From left: Tom Fukuyama, Bill Tanaka and John Tanaka skiing in Juneau, Alaska in 1938.
The documentary “The Empty Chair” will be screened on Saturday, April 2, at 2 p.m. at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum of the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo.
In 1942, Alaska native John Tanaka was going to be the valedictorian of his high school graduating class, but was scheduled to be incarcerated by the U.S. government before the ceremony could take place. In response, the Juneau school board voted to hold a special early graduation ceremony for him.
When the official ceremony was held for the Class of ’42, they set aside an empty chair on the platform to acknowledge Tanaka’s absence.
Tanaka went on to volunteer for service in the all-Japanese American 442 Regimental Combat Team while his family remained in an American concentration camp.
John Tanaka served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“The Empty Chair” is a unique documentary film composed of interviews of survivors from that period, rare historical photos, never-before-seen archival footage, U.S. government documentaries, and historical accounts. All of these sources are woven together to draw the viewer back into this little-known chapter of American history.
Q&A with filmmaker Greg Chaney and Tanaka’s sisters, Alice and Mary, will follow the screening.
Free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.
The Empty Chair Project also established the Empty Chair Memorial, created by artist Peter Reiquam and dedicated in Juneau in 2014. The inscription reads as follows:
“Honoring Juneau’s Japanese American Community Unjustly Incarcerated During World War II, 1941-1945.
“After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, people of Japanese ancestry living on America’s West Coast were forcibly removed and incarcerated in isolated government internment camps.
“In May 1942, the seniors at Juneau High School left an empty chair during their graduation ceremony to underscore the absence of their Japanese American valedictorian, John Tanaka. By extension, this empty chair honors all of the Japanese uprooted from their homes and communities.
“The Empty Chair Memorial represents the void the people of Juneau felt for their friends and neighbors impacted by this injustice. The names of those interned are etched on the bronze floor.
“A time may come when these names will be forgotten, but the symbol of the empty chair will remind future generations of the lessons learned from this compelling and poignant story.”
The names of 53 individuals who were incarcerated at Minidoka in Idaho are included.
For more information, visit https://emptychairproject.wordpress.com.