#177) Topaz (1943-1945)

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#177) Topaz (1943-1945)

Filmed by Dave Tatsuno

Class of 1996

The first video is the only complete version of “Topaz” I could find, albeit in black and white. The second video is 10 minutes of “Topaz” in its original color.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy Air Service, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans who were deemed threatening. None of them had actually committed any crimes against America, they just happened to be of Japanese descent, and therefore dangerous to their country. There were 10 relocation camps (alternatively known as “internment camps”) across the country, including the Topaz War Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah. Most of the internees at Topaz were from the Bay Area, including Dave Tatsuno, who secretly filmed life in the camp with a smuggled camera throughout his three years of relocation.

“Topaz” gives us a rare glimpse at life in an internment camp. Since this was all filmed in secret, Tatsuno does not focus his camera on any of the guards or watchtowers or the camp’s unsuitable living conditions, but rather on the people who inhabit the camp. There are his family, his children (one of which was born in the camp), many other evacuees from the Bay Area from all walks of life, and several friendly members of the Topaz community who volunteer their support. The film focuses on more positive events, such as social gatherings and playing in the Utah winter snow. There are quick looks at the “volunteer” work being done by the internees, mostly manual labor around the camp. Many of those documented knew they were being filmed, and Tatsuno admits that they were playing for the camera, and hiding “the fear, the loneliness, the despair and the bitterness that we felt.” The film ends in 1945 with Tatsuno and his family finally allowed to return home. An epilogue from ten years later shows the Tatsunos returning to Topaz for the first time to see the former site. Commenting on these events some 30 years later, Dave Tatsuno ends his narration with, “Thank God that it’s all over”.

“Topaz” has natural historical significance, but this footage is a lot more than just reportage of what was happening during World War II. Having actual footage from one of the internment camps is a near-miracle, and we should be forever grateful not only to Tatsuno, but those who helped him smuggle the camera and film in and out of the camp. But my main takeaway was the proof of what we as Americans did/let happen to other Americans. This country tends to ignore our major blemishes, aside from the broadest of strokes (“Slavery was bad. Segregation was bad.” etc.). We are a nation that believes mostly in hindsight – what we did was bad and we shouldn’t have done it. But we did. And without acknowledging the complexity of the Japanese internment camps head-on, we are very much capable of doing it again.

Other notes

  • In my research I discovered that my hometown of Stockton, California was the site of a Civilian Assembly Center, the temporary set-ups used to assemble Japanese-Americans before sending them to the camps. Like Stockton doesn’t have enough problems with its reputation already.
  • Topaz was the site of one of seven murders in the Japanese interment camps. James Wakasa was shot by the camp guards when he stood too close to a fence. The funeral held by the internees, as well as their work strike, led to the camp loosening its security. Dave Tatsuno does not document nor comment on these events in his film.
  • All of this outward cheeriness surprised me. On top of everyone smiling for the camera, there’s a couple who met in the camp and eventually married, as well as the aforementioned children who were born in the camp. Tatsuno even manages to crack a joke or two in his commentary. I guess in the face of all this atrocity you have to keep living.
  • I totally sympathize with a group of people from the Bay Area who are not used to winters that are actually cold, or having to deal with accumulated snowfall.
  • The United States Government spent $300 million on the 10 internment camps. And that’s 1942 money! So what you’re telling me is we’ve always been bad at budgeting on a national level.
  • If you look at the list of internees at Topaz, most of them became one of two things after the war: activists or artists. Not surprisingly, most of them either created art based on their experience in the camps or became very active in civil rights in their communities. One, Yuji Ichkioka, coined the term “Asian American” to give all Asian communities a united front. Another, Goro Suzuki, changed his name to Jack Soo and is best known for his performance on “Barney Miller”.
  • Obviously there is so much more material out there about the Japanese internment camps, and this post only scratches the surface. A good starting point for information about the camps (and this film) is the NFR’s essay by author Karen L. Ishizuka, who helped campaign for the induction of “Topaz” into the National Film Registry.

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