PBS miniseries documents the lives of Japanese Americans

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As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month comes to an end, PBS will be broadcasting three episodes of “Japanese American Lives.” These intimate documentaries vividly capture the stories of several Japanese subjects harboring a unique interest. Whether it is judo, photography or jazz, these interests become a mode of expression and resistance against discrimination, war and natural disaster. The diverse narratives situate Japanese Americans within important historical events and recount the continuing resilience that cuts across cultures and generations.

In “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” director Yuriko Gamo Romer covers women’s judo pioneer Keiko Fukuda. Using rare interviews with Fukuda, who passed away in February of last year, the film is an essential tribute to a fiercely passionate judoka who shattered the female glass ceiling in judo and became an ambassador for judo in the United States.

The film delicately weaves in the essence of judo with Fukada’s philosophical teachings to her numerous pupils. Using footage of Fukada’s teachings in her Bay Area dojo, Romer shows how judo transcends a fighting technique and becomes a way of life. The episode captures the transnational scope of her achievements, pointing out the ways in which she has paved the way for future female judo fighters and continues to influence martial arts students in America.

The first half of the second episode, “Don’t Lose Your Soul,” features bassist Mark Izu and drummer Anthony Brown, who are some of the founders of the Asian American jazz movement in the Bay Area. The segment exhibits their performances, which utilize both standard jazz instruments and Japanese instruments such as the taiko drum, shamisen and sho. The combination of these instruments forms a unique hybrid of sounds — the free-flowing jazz melodies mixing with light rhythmic beats of the taiko — that represents the heterogeneity of Asian-American experiences.

The segment chronicles the inception of Asian-American jazz through the first San Francisco Asian-American jazz groups, which started in the ‘70s during the same time as and with similar ambitions to student protests and strikes. “We were all in this struggle together,” Brown explains in the episode. “I think that’s why they called this Asian-American jazz movement not just music or recognized as an art form but a cultural entity and force.”

The second half of the episode, “Honor and Sacrifice,” focuses on Roy Matsumoto, a World War II Japanese-language intelligence specialist for the United States. Even while Matsumoto’s family was being interned as a result of Executive Order 9066, he served an integral role in Merrill’s Marauders, a distinguished unit that fought behind Japanese lines. “The war became a test for all Japanese Americans,” the narrator states. “(It was) a proof of loyalty that was bought by their sacrifice.”

The third episode, “Stories from Tohoku” follows the more recent Japanese tsunami and Fukushima disaster within the microcosm of the Tohoku region. The documentary uses long takes of panoramic shots, accurately detailing the devastation and the after effects of the combined destruction from the earthquake, tsunami and radiation exposure in a northern Japanese region. Olympic gold-medalist figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi accompanies and interviews the families affected by the natural disasters. Despite the bleak images of environmental damage, the segment offers glimpses of hope through the support American universities volunteered to help rebuild the destroyed towns.

The series uses the Japanese word “gaman,” which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity,” to epitomize the collective spirit of these individuals. Their layered stories bring a more multifaceted and multinational conception of Japanese identity that offers a holistic account of historical rifts and cross-cultural influences. The broad scope of these documentaries serves as an indicator that these stories aren’t just a part of Japanese-American history but also American history.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].