Japanese Incarceration Memorialized in Sand 

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The event “Animating Memories of Japanese Incarceration” was lead by Kimi Maeda, who created the show and give insight into it’s importance, and Hana Maruyama, a professor from UConn who served as host. (Photo courtesy of Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry)

The deeply personal and historically significant “Animating Memories of Japanese Incarceration” is the first installment of the 2021 Fall Puppet Forum Series at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry.  

The event featured theater artist Kimi Maeda discussing the creation of her show and giving some insight into the history of Japanese American internment camps in the United States and her father’s experience living in one. The forum took place virtually on Sept. 23 and was hosted by University of Connecticut professor Hana Maruyama. 

The forum began with Maeda describing her show, which is a 50-minute solo performance. Maeda’s main medium is sand, which is spread on the floor and used by Maeda to draw images. The live footage is projected behind her intercut with archival footage for the audience to see. 

Maeda doesn’t speak during the performance, but prerecorded audio, narration, actor readings, interviews and archival footage are used throughout the performance. The narrative covers both the history of internment camps and Maeda’s father’s personal time in an internment camp.  

In the United States throughout the years of 1942-1946, in reaction to Pearl Harbor, roughly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were American citizens, were incarcerated and placed in internment camps. These camps were located in states such as California, Oregon and Washington, states with large populations of Japanese Americans. 

The performance also touches on many personal elements of Maeda and her father’s life, such as his eventual struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.  

“By talking about my dad’s memory loss and illusions, I think it opened the piece up for more people, giving them a different entry point into the story of the internment camps,” said Maeda. 

Another big piece of “Animating Memories of Japanese Incarceration” centers on Maeda’s father’s interactions with Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese artist who voluntarily entered the same internment camp Maeda’s father was in to help Japanese Americans by teaching them wood carving and carpentry.  

“From very early on, I knew that I wanted to use sand; I’d used it once before and had really enjoyed the versatility of the medium,” said Maeda. “For a story about Poston, where all of the internees, especially my dad, mainly remember the dust and sand of the desert, it seemed especially appropriate. On top of that, it connected so well to the idea of memory as something that is always slipping away.” 

Maeda spoke on how performing her show is a physical experience for her. Instead of placing the sand on  a table like many sand drawings, Maeda places the sand on the floor so that she can interact with the sand with her whole body.  

“I think of [the performance] now as a memorial for my dad and all of the Japanese Americans who were interned. Every time I perform it, I have to study the photos of my dad and the camp and I draw them over and over and over so that they are committed to my memory,” said Maeda.  

Maeda noted that her performance is a living thing that is always evolving and not something stagnant like a video that can be accessed at any time. Audiences see the show and then it lives in their memories. 

“I really wish that the more people there are who remember themselves and see themselves connected to history, the less likely it is that we will repeat the same mistakes like the unjust internment of over 100,000 people,” said Maeda. 

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