About the Film
For the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans forcibly interned during World War II, the scars have never healed.
For Ruth Okimoto the need to confront the past brings her back to the desert of Arizona where she spent her childhood years behind barbed wire. Back to the Colorado River Indian Reservation, where Poston was built. It is a journey Ruth takes, to find meaning in the inexplicable as she searches to discover the true story of how the Poston camp came into being.
Passing Poston tells the moving and haunting story of four former internees of the Poston Relocation Center. Each person shadowed by a tragic past, each struggling in their own painful way to reconcile the trauma of their youth, each still searching and yearning during the last chapter of their lives, to find their rightful place in this country.
The Poston Relocation center, built on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, served as one of ten internment camps built in seven states. Between 1942 and 1945, the Poston camps housed over 18,000 Japanese and Japanese American detainees.
Unlike, the nine other internment camps, Poston was unique and was built with a very different purpose. It served as a place to house thousands of Japanese detainees but also the infrastructure created by and for them served to recruit more Native Americans from surrounding smaller reservations to the much larger and sparsely populated Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation, after the war.
The Japanese detainees held at the three Poston Camps were used as laborers to build adobe schools, do experimental farming, and construct an irrigation system that could later be used by the Native Americans, thus aiding the settlement of the area as planned by the Office of Indian Affairs (known today as the Bureau of Indian Affairs).
When the Japanese detainees were released in 1945, attention turned to settling the camps with Native Americans. "Colonists" (as the government referred to them) from the Hopi and Navajo tribes as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River tributaries. These people, in turn, moved into barracks built for the Japanese detainees. The colonists were recruited by the Office of Indian Affairs and lured by promises of fertile farmland and plentiful water. They joined the Mohave who had lived on the reservation since its creation in 1865, and the Chemehuevi who arrived shortly after 1865. The colonists found a working canal system to irrigate farmland, school buildings, and many other necessities for their relocation. For some from the less developed areas of other reservations, it was a step up with running water and the opportunity to farm.
About The Characters
Ruth Okimoto and her family were sent to the Poston Relocation Center when she was six years old. At the time of relocation, Ruth's father was an established minister in a church in San Diego.
Through a child's prism, Ruth recounts and remembers the day the soldiers arrived at her doorstep armed with rifles and bayonets to take her and her family away.
She remembers her mother, then nine months pregnant, giving birth in a converted horse stable at the Santa Anita Race Track - used by the government as an Assembly Center where the Japanese internees spent several months before being sent to their assigned internment camp.
She recollects her years as a youngster behind barbed wire in the middle of an Arizona desert on an American Indian reservation.
"For the children, this was a new adventure," says Ruth. "For the adults it was nothing short of hell."
It was the years that followed Poston, the years in which she tried to reconcile and understand a period of life spent in an internment camp, that have been fraught with anxiety and much personal pain.
"It was a question of identity that I couldn't quite figure out," says Ruth, "I would remember, going to school at Poston and every morning pledging allegiance to the flag and I just couldn't reconcile that. I couldn't come to terms with the fact that this was a country whose mantra was "justice for all" and that clearly didn't apply to those Japanese-Americans who were interned."
After years of trying to understand and express her feelings of internment through art, Ruth embarked on a journey to discover. A journey in which she set out to gather as many facts as she could about her internment and about the Poston Relocation Center as a way of understanding and making sense of the inexplicable.
"I thought if I could, through research, see the facts in front of me," says Ruth, "it would make this unreal and surreal part of my life, a part of my life that has impacted and shaped me in almost every way possible, seem real and tangible."
Ruth's discoveries startle and disturb, but eventually lead to resolution as she learns about the role that the Japanese Internees played in developing this reservation.
Ruth currently lives with her husband, renowned glass artist Marvin Lipofsky in Berkeley, California. Ruth spends a lot of her time working on the Poston Restoration Committee, a joint effort by former internees of the Poston Relocation Center and The Colorado River Indian Tribes to preserve the few remaining buildings left of the internment camp.
Kiyo Sato was in her late teens when she and her family were sent to Poston.
Within the mandatory evacuation order of seven days, Kiyo worked frantically with her parents to put things in order and prepare to leave their home for a place unknown.
Furniture either had to be sold or put into storage. The crop on their farm needed to be picked and brought to market. And with only being able to take the things that they could carry, decisions had to be made as to what personal belongings were necessary to bring along.
"Our lives were being turned upside down," said Kiyo, " and yet we made sure we always had a smile on our face lest the children, my younger brothers and sisters, would sense that anything was the matter."
It wasn't until the train left the station that Kiyo remembers breaking down.
"I thought up until the last minute, that this was all a mistake," says Kiyo. "Up until the last minute I thought the President would send a telegram. But when that train pulled out of the station my whole world just collapsed."
After the war, Kiyo joined the United States Air Force, completing her college education in nursing and reaching the rank of captain.
As Kiyo recounts, wanting to serve her country was reinforced in, of all places, Poston.
"One does not know what it's like to have one citizenship taken away," she explains. "But when it is taken away it made me just want to fight and fight hard to prove to all that I am an American."
Today, Kiyo lives in Sacramento, Ca. Her memoir, "Dandelion through the Cracks," has just been published. She spends a great deal of her time going to schools and youth groups talking about the internment.
"We are living history of what happened and what could happen again," she says.
Leon Uyeda and Mary Higashi
Leon Uyeda and Mary Higashi were both young adults when they and their families went to the Poston Internment Camp.
For Leon, the time spent at the Poston Camp is remembered with a certain degree of fondness.
Having grown up in San Bernadino, California - Leon recalls a childhood and adolescence fraught with constant racial hostility.
"For me," says Leon, "being in Poston - surrounded by people of my own kind - not having to worry about being insulted or demeaned because I was Japanese - was actually a happy chapter in my life."
"We were like roses that had a chance to bloom in the desert," he says.
Mary, whose family lived in Los Angeles and was a college student at that time, recalls the early days of being in Poston as "being like hell."
"We walked into our barracks," she says, "and there was nothing in this room but a coal burning stove. And there was dust coming up from the floor."
She recalls that both she and her mother fell to the floor sobbing.
"We didn't know how we would be able to survive in a place like this when we had absolutely nothing," she says.
Within the film, both Leon and Mary reflect on their lives they have led after Poston.
While Mary expresses some of life's disappointments experienced as a result of being interned - "I never was able to finish college so I think I missed out on a lot - she also gives voice as to how it has been her faith that has sustained her and has allowed her to reconcile Poston "a part of my life that will "stay with me forever."
"Faith has allowed me to forgive and if I didn't forgive I would end up being a very unhappy person. Despite what happened in Poston I have led a good life. And there is so much in the world to be thankful for," she says.
Leon gives voice to the sense of dislocation he has felt living in this country as a Japanese American.
"We all want to be Americans. We are as American as apple pie," he says, "but people always constantly remind you that you are different and that you do not belong here."
"I am always leery about going into a hotel or a restaurant because I am always fearful of being discriminated against. I hope to die soon so that I do not have to experience this constant hatred that haunted me for my entire life."
Mary Higashi lives in San Pedro, CA and has two daughters.
Leon Uyeda lives with his wife in Huntington Beach , CA and has two children.