Webinar Explores Legacy of Heart Mountain and Stories of Japanese American Incarceration

The U.S.-Japan Council partnered with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation to co-host a webinar exploring the lives of Japanese Americans imprisoned in incarceration camps during World War II, and the legacy of both trauma and perseverance it established. Titled “Legacies of Heart Mountain: Japanese American Origin Stories,” the webinar featured Friend of the Council Shirley Ann Higuchi, author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration” and Council Leader David Ono (JALD ’18), who produced the documentary film “The Legacy of Heart Mountain.” USJC President and CEO Suzanne Basalla served as the discussion’s moderator.

Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants had long struggled against racism and discrimination, but after Pearl Harbor was attacked, racism against Japanese Americans intensified. In 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing Japanese Americans to relocate to incarceration camps. 14,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. One of these camps was Heart Mountain, which Ms. Higuchi and Mr. Ono explored in their work.

Ms. Higuchi, who serves as the Chair of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, is the daughter of former incarcerees. Still, she says that she never heard much about Heart Mountain growing up, noting that many former incarcerees – including her mother – refused to talk about the hardships of the camp or share any painful memories of their lives in America during World War II. Only after her mother passed away did Ms. Higuchi learn the truth about Japanese American incarceration. She said, “It was my mother, Setsuko, and her secret that taught me that we can never relax in the fight for justice.”

News anchor and award-winning journalist David Ono became inspired to create his documentary film after one Japanese American family shared their old photograph collection from Heart Mountain. Though he first approached Heart Mountain as another news story, as he found out more about the camp and those who lived there, his mission evolved. “I felt like this is a place that tells a bigger story than one ‘internment camp’,” he said. “Every day I seem to find out more about it.” 

Mr. Ono, who was born in Japan, admitted that he had never heard of the period of Japanese Americans being incarcerated, and as a young adult, was shocked to first learn about this rarely-discussed chapter of American history. He reflected that the lessons of Heart Mountain have a striking relevance even today – especially concerning the treatment of minorities and the animosities directed at immigrants. He hopes that the stories of Japanese American incarceration will continue to be shared so that it can inform Americans of its past and help steer its future.

Kenichiro Mukai, Minister, Head of Chancery, Embassy of Japan and Consul-General of Japan in Denver Midori Takeuchi

Kenichiro Mukai, Minister, Head of Chancery, Embassy of Japan in the United States, also offered special remarks. He shared some of his important memories of his time serving in the United States, including his experience as part of the 2019 Heart Mountain Pilgrimage. “I went as a Japanese diplomat, and returned as a Japanese who shared an identity and heritage with those who were confined there 75 years ago,” he said. He stressed the importance of sharing the stories of Japanese Americans both in the United States and Japan.

Consul-General of Japan in Denver Midori Takeuchi closed the session by providing reflections on why it’s important for Japanese citizens to learn more about Japanese American history. 

The afterword for Setsuko’s Secret was written by USJC Founding President, the late Irene Hirano Inouye.

The video is available for viewing on Youtube