YAKIMA, Wash. -- Alan Matsumoto remembers seeing a grainy black-and-white film of his mother and two of her sisters as they left Bainbridge Island in early 1942.
Each girl carried a single suitcase as they walked onto a ferry that would take them to a bus bound for the Puyallup Fairgrounds, where they were to be detained before transport to their eventual destination — the Manzanar Relocation Center in Southern California.
Though the Bainbridge Island natives were American citizens, they were among more than 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast who were incarcerated during World War II because of their heritage. Three-quarters of them were U.S. citizens.
Then Ann Yamashita, Matsumoto’s mother is now 89 and lives in Renton. She’s the reason behind the Garfield Elementary School principal’s efforts to bring a one-act play, “Nihonjin Face,” to his school and also Davis High School on Thursday.
“The young lady in the story would be the same age as my mom was when her family was sent to Manzanar,” Matsumoto said of the production by the Tacoma-based Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
“There will be a lot of learning in it for me. I’m very interested in seeing it.”
“Nihonjin Face,” meaning “Japanese Face,” tells the story of 10-year-old Tacoma resident Tomiko Hashimoto and follows her family’s experience during World War II and its impact on her future.
The play’s seven-week tour of schools and community centers throughout Washington state culminates with events in Tacoma on Feb. 19, marking to the day the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which put into motion the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes and businesses.
Garfield teaches core subjects through arts integration. A few years ago, the school hosted musicians who performed on antique instruments, Matsumoto said. One of the musicians was the production manager for the Broadway Center.
“I didn’t really know what the play was about, but it interested me,” he said. “We communicated intermittently until he had some dates, then I started looking at dates.”
Admission is free. Bringing “Nihonjin Face” to Yakima costs $750 per show; the Yakima Schools Foundation is funding the first show and Tamaki Law the second, Matsumoto said.
“I hope as many people as possible can see the production either at Davis or Garfield,” he said.
And he welcomes capacity crowds. “We’ll make space for them,” he added.
Matsumoto, who is in his 16th year as Garfield principal, grew up on Vashon Island near Tacoma. His teaching career in the Yakima Valley began in 1975 at Wapato.
“My first year teaching in Wapato, I was walking between buildings to a staff meeting at the primary school when an old pickup truck pulls up. An older ... Japanese lady says to me, ‘You new teacher?’ in broken English,” he recalled. “She says, ‘I was in school with your mother,’ and she reaches in the back of her old pickup truck and hands me a box of tomatoes.
“I never saw her again ... I never found out her name,” he added, surmising that she recognized him from a short profile in the paper.
While his mother was a young girl when incarcerated, his father, Jim Matsumoto, who was born in a log cabin on Vashon Island, was a few years older when he was interned at Tule Lake in Northern California.
“Eventually she ended up in Minidoka,” in southern Idaho, Matsumoto said. She was allowed to leave that camp for her job as a seamstress, he added.
“I don’t know anything about Dad. He did enlist in the Army; he would have turned 18 in camp,” Matsumoto said.
His mother’s brother, Mas, served in the highly decorated 442nd Infantry Regiment, a fighting unit of almost entirely American soldiers of Japanese ancestry.
Both of them children of strawberry farmers, Matsumoto’s parents met years later when his father trucked strawberries to Bainbridge because there were no canneries on Vashon Island. His parents were married more than 50 years when his father, who also was a logger and owned a construction company, died in his late 80s three years ago, Matsumoto said.
“There wasn’t an open discussion” about their experiences at the camps, “maybe once a year on Dec. 7, but not really a sit-down discussion,” Matsumoto said.
“My dad was pretty quiet about it — he wanted us to be recognized as Americans.”
And while his mother was more open, “She doesn’t talk about the bad part of it. She doesn’t remember that,” he said.
Matsumoto began asking his parents more about their experiences when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 to compensate the more than 120,000 who were incarcerated. Along with a formal apology, the legislation paid each survivor $20,000.
“When it really became interesting to me was when Congress passed the Reparations Bill,” said Matsumoto, the oldest of four children. “I got a call from my mother ... she said, ‘We’re going to send you some money.’ ... We each got $5,000.”
Two performances of “Nihonjin Face” are scheduled in Tacoma on Feb. 19. Matsumoto hopes one of his West Side siblings can take their mother to a show that day.
It is the school’s job to fight racism; kids aren’t born racist, Matsumoto said. It’s through education that they do or don’t become racist, and “Nihonjin Face” is part of that education.
“I want there to be an awareness ... not to let it happen again,” he said.
More about ‘Nihonjin Face’
The Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma commissioned the “Nihonjin Face” production, written by playwrights Janet Hayakawa, artist and educator currently working for Densho: The Japanese Legacy Project, and Tere Martinez, adjunct professor at Hostos Community College (CUNY) in New York City’s South Bronx.
The playwrights set the scene in 1942, as the country is engaged in World War II and the U.S. government incarcerates 120,000 Japanese Americans for alleged “reasons of national security.” The story follows 10-year-old Tomiko Hashimoto and her family as they are forced to leave their home in Tacoma. During three years of incarceration, Tomiko learns the impact of discrimination and develops empathy for others experiencing similar civil rights challenges.
Years later, she shares her experiences with her grandson, who also is navigating the complexities of racial identity in America.
The plot of this production has threads of personal experience, as playwright Hayakawa’s parents and grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans to be incarcerated during World War II.
All educators are welcome to access the curricula created for the show. There is a K-5 curriculum and a 6-12 curriculum, both with connections to social studies such as history, civics and geography as well as language arts. They are available at http://broadwaycenter.org/component/k2/409-civil-rights-legacy-tour-study-guides.