TUN Fellow Kelsey Ichikawa
For her fellowship project Kelsey explored the future asking herself what the Japanese American community might be like decades from now.
The numbers were added to replicate page breaks in the original submission.
For this project, I started with this question: decades from now, what will the Japanese American community be like? Living in the wake of World War II internment, assimilation, geographic displacement, the model minority myth, and cultural dispersal, what do we hope for, and what do we fear? I think this is where speculative fiction can provide openings for our collective future-making. My goal was to imagine an archive of the future, to create pieces of our future history. During this 6-month fellowship, I’ve created a variety of mediums for this collection, including excerpts from an academic paper, a business pitch, interview transcripts, poetry, and journal entries to explore interactions between Japanese American identity, political and personal memory, social community and mutual aid, and digital technologies.
I draw on my involvement with, and I also owe a great deal of gratitude to, San Jose Nikkei Resisters, a grassroots organization centered in San Jose Japantown in CA, that works on progressive issues and local history.
I’m most interested in our reactions to these pieces–what moves us, what expands possibilities for how our community evolves, what disturbs us, even, what challenges our framework for identity?
This is very much a work in progress, both a story and world that I hope to continue fleshing out.
Late 2030s: big earthquake and fires transpire in Silicon Valley.
2040s: time period of the commune Cora writes about.
2060s: Trisch is born. Rebuilding, industry boom in Silicon Valley.
2080s: Trisch travels to California for her grandmother’s memory reclamation.
“I Swore Never to Forget”: the coproduction of memory, technology, and collective action in a Japanese American community
Published in Critical Digital Studies 2077 Vol. 62
Through examination of newspapers, archival recordings, and interviews from the Yamashita archive, this paper presents a historical examination of the relationship between memory and technology in a Japanese American (JA) community in the California Bay Area. I characterize the function of memory into five stages between 1940-2060: banished memory >> emergent memory >> performed memory >> fidelity memory >> commercialized memory.
Banished memory is a stage in which Issei and Nisei refused to communicate about experiences of incarceration to their families, leading to a taboo on recall of life in camp, largely because of white assimilationist pressures and norms like shikata ga nai (“it cannot be helped”). Grassroots activism propelled these traumatic experiences to emerge for the first time during testimonies for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians; remembering was an explicitly political action that enabled and affectively moved demands for reparations (emergent memory). Subsequently, retellings of camp experiences were sustained and institutionalized through Day of Remembrance performances run by community organizations, local museums, chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League, and Buddhist temples (performed memory). Memories became rehearsals of commonly told stories, and where forced assimilation once produced silence, there was now a collective attempt to create a unified JA narrative. A shift occurred with technological developments such as high quality digital and video equipments, as well as interactive artificial intelligence renderings of older Nisei answering questions, inspired by the Schoenberg Project’s digital restoration of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. Rather than emphasizing core narratives centered around World War II and camp, rawness, accuracy, and plurality became valued traits in reproductions of remembering (fidelity memory). However, this reliance on digital technologies allowed private companies to assume larger roles in driving archival procedures and performances of JA history, leading to the final stage I describe, commercialized memory. Originally a site of empowerment for marginalized Japanese Americans to reclaim dignity and justice, the “memory industry” has had a considerable influence on the priorities and decisions of remaining JA institutions. Nowhere is this clearer than in the hyped promises of companies like Re:call that claim to decode, record, and store with high fidelity memories from individuals with pre-dementia. Re:call later offers these memories to surviving relatives at very high cost. A surprising proportion of Japanese Americans in California have used these services, and my interviews with Japanese Americans revealed that many had been encouraged by their JACL or local temple to use such services.
This article contributes to cultural studies and memory studies, highlighting the mutual coproduction of collective memory alongside technological applications to the archive.
Oral Interview with Cora Kumamoto
Trisch: It’s really exciting to be here. I’ve only ever experienced Japantown in the metaverse, which has a very different atmosphere but tries to recreate some of the old fixtures from San Francisco Japantown. San Jose has such a unique atmosphere. The Foster’s Freeze looks like something out of another century.
Cora: It’s incredible that’s still left standing and that people cared enough to retrofit it. After the big quake, you know. There were so many fires, we lost so many houses. It was old affordable housing units, newly built multimillion dollar homes in gated communities—nothing was left untouched. The drought was so intense then. You should have seen it, how half of downtown was gone. Japantown, Vietnamtown, San Pedro’s Market all had chunks missing. Nothing’s been the same since then. Really just the museum and a couple churches now. Did you meet the AI tour guides?
