Home History Discover Nikkei Documentarian Greg Chaney: Honoring Juneau’s Japanese Community Unjustly Incarcerated during World...

Documentarian Greg Chaney: Honoring Juneau’s Japanese Community Unjustly Incarcerated during World War II, Part 1

Young Japanese families on an outing to Salmon Creek in Juneau, Alaska, 1926.

“There were no Japanese Americans left in Juneau at that time. It was a moment when this community came together in an act of quiet disobedience for the injustice of the internment.”

—Juneau resident Mary Lou Spartz

It was 1942. The valedictorian for the Juneau High School graduating class was affable John Tanaka, whose ext racur r icular activities included yearbook editorial board, honor society, science club, math club, photography club and quill and scroll.

Unfortunately for John, Executive Order 9066—which authorized the forced removal of US citizens like him away from their homes and businesses on the west coast—meant that he would miss graduation.

The moment to which Mary Lou referred was preluded by the Juneau School Board’s courageous decision to hold a special graduation ceremony for John a month earlier, and resulted in the defiant decision of the graduating seniors to include an empty chair in the graduation ceremony to underscore the absence of their valedictorian. Greg Chaney has wonderfully assembled firsthand accounts of both protests in his documentary film, The Empty Chair, and I strongly encourage readers to view the film to hear details about John’s graduation that are not included here.

Due to the film’s title, the “moment” and this article’s title (borrowed from the Empty Chair Memorial’s inscription), readers may be quick to conclude that educating viewers about the act of quiet disobedience during the 1942 graduation ce remony i s the c r u x of G reg’s documentary. I urge readers, though, to not make that snap judgment just yet.

Yes, on one level, it is undeniable that the events sur rounding John’s senior class graduation are at the heart of this film. And, without making light of the tremendous loss that American families suffered at Pearl Harbor, yes, this film covers the unnecessarily tragic incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, complete with clips of foolish government propaganda (set against a backdrop of upbeat instrumentals) narrating the arrival of Japanese Americans in camps: “Naturally the newcomers looked about with some curiosity. They were in a new area, on land that was raw, untamed but full of opportunity.”

While those are all worthy reasons for readers to seek out this documentary, to understand the deeper meaning behind the film as the filmmaker intended is to realize why I love this documentary.

To me, the r e i s a n impor t ant distinction between these two levels of understanding.

As previously stated, on one level, this film is absolutely about the Japanese American experience during WWII. No way around it. And I am confident that viewers will learn a lot: from the forced removal and the severely-deficient camp life to the post-war struggles of families trying to reestablish their roots.

Not surprisingly, sharing the specific Japanese American experience of John Tanaka as well as the general Japanese Amer ican exper ience of displaced families during WWII was dear to the filmmaker:

“I found the story of the empty chair to be compelling from the first time I heard it. I decided on the spot that I would make a documentary about the event. This was a unique piece of history that needed to be recorded from those people who were still available to tell it. Once I began to uncover this dynamic period of history in Alaska, and the Japanese American internment story in general, I felt compelled to complete the project to honor those who lived through it.”

Beyond the heartbreaking Japanese American experience that Greg captures so well, however, viewers will find an underlying universal message that is at once beautiful and timeless. Aristotle philosophized about the very notion back in his day, and it is just as true and necessary in ours: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Although, these days, this maxim is most likely to be applied to successful sports teams or businesses, I would suggest that we need to think bigger, much bigger. I sincerely believe that this principle has the power to transform society (communities).

Using the Japanese Amer ican incarceration as a case study, that is exactly what the filmmaker set out to accomplish.

When dissecting this second level of understanding, it is important to realize that the filmmaker’s intention was to transcend any one ethnic group and focus on the community at large. He even commented that his focus was to portray an American story—not just a Japanese American story—one of “egregious government overreach and…a little town that did what it could to blunt the injustice of the situation.”

At this time, I would like to revisit Mary Lou’s quote at the beginning of this article because it reveals something remarkable, considering the country was at war. She describes a community coming together and quietly defying the Japanese American incarceration even though no Japanese Americans lived in Juneau at the time of the May 1942 high school graduation! That has to be a first, or at the very least, extremely rare.

