Zachary Matsumoto is a sophomore at UC Berkeley currently studying History and participating as an Oral History Center URAP apprentice. He was drawn to the Oral History Center after attending a Bancroft Roundtable presentation about the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. American history is a current academic interest of his, including the histories of communities relating to his background as a Chinese and Japanese American. In his free time, Zachary likes to go for runs, watch sports, and play taiko.
Reflections on Work with the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project
by Zachary Matsumoto
This fall of 2023, I became a URAP student at the Oral History Center under the guidance of Shanna Farrell, Amanda Tewes, and Roger Eardley-Pryor. My work throughout this semester largely consisted of researching, analyzing, and writing about the oral histories of the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project, as well as the Japanese American Confinement Sites Project. These oral histories highlighted a historical event that greatly affected my own family.
In 1942, the United States government, at the beginning of its involvement in World War II, issued Executive Order 9066. This order imprisoned Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and placed them in remote prison camps across the country. My paternal grandparents and their families were among them. Growing up, my parents told me of my grandparents’ histories as incarcerees, stressing the wrongdoing and unfairness done to them by the US government. As I grew up reading and watching material on Japanese American incarceration, I began to understand the details of the incarceration experience: how truly unfair it was; the crippling effects of losing a home for a remote prison camp; the silence of incarcerees afterward; and how themes of incarceration endure today.
Fast forward to 2023, when I joined the OHC as a URAP student and explored the oral histories of Japanese Americans. One component I learned from these oral histories was the traumatic intergenerational effects of incarceration: the pain and guilt that incarcerees passed down to their children, and at times even their grandchildren. This was a very eye-opening experience for me, as I personally felt as if the incarceration of Japanese Americans was an important, but almost distant historical event in my own life. Reading these oral histories, as well as listening to a podcast series “From Generation to Generation: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration,” based on the very same interviews, was at times an emotional experience. Hearing of descendants losing their sense of belonging, feeling disconnected with their culture, and living without the knowledge of their families’ incarceration experiences was heartbreaking to hear.
But what really struck me about these oral histories was not only the intergenerational pain and sorrow, but the agency exhibited by the project narrators after incarceration. This is something I knew but not really understood the scope of. This agency, as recounted in the oral histories, was both public and private. Patrick Hayashi, a man born in the incarceration camps and whose oral history I studied extensively, demonstrated activism as one of California’s first Asian American Studies professors and by fighting against prejudiced admissions practices. But more privately, he vowed to reexamine the trauma of his family’s past through creating artwork and educating Utah teachers on incarceration. Other individuals, in the 1970s and 1980s, participated in the redress movement, in which Japanese Americans questioned the wrongdoing of WWII incarceration and successfully drew attention to this experience. This eventually led to a formal apology and reparations paid by the US government.
Even in more recent years, the agency and activism of individuals in the oral history interviews shines brightly. Ruth Sasaki, an author, joined an organization named Tsuru for Solidarity: a group that fought against the forced incarceration of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. After the Trump administration detained migrants at the US-Mexico border, including children, as part of the Zero Tolerance Policy, Sasaki and twenty-six other Tsuru for Solidarity members flew to Oklahoma to protest, along with a large number of Native American, Latino, and African American activists. Sasaki’s story, in particular, served as a reminder for me of the living memory of Japanese American incarceration and how that community in particular could serve as a key fighter: a guard against the unjust, unprovoked incarceration of marginalized groups today.
One moment of agency, in particular, was very personal for me and my interests. Roy Hirabayashi, a longtime San Jose resident and the descendant of Topaz survivors, recalled the founding of San Jose Taiko, a taiko (Japanese drumming) performance group. As San Jose Taiko began its performances and found its sound and style, Hirabayashi realized he did not know many traditional Japanese themes and rhythms for playing taiko; instead, he took rhythmic inspiration from music he was exposed to in the Bay Area, such as R&B and Latin soul. According to Hirabayashi, “We felt we were establishing pretty much early on that we, in Asian American sound, using what we called the Japanese drum, the taiko, our version.” For Hirabayashi, taiko was not just a performance instrument but an intentional expression of his developing Asian American identity. This, to me, shows his agency and sense of self. Reading Hirabayashi’s oral history also highlighted my personal connection to this interview. As a child, my mom drove me forty minutes to Santa Rosa so I could learn and practice taiko. Now, as a sophomore in college, I am a current member of Cal Raijin Taiko, UC Berkeley’s taiko organization and performance group. The fact that an instrument that occupies an important place in my own life is wrapped in the history and agency of Japanese Americans captivates me and brings me closer to the history of the Japanese American experience.
Over the course of my URAP experience in the Oral History Center, I felt my eyes further opened to the individual experiences of the descendants of incarcerees. What stands out was not just their guilt and attempts to cope with the scars of incarceration, but instead their strength through identity and activism. As a Japanese American myself, I feel proud to be part of this legacy of strength. In the future, I hope to continue exploring my identity, and what it means to be a descendant of the incarceration camps. As I explored the oral histories in the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project, I encountered personal questions: why am I not feeling the same burden as the descendants of incarceration? Why do I feel as if incarceration was a memory without a strong effect on my own life? These questions remain in my mind, and I will continue to seek answers to them throughout my life.