if that was just a coincidence from the last year’s Academy Awards fiasco. And it takes a while to develop this. It takes a generation or two. And so I have high hopes that we’ll be producing wonderful storytellers.

My sister and I were talking about how right now times are so uncertain. Where are we going to be in 10 years or four years? But you just have to keep on doing what you’re doing. I have high hopes that in 10 years, we’re going to have a bunch of American Asian names in those areas of the Academy, in documentaries and feature films. We still don’t have a big presence in all that.

Chizu: You know, when credits roll on whatever it is — TV show, movie, whatever — usually if I‘m with film people like my sister and a lot of our friends, they watch the credits. When I see an Asian name, they jump out at me. I can see that in a lot of the background jobs, there’s a lot of Asian Americans working in various capacities, so that’s a good sign. But to hit the big time, to become a major movie star or a first rank director, well, we’re getting a few people in there. That’s the next leap. Like Cary Fukunaga — I think his work is just terrific.

And I feel that we don’t want to be stuck in our niche positions, that if you want to be a filmmaker — who’s that guy? Justin Lin? — he’s kind of a breakout. He’s in mainstream movie making now too. People should be free to not have to be bound by their ethnic identity. That seems to be taking place.


The interview is made possible by Comcast and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Melissa Hung is a writer and independent journalist in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @fluffysharp.

Rabbit in the Moon

Peel back the long-silent veneer covering the internment of Japanese Americans and witness an intimately complex and tense history in RABBIT IN THE MOON. Emiko Omori’s award-winning film explores her own childhood experiences within the camps and the political tensions between generations living there.
Expected Guest in Attendance: Emiko Omori (Director/Writer/Producer)
Gray Area
March 12, 2017 2:00 pm 
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When Rabbit Left the Moon

Omori pays homage to the generation of her parents.
Expected Guest in Attendance: Emiko Omori (Director/Writer/Producer)
Co-presented by: Fred T. Korematsu Institute, Human Rights Campaign, Nichi Bei Foundation
Precedes: Relocation, Arkansas — Aftermath of Incarceration
New People Cinema
March 18, 2017 7:00 pm
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The Fall of the I-Hotel

Forcible evictions devastated a manong community after the International Hotel was demolished in 1981, marking the destruction of the last block of San Francisco’s Manilatown. Narrated by late poet Al Robles, THE FALL OF THE I-HOTEL tells the story of 50 old-timers displaced by 300 cops in the dead of night and the overall impacts of urban renewal.
Expected Guests in Attendance: Curtis Choy (Director/Writer/Producer), Emiko Omori (Cinematographer)
Co-presented by: Manilatown Heritage Foundation

Gray Area
March 12, 2017 7:20 pm
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