Why we tell stories

By Jon Funabiki

Listening to stories can make you laugh, cry, snicker or soar.

Telling stories can do all that and more. Telling stories can help you retrieve lost history, discover connections with strangers, and understand your deepest feelings. Sometimes, they can even help you heal. These were some of the points I drew from a conversation with three individuals who use storytelling in their work.

The first was Masaya Nemoto, a cultural anthropologist from the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University. He was visiting San Francisco to collect oral histories from survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. More than 100 survivors, known as hibakusha (“explosion-effected people”) live in this area.

Because of his work, I thought it would be interesting to invite Kathy Sloane, an accomplished Bay Area photographer who produced a documentary about a young Japanese soldier who was dispatched to help clean up Hiroshima in the days after the devastation. Shocked by the horrors he witnessed, he has dedicated his life to opposing nuclear warfare.

This led me to Jill Shiraki, a longtime activist in the Japanese American community. She is passionate about collecting and preserving the community’s rich history, beginning with the arrival of the early Japanese immigrants in the late 1800s. Their lives were traumatically disrupted by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Fearing that they might become saboteurs and spies for Japan, the U.S. government forced 120,000 Japanese Americans (including my family) into World War II internment camps.

Upwards of 166,000 people perished of flash burns, falling debris and radiation sickness when the U.S. dropped the first A-bomb on Hiroshima. Of those who survived, many struggle with a variety of cancers and other ailments that may be connected to radiation exposure. Japanese Americans were among the victims. The children of immigrants to the U.S., their parents had sent them to Japan to learn the language and attend schools. But when war broke out, they were trapped in Japan. With Hiroshima destroyed, many of those who survived decided to return to the U.S. to rejoin the rest of their families. Thus, they are Japanese American hibakusha.

Now in their 70s and 80s, they live in constant anxiety about their exposure to radiation. Some hibakusha have decided never to have children. In Japan, hibakusha are known to face discrimination.

“Every time I interview survivors, I feel their spirit to live despite their problems and fears,” said Prof. Nemoto.

Sloane’s film, Witness to Hiroshima, tells the story of former soldier Keiji Tsuchiya who was only 17 years old when he was dispatched to Hiroshima and watched some victims die in front of his eyes. Now a marine biologist, Tsuchiya has painted watercolor pictures that capture his memories, and he shows the paintings while giving talks about nuclear warfare.

Sloane’s film consists of a series of still photographs that she took while Tsuchiya told his story from start to finish with the help of a translator. An original musical score adds a meditative tone to the film. I’ve invited Sloane to show her film to my journalism students at San Francisco State University as a way to demonstrate how a relatively straightforward form of storytelling can be a powerful way to understand what motivates an individual like Tsuchiya. Students are usually moved to tears, as I am each time I watch the film.

Shiraki has been involved in numerous projects that have helped to capture and recover the community’s history. One of my favorites is Preserving California’s Japantowns, which documents and maps 43 Japanese American settlements that dotted state before World War II. Sadly, many disappeared due to the internment, but the project shows the large impact of the early Japanese Americans. They helped build the state’s flower and agricultural industry, revitalized run down neighborhoods and created churches and temples. Shiraki has encouraged multiple generations of Japanese Americans to recall, write and tell about their experiences, which has been a healing process.

So there we were: A scholar who collects oral histories; a photographer who documents peoples’ experiences; an activist who excavates community history; and a journalist who records history one story at a time. We were connected not only by storytelling, but also by a war that ended more than six decades ago.

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