Furthermore, while the documentary details what happened to the Japanese Americans in the years after Pearl Harbor, it can just as easily be described as a powerful film not about Japanese Americans at all but rather the Caucasian Juneau community.

Too often, Caucasians are left on the periphery when recounting the Japanese American incarceration. This film adeptly deals both with Caucasians involved with the forced removal of Japanese Americans as well as those who were spectators.

Regarding the former, the filmmaker expounded, “One stereotype that I did want to dent, if not shatter, was the impact on the people who were ordered to incarcerate the Japanese Americans. In the case of Juneau, these people were lifelong friends and neighbors. Often… in movies or books, the people who show up to arrest the Japanese Americans are portrayed as callous, indifferent military or law enforcement men. In Juneau, being ordered to arrest friends and neighbors left deep scars on those who were forced to carry out the orders.” To that end, the filmmaker interviewed family members of, and individuals who knew, Alaska’s commanding military off icer Skip MacKinnon whose son was good friends with John Tanaka and who was obligated to do just that, and regretted it for the rest of his life.

Regarding the latter (spectators), this is where the real beauty of the film lies.

John Tanaka’s sister, Alice, stated that Juneau was a “community in the fullest sense of the word.” Take for example, the Tanaka family. Realizing that Juneau was a mining town, John Tanaka’s father opened his restaurant near the mine so workers could stop at his café on the way to work to pick up their lunches. His father’s loyalty to the community even compelled him to keep his café open on Christmases because he reasoned that his customers would have nowhere to go to eat their holiday meals if he closed.

Before providing further details that support Alice’s statement, I want to draw attention to a word in the third paragraph of this article. I deliberately used the word “resulted” instead of “culminated” because I believe Aristotle’s maxim (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) applies here. Accordingly, I contend that there was not one event that represented the culmination of the Juneau community’s quiet disobedience, but rather a series of acts.

The filmmaker articulates how the maxim applies to his film thusly:

“A reoccurring theme in The Empty Chair documentar y is that several small acts of kindness could add up to something profound. The community of Juneau was powerless to stop the war and they couldn’t stop the internment orders but they were able to display several small acts of quiet defiance that let the Japanese American members of their community know that they hadn’t been forgotten. The moral of the story is that even though you can’t stop an injustice, even a small gesture of solidarity can make a difference to those who have been singled out. And a series of small gestures…can add up to make a profound difference. Don’t be afraid to stand up for someone who is being denied their rights, even if you can’t singlehandedly reverse the injustice, your small act could begin to turn the tide.”

To add to the filmmaker’s remarks and to provide further support to Alice’s statement, there was no shortage of small acts of kindness among the Caucasian Juneau community toward the Japanese Americans. Again, take for example the Tanaka family. During the forced removal, the community held an unprecedented special graduation ceremony for John and, a month later, the graduating seniors set up an empty chair on stage during the actual ceremony. During the Minidoka incarceration, longtime Juneau friends sent care packages; and those in certain professions did what they could, such as Juneau attorney Mike Monagle who worked tirelessly to obtain affidavits to help request releases of Juneau Issei who were imprisoned so they could be transferred to live with their families in the Minidoka concentration camp.

When the Japanese Amer icans returned, though, is when the Juneau community shined even more, if that is possible. In all my years of studying the Japanese American experience during WWII, I have never heard of a community that was so active in helping Japanese families reestablish themselves after the war. I will briefly touch on some of the highlights, but everybody really needs to view the film so they can hear it from those who lived it.

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Please join us on Saturday, April 2 at 2 p.m., as the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles hosts a screening of the documentary, The Empty Chair, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Greg Chaney and John Tanaka’s sisters, Alice and Mary. According to The Empty Chair Project website, Empty Chair Committee members will be attending as well. Go to the JANM website to RSVP for the screening.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of the article originally published in Discover Nikkei at www.discovernikkei.org managed by the Japanese American National Museum. The second part will be published next week. The writer is a JANM/Discover Nikkei volunteer and a project analyst at a regional engineering firm.