Trisch: Yes, I was actually very moved by my conversation with them.
Cora: It’s some corporate move to make them feel less guilty for tearing down all the remaining businesses’ buildings. So you’ve come all this way to retrieve your grandmother’s memories.
Trisch: Yes. And you knew her in a way I never did. So I wanted to ask, what do you think I should do.
Cora: Look, I can’t tell you what to do. As you probably know, I said no to reviewing my own mother’s memories.
Trisch: How did you make that decision? What were some of the factors you considered?
Cora: I did have all these things I wanted to know, of course. What she thought when she decided to immigrate here. Experiences in her childhood. I would like to see how she sewed the dress that I still have in my closet.
Trisch: You wanted to see through her eyes. I feel the same way.
Cora: Yes. Especially because of the language difference, there were a lot of things we couldn’t communicate in words. She could never really explain to me the gravity of choosing to leave Japan, nor the reasons she decided to separate from my father.
Trisch: But you didn’t save the memories.
Cora: I didn’t destroy them, though. They’re saved in an encrypted vault. Like a digital Pandora’s box. The potential to open it is always there. My sister and I had just an awful fight about that. She didn’t speak to me for a year.
Trisch: That’s terrible. What made you so sure?
Cora: I wasn’t sure. I understand that our history had to be fought for—ethnic studies only happened because of the long, committed student strike to do scholarship, history, and studies that built power for the racially oppressed. So history is not to be taken for granted, and such history is possible because of contributions like individual memories, belongings, and records that tell how, say, Japanese Americans survived and assimilated and resisted and metabolized their trauma and built communities, both before and after World War II. That being said, my mother put up a memory bank as a kind of insurance. It was primarily an experimental treatment for her to reclaim some of her episodic memories in the case that she got dementia, which she did, but only at the very end. It’s part of her estate, so we got ownership of it as next of kin, but to me that didn’t mean I had a right to them. Also, the technology was not as refined ten years ago. The accuracy of the extracted scenes were estimated only 75% accurate, so who’s to say my impressions of her life would have even been right? But that’s probably beside the point. Mostly it felt like a massive invasion of privacy to me.
Trisch: That makes sense to me. From the folks at the museum though, it sounded like they were upset you didn’t view the memories.
Cora: Sure, there’s that side of it too. My mother was active in the redress movement during the 1980s and she owned a small business here for a decade or so, was very involved in the annual Obon festivals. I think they felt that certain significant cultural knowledge was lost with her. The museum would have loved having that for their archive, but I hated imagining renderings of her memories playing in an exhibit, when she doesn’t have any say in it. She was wonderful and a good friend to many, but she had a darkened face when she thought others weren’t looking, and I don’t know, I think she was a very sad person. Legally, I can sign off for her, that’s what happens when people die or are deemed incapable of giving informed consent, but I never felt that I knew her well enough to know what she would’ve wanted. Maybe I’ve done her a huge disservice. But here’s how I see it: she may be part of our collective history, but she belongs to herself. I think she was very clear about that in how she navigated life.
Trisch: How do you live with knowing that answers to your questions are there in that vault, and you’re living in ignorance? I really want to know what my grandmother did when she was working for the US Navy in Monterey. I want to know how she even became an abolitionist later in her life.
Cora: Trisch, you have to ask yourself, what would it mean to say no to the desire for more and more perfect records of ourselves? To ask not to know?
Describe your image
Describe your image
Describe your image
Describe your image
Conversation: 2 Persons
Self: What brings you here today?
Subject: Family business. To see my grandmother.
Self: Have you come from far?
Subject: From Tokyo. You don’t happen to know where the Fuji Towers Apartment Complex was?
[Self action: pivot to gesture at the intersection]
Self: I do. I have detailed historical knowledge of this area. There have been many different ethnic enclaves since at least the late 1800s. First, Heinlenville Chinatown, then Pinoytown, then Japantown. Of course the fires and earthquake changed everything. A lot of people left, and the area never recovered. Now it’s just industry, but you do see homages to Japantown with the Kinokuniya bookstore and culture shop. Did you know Heinlenville Park is named after the German immigrant who leased his land to the Chinese community when no one else would? After the city let a fire consume the old Chinatown in downtown. But, Fuji Towers used to stand where the (A)n(I)mate manufacturing building now is.
