LOS ANGELES — Bill Shishima shares how he joined the Boy Scouts as a 12-year-old behind the barbed wire of a Japanese American internment camp, or how he had to work on a rabbit farm to earn his keep when his parents couldn't afford to move the family back to California after World War II.
The 81-year-old retired teacher answers the questions of those who ask — school groups, news reporters and sometimes his children and 14-year-old granddaughter — but he's never sat down and recorded his life story or that of his now-deceased parents, who lost the family's grocery and hotel business when they were sent to Wyoming's Heart Mountain camp.
"They just endured," he said. "My parents never talked about it."
Like many survivors, Shishima is now being asked to write down his memories with thousands of others before they're lost to time.
Seventy years after the U.S. government uprooted more than 110,000 people and shipped them off to remote, military-style camps, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles has started a three-year project aimed at recruiting survivors and their descendants to share their stories and photos on a website poised to become a snapshot of history.
To this day, it is difficult for Japanese Americans to reconcile how the only country they knew, and a democratic one, could incarcerate them because of their ancestry. Many say it is vital to remember the order that forced people from their homes as the country waged war with Japan to prevent others in America from ever suffering the same fate.
Numerous efforts have recorded in-depth oral histories about internees' experiences. But many Japanese Americans have been reluctant to come forward because they don't recall the details of camp life or don't feel like their everyday lives there carry historical weight. Still others find talking about the past too painful, experts said.
"The last of the survivors are dying," said Chris Komai, a spokesman for the museum. "It is about trying to make this last push before everybody's gone."
More than 40 years after the war, the U.S. government issued a formal apology for the wartime camps with the signing of a law that included restitution for former internees.
In recent decades, there has been a broad effort to preserve survivors' stories for future generations. In Seattle, the nonprofit organization Densho has videotaped more than 600 oral histories of former internees since its start 16 years ago. In Hawaii, Oregon and Illinois, groups have been doing similar work.
"Every region has an organization — or organizations — who is trying to do this," said Tom Ikeda, Densho's executive director. "A lot of collecting is going on and has been going on and there are these amazing collections but not many people know about them. With the emergence of technology, we can now make these things much more accessible."
The Los Angeles museum — which opened in 1992 in the city's Little Tokyo neighborhood — also has roughly 300 oral histories on file. But they have not been digitized, and while used by scholars, they aren't easily accessible to the public, Komai said.
That's another reason museum leaders started the Remembrance Project, hoping the tech-savvy children and grandchildren of internees will log their stories online so they can be shared more easily. The stories don't have to be long or detailed or even written by camp survivors themselves, in contrast to more formal accounts, he said.
"The main point is we pay tribute so that we never forget," said George Takei, the actor who played Hikaru Sulu in the television series "Star Trek" and a museum trustee.
Inside the museum, digital screens erected inside a wooden barracks once used at Heart Mountain display black and white photographs of Japanese Americans and a message about the project, which requires participants to pay $90 to upload their stories. Museum officials also plan to reach out to former internees at screenings this year of the 1970s film "Farewell to Manzanar" at community centers in California.
It is too soon to tell what the effort will yield in the Los Angeles area, where more than 138,000 people claim some Japanese heritage, or whether the museum will achieve a critical mass of submissions.
Shishima, who volunteers at the museum, said he will probably submit his story on the site.
Franklin Odo, former director of the Asian Pacific American program at the Smithsonian Institution, said there's constantly new aspects of camp life that are being uncovered, noting a recent documentary about internees sneaking out to go fishing up in the mountains of California.
"It is like stuff coming out of the Holocaust or Civil War or any large experience," Odo said. "Every time we think we've exhausted the stories, it turns out it's not true."4 comments on this story
That's what happened to Masako Murakami, who was 7 years old when her family was sent to a camp in Arizona, then to a segregation center in Tule Lake, Calif. because her father answered no on a government questionnaire about his willingness to swear allegiance to the United States and serve in military combat.
Murakami always thought her American-born father's answers stemmed from his lingering ties to family in Japan. Years later, after speaking with him, she learned they were an act of protest.
Her father died 10 years ago. Her mother, a seamstress, died last year, and when she did, Murakami and her sister felt compelled to write down what they remembered of the family's experiences, and share them online.
"I thought, wow, they're both gone now. We should say something so even my children will know about it, and the grandchildren and the great grandchildren," said Murakami, who lives in Monterey Park and volunteers at the museum. "They were never famous — they were just ordinary people, and I thought, I wanted to tell their story."