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Recovering the ‘Lost Years’

Robert Ito of San Diego is interviewed by Lane Nishikawa and his crew. Like most Japanese Americans in San Diego, Ito’s family was incarcerated in Poston, Ariz. during WWII. His father was in Cannon Company of the 100th/442nd RCT.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

“Our Lost Years,” a documentary written and directed by Lane Nishikawa, will have its Los Angeles premiere on Sunday, June 23, at 2 p.m. at the Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo.

The San Diego-based actor and writer made the film to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 and the 30th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, both landmarks in Japanese American history.

“I’ve done a number of plays and films on the Nisei soldier experience, which also included some of the internment experience, but over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with some great Japanese American leaders, and I wanted bring their voices together to tell a truly complete story,” Nishikawa said. “I also interviewed as many Japanese Americans who could meet with me, who were interned and some of the children of internees, along with leaders from the Arab and Muslim community and the Jewish community.

“‘Our Lost Years’ starts before the war, goes through the horror of Pearl Harbor, and gives first-hand recollections of the evacuation and the relocation into the heartland of America. Our film examines the return home to the West Coast or the escape to the Midwest after the war, and then delves deep into the 10 year fight for redress and reparations.

“‘Our Lost Years’ exposes the realization that Japanese America had been reborn after the camps with a new voice and a new mission. The fight for our civil rights was only the beginning of fight for the rights of all Americans. Through the 40-plus voices that appear on the screen, I’ve finally been able to pay homage to my Stockton family, who were torn from their homes and lives, and sent to the swamplands of Arkansas.”

Nishikawa received a Japanese American Confinement Sites grant from the National Park Service in June 2017. “I immediately put a plan of action and a crew together and a month later we flew out to the National JACL Convention in Washington, D.C., which started on July 6. I knew I was going to be able to capture a number of leaders and internees together in one city for three days.

“From there, it really was a matter of where my budget would allow, so I focused on where I had contacts, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. I was also able to work in the pilgrimage at Poston, Ariz. and Manzanar. I was able to capture a number of interviews of internees and children of internees, but also some great B-roll (supplemental footage) of the camp sites. Like many low-budget productions, we ran into a low of issues and compromises along the way, but you’ve just got to keep on going.”

While acknowledging that it would have been easier to find more voices in decades past, he said, “I am very appreciative with the Nisei and older Sansei who agreed to spend some time with me and open up about those tough years during the war.”

Phil Shigekuni, who was involved in the redress movement, was among the Los Angeles-area interviewees in “Our Lost Years.”

Personal Connections

What happened to the community during World War II was very much a part of Nishikawa’s own family history.

“I had seven uncles and my dad who were with the 100th Battalion, various 442nd companies, 522nd Artillery, and MIS (Military Intelligence Service),” he said. “Two of my uncles volunteered out of Rohwer internment camp (in Arkansas), where their families were taken to from Stockton.

“My dad was actually a little younger and when he was of age, he volunteered and was sent to Mississippi for training as the 100th/442nd RCT was getting more men ready to send over (to Europe) as replacements. In 1944, his appendix burst and he was in an Army hospital for six months. He had developed some serious complications. When he got out, they were already holding off sending replacements overseas.

“This was now 1945. He was reassigned and ended up as a staff sergeant for an MP unit in Germany during the occupation. All my uncles returned home, but with numerous wounds, both physical and psychological.”

Nishikawa explored these experiences more than 35 years ago in his first one-man show, “Life in the Fast Lane.” “One of the monologues was based on my father’s brother. He had died way too early and as I went back home to Hilo, Hawaii. where my father’s side was from, as my memories of the island are coming to life, his ghost visits me.

“In my second one-man show, ‘I’m on a Mission from Buddha,’ I created another monologue, actually playing my father’s brother walking along the graves at Punchbowl Cemetery. He talks to all the friends he lost and the men who he became close with, who gave their lives for their brothers.”

