Looking at Japanese American Incarceration though Baseball: An Interview with Filmmakers Yuriko Gamo Romer and Kerry Yo Nakagawa

Looking at Japanese American Incarceration though Baseball: An Interview with Filmmakers Yuriko Gamo Romer and Kerry Yo Nakagawa

Yuriko Gamo Romer is the writer and director of BASEBALL BEHIND BARBED WIRE.Kerry Yo Nakagawa is the director of the non-profit Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP).


Q&A with Yuriko Gamo Romer

Why did you make this film?

Yuriko Gamo Romer: While making DIAMOND DIPLOMACY, this chapter of the Japanese American incarceration stood out as something that needed its own film. It is an important story and I felt that to tell it through the baseball lens was new and that it might open doors for an audience that might not otherwise be interested. When I got the funding from the National Parks Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed the perfect thing to focus on while sheltering in place – a film that needed research, archival searching, and trying to find the right stories and angle from which to tell the story.

Why is this film relevant to our current moment?

Although this is almost an 80-year-old history, every time there is something in the news about an “other” community it seems to raise fear and cause people to try and isolate the “other.” At the moment, major wars are unfolding in the world, with Jews experiencing anti-semitism and Arabs experiencing anti-Muslim/anti-Arab hatred. When this type of fear starts to happen there is always the concern that there will be some sweeping action. Post 911 there was anti-Muslim sentiment that eventually showed up as a Muslim ban by the Trump administration. Although it didn’t get to the point of rounding people up and incarcerating them, this frightening notion was in the air. In this context, understanding the Japanese-American incarceration of World War II feels as relevant as ever.

Why use filmmaking to examine this issue?

Examining this issue through filmmaking was a natural way to bring these stories to life, especially since we are on the cusp of losing the last living survivors of the Japanese-American incarceration of World War II. These first-person testimonies are critical to capture, and through the use of archival films and photos, and perhaps even more so through the use of illustrations and animations, we were able to reveal the human emotion that is particular to the experience of the internment camps. There is real power in hearing stories told aloud by the people who lived them. Books are powerful, too, but there is something much more visceral, more relatable in hearing them told aloud and witnessing people who lived those experiences in the archival material.

Tell us about how audiences have been responding to your film.

These are the moments when I’m rewarded for pushing through tough times. From the very first screening, I learned that this film does a very good job of giving audiences a sense of what these folks lived through in the camps, behind barbed wire and in the shadow of guard towers pointing their guns inward. But in telling the stories through baseball it also showed a sense of hope and resilience that the Japanese Americans experienced playing their favorite All-American pastime. Some of the screenings have been for kids and students in schools. Here is a story that I’d like to share with you about my trip to Wisconsin:

I was part of a panel at the U.S. Japan Council conference titled, “Art as Currency.” It made me think about an experience I recently had screening my film for schools and saw it as being “Humanities as Currency.” In September of 2023, I was invited to Wisconsin along with Kerry Yo Nakagawa, a historian and son/grandson of incarcerees who appears in my film, to screen the film and to speak to the kids. This was a “sneak preview” before the Film Festival World Premiere in Hot Springs Arkansas. This was because I was closely in touch with Colin Hanson, an amazing, very progressive, and motivated school teacher. He started a program 17 years ago in central, rural Wisconsin, called “A Walk in their Shoes.” This was designed to bring speakers with personal experiences to central, rural, not-so-diverse Wisconsin. Seven years ago, they invited Kerry Yo Nakagawa and two men who had been in the Gila River Japanese-American internment camp during WWII who are central characters in my film. They were also baseball players. I was able to use some of the video that was recorded during their 2016 visit to Wisconsin in my film. So, Colin asked that we kick off his school year by screening the film and visiting to speak to the kids. In two action-packed days, Kerry and I screened the film four times and were interviewed for Wisconsin public radio. Three visits were to schools and 1000+ students ranging from 6th grade through 12th grade were present in these audiences. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career! We had thoughtful, intelligent questions from the students after the screenings. And then we had crowds come up to talk to us. They told us they had been inspired and moved by the film, and that they wanted to be writers, historians, journalists, filmmakers, and teachers. It gives me goosebumps just writing about this! These students want to study and work, in the HUMANITIES!

I’ve told the above story many times since I was in Wisconsin, this experience reinforces why I do what I do, what “we” (maybe we’re all kind of crazy) as documentary filmmakers do what we do! I’ve shared this with the film’s audiences at the film festivals and it always gets an enthusiastic response, because we are reaching the youth, our future!

Why did you become a filmmaker?

I learned the medium of film through my previous advertising career. I fell in love with the medium but soon felt that I wanted to do more with it. I looked for longer-format storytelling and eventually came across some opportunities to make documentaries. I went back to graduate school and feel I’ve found my calling. It is a career that even when the going gets tough (and it often does) I feel the energy and the motivation to move through it. 


Q&A with Kerry Yo Nakagawa 

Tell us about your background and why this issue matters to you.

Kerry Yo Nakagawa: As an author, filmmaker, and historian on the subject of the ‘Incarceration’ of Japanese Americans during WWII; this is a very personal story for us since my Grandmother died in the Jerome, Arkansas Concentration Camp, and family and friends suffered so much hardship and sacrificed so much for our future generations. Our Uncle John T. Suzuki was Senator Inouye’s radioman in the ‘E’ Company of the 442 when they liberated towns in Italy and also saved the ‘Lost Battalion’ in France. We never seem to learn from history's past mistakes and xenophobia continues to impact us today. Hopefully, these personal stories, oral histories, and interviews bring awareness and educate diverse audiences.

What kinds of conversations do you hope to facilitate about this film?

BASEBALL BEHIND BARBED WIRE is a ‘touchstone’ to our history when America imprisoned their own Americans, only because of their race. Only Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington were rounded up, and they were an economic force in these states. Eighty percent of the fishing boats and canneries in Monterey, CA were controlled by our Nikkei community. At the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona during WWII; it was like a ‘prison within a prison.’ The Akimel O’Otham Pee Posh River People were displaced and during WWII, thirteen thousand Japanese Americans were forced to live on their sacred land. A shared ‘hidden legacy’ and missing chapter in American history. Economics, and if you ‘follow the money’ in any era you find the cause and effects. One powerful dynamic about the film is ‘forgiveness’ and the humanity of people and players that gives us hope for our future generations.

What do you like about speaking with educators, students, and community members?

Kerry Yo Nakagawa: Twenty-nine years ago we started our nonprofit Nisei Baseball Research Project and mission to bring awareness and education of Japanese American Incarceration through the prism of baseball and our multimedia projects of passion. Baseball has been in our families' DNA for five generations now. It is very special to connect with educators, students, and ‘Elders’ who had to endure so much and are ‘Living Monuments’ to this time period. So many of our Issei and Nisei Ballplayers had the five tools and passion to play in major league baseball but were banned. They then became our American Ambassadors in Japan, Korea, and China opening up this ‘Bridge Across the Pacific’ as early as 1914. I’m sure these marginalized, invisible, and forgotten players would be so proud to see so many Asian players on almost every MLB roster today. These MLB legacy players are standing on the shoulders of their ancestral Godfathers who played prewar, during WWII, and post-war in leagues of their own.


Bring the documentary BASEBALL BEHIND BARBED WIRE  and Yuriko Gamo Romer to your campus.