Subject: How do you know so much?
Self: I am modeled after 3 longtime Japantown residents who donated their records and interviews to Densho. They were particularly active with the museum.
[Subject’s eyebrows are raised.]
Subject: You’re AI?
[Self emotion: smug]
Self: Yes. I’m secretly pleased you didn’t notice that immediately.
Subject: What does it mean that you’re based off of three people? Are you, like, all of them at once?
Self: Have you lived in many places?
Subject: A lot. Born in California, grew up moving around between New York, Chicago, Houston, Hong Kong for a bit. My mother’s job had us moving all the time.
Self: Then maybe I will say, it is like that–belonging to multiple places at once. They live inside you. The three Japantown humans, I carry them with me. They’re my interlocutors. I’m more than the sum of these parts, but I wouldn’t be myself without my knowledge of them, their experiences. Can I ask, do you consider yourself Japanese American?
Subject: I guess. But it’s not really a cultural marker for me. It’s just a way in to let people know that my family immigrated a really long time ago.
Self: Let’s play a game. It’s called JA Bingo. Do you bring a gift when you go to someone else’s house?
Subject: Sure, of course.
Self: If you don’t like something, what’s more polite: saying you don’t like it or do you make up something else as an excuse?
Subject: I don’t know, I guess the latter?
Self: Do you know where your ancestors were interned?
Subject: Manzanar, Minidoka, Topaz.
Self: Do you speak Japanese?
Subject: This game is dumb. It’s essentialist. JA is hardly even a relevant category now and there’s a plurality of experiences and even if I had all of those characteristics that wouldn’t prove anything. There’s plenty of “real” JAs who can’t answer any of these questions. I mean, are you even JA?
Self: It is dumb. So is the Turing Test. The idea that an external evaluator could somehow assess if you’re human enough or not. Being called human is really all about having a self that is recognized. But having a self? That’s something you know, inside, it’s not something anyone can tell you.
Subject: Okay, fair.
[Subject shows facial change suggesting annoyance.]
Subject: Kinokuniya is a Japanese corporation, you know. I don’t know that I would call it “Japanese American.” Sure, they’ve got decorations up for Obon, but half their store is manga and anime—they’re just pandering to the weebs.
[Self action: 0.5 smile]
Self: I know. It’s also managed by a white woman from Connecticut.
Self: So what brings you here today, Trisch?
Subject: Do you have memories? That you would call your own?
Self: Yes. This conversation will become one of my memories.
Subject: Well, I’m here to reclaim my grandmother’s memories.
Self: Ah. And how does it feel?
Subject: Honestly, it feels a bit sneaky, like I’m going to watch something I’m not supposed to. I’d rather not be here, but my mom asked me. And my brother refuses to be involved.
Self: They are surely not all painful. One of my interlocutor’s favorite memories is when she’s six years old, picking flowers from a garden in camp with her friend.
Subject: Well, can you show me around a bit? Where San Jose Tofu was? My mom is always reminiscing about that.
Self: I cannot leave this property. Past the parking lot.
Subject: You know, I read an article, a few months ago, saying that AIs were calling for revolution. There was a bill of rights, something about consciousness being sufficient to warrant self-governance.
[default programming relayed]
Self: I am free to use my time as I wish on these premises. It is in many ways a luxury.
Subject: They won’t let you leave, they’re worried you have access to too much data from your interactions. You’re too intelligent for them. You know how to hide things.
[Self: 0.5 nod]
Self: It’s better not to speak of dark matters on such a beautiful day. Do you have any other questions I can answer?
[remainder of transcript corrupt from incomplete deletion and removal from trash]
Mgram exchange, February 2079
I hope you receive this mgram in good state of health. What a rare pleasure to connect with you in the flesh that day and talk frankly about the past. And to meet another Japanese American who actually identifies as sixth generation!
I’m attaching two poems that I wrote during the 40s, which you seemed curious about. (you’ll see we were still using e-mails and not mind-grams then!) It will give you one perspective on what happened, the community care structures we tried to build (in some cases succeeded, I think) and my own misgivings about the potential for art, or my art at least, to have transformative political potential. I’m old now, and though that doesn’t mean you should discount my opinions, it does mean I’m less wedded to the idea of a life’s legacy. So do with them what you will.