“I’m on a Mission from Buddha” was adapted for television and broadcast on PBS.

His two-man play with Victor Talmadge, “The Gate of Heaven,” begins with the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion liberating the Dachau death camp in Germany in April 1945.

“A Japanese American soldier rescues a Jewish prisoner,” Nishikawa explained. “Ten years later, the Jewish man has immigrated to the U.S. and he tracks down the Nisei soldier to thank him for saving his life. They become fast friends and the play follows their friendship for the next 50 years.”

Nishikawa’s play “Gila River” is about a family from California that is incarcerated in Arizona. “The father of the family has been arrested by the FBI and taken away to a federal prison. The teenage son realizes he is now the man of the family and he enlists into the MIS. While fighting in the Pacific Campaign, his unit takes an island in the Philippines and his job is to interrogate prisoners.

“While questioning one of the Japanese soldiers, he realizes the prisoner is his older brother, who was studying in Japan when the war broke out. He hadn’t seen his brother in over five years. His brother is emaciated and very badly wounded, and asks him to please take his ashes back home to the family.”

Lane Nishikawa (center) wrote, directed and starred in the 2006 feature “Only the Brave.” The cast included Jason Scott Lee (left) and Mark Dacascos (right). (Indican Pictures)

“Only the Brave”

Nishikawa directed a short film based on “The Gate of Heaven,” retitled “When We Were Warriors,” and another film after the U.S. Army decided to upgrade 20 Distinguished Service Crosses awarded to Nisei soldiers during WWII to the Medal of Honor.

“The film was called ‘Forgotten Valor,’ and it is a about a Nisei man, working in his family’s manju/mochi shop, who is about to get this new award,” Nishikawa said. “He disappears and his family doesn’t know where he is, and is worried he might take his own life.

“A Korean veteran, based on Col. Young Oak Kim — the one Korean American who served with the all-Nisei regiment — goes on a journey to locate him. He finds him one night at the Nisei Veterans’ Memorial in L.A. and convinces him to come home.”

Nishikawa’s biggest project, and “probably the one project that I am most proud of,” was “Only the Brave” (2006), a feature film about the Nisei soldiers. “It was the biggest budget I’ve ever worked with, and we were able to shoot 10 of my 21 days in the backlot of Universal Studios. Over 300 people worked on the picture and we had 35 speaking roles for Asian Americans. ‘Only the Brave’ went to 18 film festivals, toured to 25 cities, was sold internationally to 15 countries, and was finally broadcast on Showtime TV.”

The cast included Nishikawa, Tamlyn Tomita, Greg Watanabe, Mark Dacascos, Jason Scott Lee, Yuji Okumoto, Ken Narasaki, Kenneth Choi, Gina Hiraizumi, and Pat Morita.

Since moving to San Diego, Nishikawa met many Sansei whose fathers also served in the 100th/442nd or the MIS. “I produced a short documentary, ‘Never Forget,’ and bought in Los Angeles ABC anchor David Ono to interview the few remaining Nisei veterans and their families to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.”

On the Road

“The response has been tremendous,” Nishikawa said of his latest film. “We started in San Diego in March. We just couldn’t get it together for Day of Remembrance. We then traveled up to San Francisco in May. I just hope all the people who came out and supported ‘Only the Brave’ will come out to the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo on June 23. And yes, I’m already talking with PBS.

“Mitch Maki from Go For Broke, Kathy Masaoka, Phil Shigekuni, and Alan Nishio from NCRR, John Tateishi, Floyd Mori, Ken Inouye, and Kanji Sahara from JACL are all so passionate about what they all went through. Los Angeles audiences are really going to be in for a treat and see their amazing spirits, which embody all those whose mission in life is to fight for right.”

Proceeds from the screening, which will include Q&A with the director, will benefit the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Go For Broke National Education Center, and Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress. Tickets are $15 general, $12 for JACCC members, $10 for students.

For more information, call (213) 680-3700 or visit

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