Film Festival Documentary Relates the Japanese-American Experience
A documentary premiering tonight at the Cleveland International Film festival tells a story the filmmaker especially wanted his home town to know.
It’s about his Japanese-American family’s experience in Cleveland since World War II, and the racism endured for generations.
WKSU’s Vivian Goodman has a preview in today’s State of the Arts.
The members of the Cleveland Area Retired People’s Club are Japanese Americans who settled in Cleveland after spending World War II in internment camps out west.
Eva Hashiguchi of Highland Heights is a founding member, "and I think it’s about the only club that’s left in Cleveland. We used to have all different types of organizations.”
They gather now not to reminisce but to socialize. “Very little do we speak about camp.”
Photos preserve bitter memories
But she’s brought along her scrapbook of photos.
“Here’s the watch towers.”
There’s one of the barracks her family lived in, and one showing her brothers in uniform.
Eva’s daughter, Beverly Kerecman, says her uncles were U.S. soldiers during the war.
“They came home to a barbed wire fence. Their families were interned, and when they came back on leave they would go behind barbed wires, but yet they were fighting for the United States.”
As Kerecman and her mother wait for other of the club's members to assemble at the Euclid Senior Center, Eva Hashigushi open her thermos full of fish broth.
“You want to taste it?” she asks, pointing out one of the ingredients.
“That’s a fish cake. That’s called satsumaagai. First thing we eat on New Year’s is that. And it’s called the good luck soup.”
Eva’s grandson, Matthew Hashiguchi titled his documentary, “Good Luck Soup.”
It’s about his family and his town.
“Cleveland is a complicated city,” says Hashiguchi in narrating his film. “It’s full of culture and tradition. But in many ways those cultures are still segregated from one another.”
Hashiguchi’s ancestors arrived in America in 1901, but growing up in University Heights in the 1980’s and ‘90s, he felt less than a citizen.
“I don’t know why Asians, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese are constantly viewed as foreigners.”
Now a professor of film at Georgia Southern University, he tried to find out why by pointing his camera back at Cleveland.
“I wanted to kind of investigate what being Japanese-American was like in a region that didn’t have many Asians, didn’t have many Japanese-Americans, and in a region that is still struggling with -- I think -- race and cultural issues.”
He reveals in his film that those issues were for him deeply personal. “Throughout my life I’ve struggled with the experience of being Asian and different.”
Japanese Americans surrounded by Irish Americans
The neighborhood he was raised in was predominately Irish Catholic.
“I have this memory from my childhood. I was yelling at my dad. I don’t want to be Japanese. I don’t want to be Japanese.”
Now in his early 30s, Hashigushi says the memories don’t hurt anymore, but at Gesu Elementary he was teased and taunted daily.
“Making fun of my name or making fun of my eyes. And I guess I wondered, 'Where did that come from?' Was it something that they heard on television or something that was passed down from parent to child?”
He wondered if it was a legacy of the war that forced his grandmother behind a barbed- wire fence.
Legacy of war
EvaHashiguchi came to Cleveland at age 19, straight out of the internment camp President Roosevelt sent her to when she was 16.
“Executive order 9066,” she recalls, “which stated that anyone with Japanese blood was to be put into camp.”
When the war ended, Cleveland’s Interfaith Council helped Eva and an older sister relocate and find work with Jewish families in Shaker Heights.
“She lived with the Shuman’s, and I lived with the Kurtz’s, yeah.”
They felt welcome in the Jewish community.
“I think that because of their experience in Germany that they sympathized with us that we are being picked on in the United States.”
It wasn’t until she took a factory job in Cleveland that Eva experienced overt racism.
She was in a lunch room with a co-worker just back from fighting the Japanese. He ate a peanut and threw the shell at her.
“He threw it in my face. And that’s when I knew why he did that was because I was different. There was a steel ruler in front of me. I took that and whacked it like a samurai sword.”
Her co-worker ducked, and by the time she left on maternity leave they’d become friends.
“He was the first one to come to the house to bring a gift to me. It was really weird.”
Eva raised her daughter and two sons in Glenville and says she doesn’t recall them being picked on.
But Beverly Kerecman vividly recalls what happened when she was 8.
“There was a woman whose son had perished in WWII fighting the Japanese. And she had told all my friends not to play with me, and she was supposedly carrying a butcher knife. And I’m surprised she doesn’t remember that because I remember that.”
At 91, Eva’s memories are still vivid. In “Good Luck Soup” her nephew Matthew also discovers what his brother Luke still remembers.
“So for us growing up around a lot of Irish Catholics what was that like for you?” Matthew asks.
“I never really felt any different,” Luke replies, “but the way I was treated, I felt kind of singled out sometimes.”
“How were you treated differently? What did people do?” his brother asks.
“Pointing out your eyes look different,” says Luke, “that your skin looks different, or your hair’s different.”
Open to other stories
Along with his movie, Matthew Hashiguchi has set up a website, Good Luck Soup Interactive "for other people to submit their own stories, through mobile technology, through tablets, we wanted to open up this experience.”
It’ll be featured in Perspectives, the Cleveland International Film Festival’s first immersive storytelling exhibition.
“I think it’s important that Cleveland hears this story,” says the filmmaker. “Not because it’s my story or my family’s story, but I think my family represents a perspective and an experience in the region, and also in the United States that isn’t discussed that isn’t revealed, that isn’t heard very often.”