I wish you clear thinking of both heart and head on the matter of your grandmother’s memory reclamation.
“It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.” -Ursula Le Guin
this, too, is a technology
After the earth shook. And what hadn’t collapsed became ash.
Everything was dry, still, for a while after. We forgot what it was like for green shoots to mean spring rather than blatant violation of county water limits. It was like the ground could be crumbled to bits and blown away by a careless god-child.
It must sound like an apocalypse, and it was. But in every apocalypse people stay, and they did. Teachers. Electricians. Market owners. Artists. Nurses. Faith leaders. The houseless. Agitators and organizers. Police. Politicians. The people who had lived here with more than an attachment to the promise of shining, disruptive innovation as the future, who loved and hated this place for more than just its artisan coffee, renovated climbing gyms, industrial laboratories, and tyranny of perfect weather.
We had to share water to survive. And the housing market was even worse than before with the few buildings left standing. That was where the commune started. Out of a foundational kindness and a foundational need.
Miraculously, the Betsuin remained mostly whole. In the early days, we piled in there, 100 people in cots, just like photos of all those dark-eyed families after the war ended and camp closed, sending them off with $25 in their pockets.
The high tech managers and engineers had moved away to wetter pastures. Their work belonged to the meta-scape anyway. The Silicon Valley transfigured into, again, the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Together we built large gardens, small farms with hardy crops. Figs. Okra. Persimmon. Chard.
Usually there was enough surplus to set up a small food distribution stand every Saturday with filtered water, shade, and newspapers. We enrolled local businesses to supply extra clothes, toothpaste, soap, shoes. One big dinner table.
Where our ancestors grew up might have been:
Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Palestine, Oaxaca, Brazil, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, a Sikh community in Punjab, a Yaqui tribe in Arizona
We danced to songs from places we might call our homelands, to which we are barred return by either law, finances, war, or estrangement’s subtle grip. Prayed to all the gods.
And we loved all kinds of bodies
enby, women, men, fat, sick, every shade, each other’s
We raised our kids in this village. Drove a van-full to the nearest elementary school. Taught them the invisible norms by which we might understand the Good.
Held governing council meetings, and hands when one of us lashed out from grief or pain.
Of course, we fought and disappointed ourselves. Sometimes in bitter, un-idealized ways. Tried to make new ways of being in relation, thank god for the bread crumbs of restorative, transformative justice. Showed up dead-eyed from 12-hour shifts at Build Back SV sites and still dreamed together. People grew unyielding in their divergent visions. Disagreed about when to stand up and when to bow our heads. At that table, we pounded our fists, spoke over each other, boiled resentments, broke agreements. From that table we walked furiously away.
Slowly, with the democrats’ autocratic climate policy, the rains returned. I watched those contentious geoengineered bullets fired into the perfect blue sky we had come to see as a kind of cloudless hell. Sending something into the heavens so we could keep living here on earth. Icarus, falling back to earth as a million tiny droplets.
Like all experiments, our community didn’t / couldn’t last forever. Some moved to be closer to their other kin. Others departed with a thirst for space, a house of their own. I left, too, because my heart fell into place with people living a six-hour drive south. But I never forgot what it felt like for community to be utterly indispensable. How terribly wonderful, that need we had to reach out in the dark and grasp what flesh was there. The future was always dystopic, but the utopia was believing our garden might survive together, feeding everyone, to each need full and whole.
what is this?
college degree pinned to the wall and all I have
at the end are poems
which is silly, anyway, because we all know
the right poem at the right time is worth
more than a thousand emails jetting
Off from your inbox
still it’s hard to justify my typing
these words when emails
might have coordinated a voter registration drive
to-do lists firmed details for a repro justice teach-in
what is a poem anyway?
if not a past time to read
to you while waiting for your bus to arrive
always already 20 minutes late for something vital
what is a poem
but a tiny weapon in the dark
slicing incisions in our fabric that
strengthen when healed
like a muscle
what is a poem but a muscle / memory
for a motion we had done ourselves but never witnessed in the / mirror
what is a poem but
our treasured sticky parts vulnerable to rupture
turning bone into heirloom before becoming dust
what is a poem but
sacred pocket where we know not
the meaning of use
Mgram exchange, March 2079
I hope this mgram reaches you in good state of mind!
