On May 27, 2016, President Barack Obama traveled to Japan and spoke at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Nearly 71 years had passed since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 200,000 people. The first sitting president to visit the site, Obama placed a wreath and hugged a survivor. In his speech, he expressed hope that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be remembered not as “the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
The atomic bombings were the culmination of a dark chapter in history, one that includes the rounding up and removal of people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable,” according to Executive Order 9066. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order did not overtly mention Japanese Americans, but it didn’t have to. Anti-Japanese sentiment was on the rise in the US even before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The experiences of the Japanese bombing victims and the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were uprooted and sent to camps along the West Coast are the subject of a two-part concert by the Seattle-based organization Music of Remembrance (MOR). The series, three years in the making, is titled Voices of Witness and will examine the artistic achievements of Japanese artists and composers within the social and political context of the time.
For 20 years, MOR has hosted two major concerts annually that have paid tribute to those affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust. For MOR’s 20th anniversary, founder and artistic director Mina Miller wanted to focus her attention on the World War II experiences of the Japanese and Japanese Americans. The fall production’s world premieres — Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Snow Falls and Keiko Fujiie’s Wilderness Mute — will share the perspectives of witnesses and survivors of the atomic blasts while making a statement about the urgency of reducing nuclear risks.
“We are committed to telling stories and making statements about our common humanity,” Miller says. “We talk about World War II and that era like it is ancient history, but it’s real, and so many [of those rounded up] came from Seattle, Bainbridge, the International District. This is right on our turf and we need to be on guard constantly.”
The composer for the spring concert, the French American Christophe Chagnard, will debut his multimedia work Gaman, which tells the story of two immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s and became prominent artists. They documented their experience by keeping diaries, drawings, and paintings while incarcerated. Their reflections serve as a window into the experience of so many Japanese Americans during that era.
“To realize what was created under horrific conditions, it tells you a lot about their will to survive under horrible circumstances,” Miller says. “Gaman” is a Japanese term that refers to “the struggle to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity” and defines the anger, frustration, and pain the displaced Japanese Americans felt. For his commission, Chagnard interviewed a dozen people who either served time in internment camps as children or whose parents were interned. “The Pacific Northwest is key in the story, because so many were sent to Puyallup and Bainbridge before being sent further east,” Chagnard says. “The camps were still being built. A lot of the people who lived in those camps still live in the Northwest.”
For Chagnard, Voices of Witness couldn’t have come at a better time, and he is eager to tell the many stories he heard. “The great irony is that the Japanese battalion was the most decorated infantry,” he says, referring to the army’s 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, a group made up nearly entirely of Japanese Americans.
Part of the purpose behind Voices of Witness is to get people to think about the past while offering parallels to the present, Miller says. She adds that a goal of MOR, since its inception, has been to focus not just on the plight of Jewish people but on the larger, ongoing struggle for human rights.
“We want people to be challenged, to think about these moral questions today, and focus on others who are currently being excluded for their faith,” she says. “Jews as a whole are taking great interest in the refugee crises and are seeing parallels, because it was Jews who one day weren’t wanted. We wanted to focus on others who are currently being excluded for who they are or their faith. There are many lessons for today.”
MOR’s fall concert, part one of its Voices of Witness series, takes place November 5 at 7 p.m. at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall. Part two premieres May 20, 2018, at 5 p.m. in the same location. For information or tickets, call 206-365-7770 or visit musicofremembrance.org.