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

Cole Kawana, right, and Lawson Iichiro Sakai pose for a photo in front of a green screen where they filmed Sakai answering questions in August 2019. (Photo courtesy of Cole Kawana)

LOS ANGELES, Mainichi — During the Pacific War, Japanese Americans were considered “enemy aliens” and some 125,000 were sent to internment camps. February 19, 2022, marked 80 years since U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans. As racism towards Asian residents in the United States increases amid the coronavirus pandemic, how are Japanese Americans trying to pass on the scars of human rights abuses they suffered at the hands of the government? American?

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, “Which camp did you go to with your family?” then Sakai, a former member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment made up almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent during World War II, will answer that because his family moved to Colorado, outside the area subject to forced internment, they were not sent there.

The thing is, Sakai passed away in 2020 at the age of 96.

This “conversation” is an exhibit that opened at the museum in Los Angeles, California in November 2021 to help people learn more about the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. 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, 23, a 5th-generation Japanese-American and Los Angeles native, is behind the project. It is engaged in efforts to leave behind the 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 someone face-to-face… when you’re face-to-face and you’re talking to someone and they say that’s what makes me “happened, it’s very hard to deny. And that’s the power of what this AI is. We’re capturing a one-on-one conversation with someone who was there when it happened,” he said.

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

He became interested in recording oral histories. The 12-year-old videotaped an interview he did with his great-uncle about his experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He edited the footage and burned it onto a DVD which was archived at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

What made Kawana commit to the work he does now was the shock he felt in his high school history class. The internment of Japanese Americans was only covered by a few lines in his history textbook, and the professor’s explanation lasted only about 15 minutes. It was a surprise that an event with such a big impact on the Japanese-American community, including Kawana’s family, was barely taught in a high school in Los Angeles, a city with many people of Japanese descent. .

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

For the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, Kawana plans to interview and do AI oral histories of other Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps. But not only is fundraising for the project difficult, the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to interview older people who have experiences. Their age also means that they are becoming less numerous day by 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 legislation granting reparations to Japanese Americans forced into internment camps. But Kawana says most Americans are unaware of the forced internment of Japanese Americans. That’s where his project comes in. Years later, when the internment survivors are all dead, Kawana says, “no one will be able to talk to them.” Therefore, her project aims to “capture the first-hand experiences of these…so that anyone, anywhere…in the future can have a conversation with someone who has it.” lived. It’s just about remembering. I like to call it’s a snapshot of human memory. Basically, we use technology to take a picture of what the person would say to any question at any time at this moment.

This is part 3 of a three part series.

(Japanese original by Hojin Fukunaga, Los Angeles Office)

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