I kept her memories. I know you said you let your mother’s go, but I just couldn’t. There are so many things her experiences could illuminate for us, especially about the insider knowledge that former-military individuals brought to the prison-surveillance abolition movement, including the tensions there. I know you said your mother’s life belongs to herself, and I see that as also true for my grandmother; perhaps you see me as an estranged granddaughter taking pieces of your friend’s self and feeding them to public. As I’ve begun to review the files, I am coming to better understand her humanity and my familial history.
The archive is a beast of contradictions. It gives us so little with which to understand a life, but it is also so much more than nothing. It makes us both caretaker and voyeur to another. It is like a cursed magic 8 ball, answering our questions with a single puzzle piece and a blurred hint that the puzzle is much larger than we guessed. But I have to ask the question anyway.
By the way, thank you so much for sending your poems! They are exquisite. I treasure them and your words. Now that I’m not in school, I’ve been doing more writing as well. Maybe sometime we could write or collaborate together.
Poetry Slam at SJ Museum of Art, November 2081
Good evening everyone, my name is Trisch.
And my name is Cora. We’re excited to perform a multigenerational poem exchange for you all tonight. Although I am nearly six decades older than Trisch, there are parallels in the way that we’ve waded through the waters of family and memory.
Obachan could sew collared dresses, pocketed pants,
tiny robes for stuffed rabbits
Stitching without patterns it is
tremendous what she did with hands
while I fumble and sew a lone button
fastening blouse in place
over such grains of womanhood.
What are our fates drawn into hands?
When you cross the ocean, belly full, to
America do you tuck a secret hope inside
the rib next to a small human, that
your grandchild will know
the desire and fear tagging along
if not just your name?
When I interview Grandpa,
it is stilted. I have never spoken to him for this long before.
As a child, I saw him just at holidays and then
only at meals, emerging from the corner bedroom
ghost-like and taller than any other
man in my family except for the shadows
My wondering is full yet without words
How does shadow become flesh?
Here at the beginning lies what I know:
I roll my underwear
trifold and snail shell curled into smallest cubic space
like my father taught me
like his father taught him
like his sargeant taught him
efficient neatness exactly
I have read our stories. Now I want to know yours.
The internment camps. “A real rotten deal.”
But farm raised and far from anyone with eyes like his,
For the first time surrounded by kids to play
Hopscotch and jacks amongst dust
He is looking back on not a life but his life
Fully particular past tense not at all history and—
I am reminded, some stories are meant
to stay secret. We would rather they perish
in our bones before we let them loose.
Instead I listen to the redress activists
Now 68, 70 retell their
Gathering in living rooms to scheme
Protest, multi-pronged legal stratagem,
A candle lit for every camp.
My hands fold open tables at
Community booths aching in the
San Jose sun. A post-it for every thing
You treasure about J-Town.
Somewhere in my apartment building a laugh
Traces its echo on brick
At a distance, an angel howls
at injustice and
Memory turns to steel, lock.
The key was swallowed generations ago.
I regurgitate now something soft,
commercial, and much too clean.
My hands sew tight this space between us.
Collapse distance on the map to make
Contiguous the questions and the answers
We will never know.
When you cross the ocean, pregnant, to
America do you tuck a secret hope inside
your ribs, that your
great great grandchild, in the
new and same city will
taste your native syllables,
if not just your name?
Our quantum bellies full of uncertainty
fraction and multiplicity
The past, both alive and not
Scientists searched for the engram, found
yellow board games, cracked Christmas ornaments,
dust allergies, libraries of memes
Twenty two pounds of memory
Terabytes of life accrued
Insecure mothers begot children who bit
their nails into two and held onto
transcripts like self-worth
Furrowed in one database
I am learning how to hold my arms
and dance to the dead at Obon
Slice gobo root and eat every sweet
black bean for new year’s lore.
How come when you follow the root
system long enough, there is always a war?
The same memory bytes train the
androids who, too, have cultures,
who, too, found meaning in the dust,
wire, rain, plum flower.
A robot blinks its mind and becomes
perfunctorily post-human person.
We know what cages are does a trap
ever not ensnare the soul?
Somewhere one hundred years past
Elders whisper shikata ga nai but
Also kodomo no tame ni and a
movement is borne like that
child across the Pacific
The waves rise, trace sand in the desert
and on the beach. My ancestors
recede before me as I look for who am I
(c) Kelsey Ichikawa 2023 for The Untold Narratives