Taiko Swings up to Humboldt

A retro tribute to Japanese American internees


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Imagine a 1940s dance hall full of swing dancers sporting pin curls and pompadours moving to the big band sound of saxophones, trumpets and trombones. Now imagine the precision of traditional Japanese taiko drumming leading the beat and the dance taking place in the mess hall of a World War II Japanese American internment camp.

This is how local visual artist and Team Taiko founder Amy Uyeki describes the planned January 2020 event "Swingposium on the Road." Team Taiko is the core group members of Taiko Swing Humboldt, the organization hosting the Swingposium in collaboration with the event's creators the San Jose Taiko. Taiko Swing Humboldt was created solely for this event and is asking the community for support through a Gofundme page.

The Swingposium will be held at the Bayside Community Center and will highlight stories from Japanese American camp survivors through swing dancing, musical performances and audience participation. San Jose Taiko Artistic Director Franco Imperial has described the event as "an immersive theatre experience" where the "audience isn't passively sitting in their seats, they are in the middle of the action and drama and music and dance." In short, the audience is part of the show. It was created to pay tribute to swing dance, big band music and the experiences of the estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans whose civil rights the U.S. government violated by imprisoning them behind barbed wire and under armed guard during WWII.

As the first stop for the Swingposium, Humboldt County will act as a pilot program. This is especially fitting because of a little-known historical fact: Eureka's Federal Courthouse was where 27 already imprisoned Japanese Americans who refused to serve in the U.S. military during WWII stood trial. They were the only group of draft resistors in the western states to receive a favorable verdict.

"This event is to raise awareness and let people know how easy it is in times of hysteria — these things can happen unless people are involved," Uyeki says. "We have to draw attention to the parallels and to not let this become the norm, or see people as other."

Uyeki never learned of the camps in school, though both her parents were interned in them. She says this event can be educational and keep the stories of Asian American experiences alive. Uyeki's interest in this time of history was rekindled when her daughter interviewed her parents about their experiences in the camps for a high school project. After seeing old photographs and albums, Uyeki started to reach out to musicians who were forced into camps as teenagers. She then partnered with KEET TV in 2012 to make a historical animation called Searchlight Serenade: Big Bands in the WWII Japanese American Incarceration Camps, about musicians who played big band music to preserve some normalcy, humanity and joy in the camps.

"I noticed they were 'American' dressed but Japanese," Uyeki says of the old photographs. "Many of them seemed so American but they were all in concentration camps." (It's worth noting that while we commonly associate the term with Nazi death camps, a prison in which people are held without trial and on the basis of their ethnic or religious minority status precisely fits Merriam-Webster's and the historical definition of a concentration camp.)

Part of the educational outreach aspect of the Swingposium will be a performance at Humboldt State University, as well as two performances at Eureka High School that will be followed by a 30-minute facilitated discussion. The HSU Jazz Orchestra will perform as the big band with San Jose Taiko providing the script and drumming for all the events.

"This event is teaching history by using art, music and local swing dancers," Team Taiko member Vicki Ozaki says. "It's really important we don't repeat history, especially with what's happening with immigration now."

Ozaki says there are three other events coordinated by Taiko Swing Humboldt leading into the Swingposium. The Olli Brown Bag Noon Lecture on Oct. 14 will be hosted by Jack Bareilles and Mitch Higa, who will discuss Humboldt County history during WWII and resistance by Japanese Americans at the Crystal City Detention Center in Texas. The Rockin' Ramen fundraiser at the Bayside Community Center on Oct. 18 will feature chef Johnny Hoda preparing a special ramen dinner against a backdrop of Japanese street music. The last event will be a pop-up museum at the HSU library from Jan. 22 through Feb. 3 displaying WWII internment camp artifacts from Humboldt residents.

Ozaki says while there isn't a lot of diversity in Humboldt County, organizing the Swingposium events is bringing together the local Japanese American community and the larger Asian American community, which is one of the goals. Team Taiko member and coordinator for the Rockin' Ramen event Marylyn Paik-Nicely agrees with Ozaki, saying the point is to think beyond the Swingposium and keep building a community of all Asian cultural groups.

"We hope for this to be a lifelong education after it's done," Paik-Nicely says.

What else stands out for Paik-Nicely is the healing aspect project. Growing up in Hawaii, Paik-Nicely had relatives who were sent to camps across the lower 48 — one cousin was even born inside a camp. She says it breaks her heart to see the similarities with the current immigration detention centers and what happened to her family. For her, the Swingposium raises a valuable discussion on the past and present. "This is a part of our life story, even for those without family members sent out, it's our community," Paik-Nicely says.

It is because of this community that Uyeki continues to participate in projects that share at large the experiences of Japanese Americans forced into camps. She has worked as the "in-between generation point of contact" for younger Japanese Americans connecting with elders to help preserve their stories. For Uyeki, the Swingposium is not only bringing to life what it was like to live in the camps but also bringing out the positive elements of community resilience with music, dancing and audience engagement.

"In taiko, the beat draws you in," Uyeki says. "By showing joyful aspects of your culture, art and music, we can bond and appreciate each other."

For more information on how to get involved and participate with Swingposium on the Road and Taiko Swing Humboldt, contact [email protected] or call 633-3155.

T.William Wallin is a senior at Humboldt State University majoring in journalism and minoring in Eastern religious studies. He prefers he/him. He is also a poet and freelance reporter.


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