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Nikkei Chronicles #7—Nikkei Roots: Digging into Our Cultural Heritage

The Power of Dance for Social Advocacy

Dancer: Samantha Lin. Photography: Skye Schmidt

In spring 2017, I decided with the recent political climate that I could no longer wait for someone else to “do something.” At the time I was a dance graduate student so I decided to choreograph a dance entitled Shikata ga nai at the University of California, Irvine. Shikata ga nai is a Japanese phrase translating to “it cannot be helped.” This was an expression used by many Japanese people when faced with the injustice of being detained in internment camps, signifying their ability to maintain dignity despite uncontrollable circumstances.

My piece featured an audio interview of Yae Aihara, a docent at the Japanese American National Museum located in Los Angeles, CA. In this interview, she accounts for her experience as a Japanese American after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With some of the immigration laws that were passed in recent years, the stories of the Japanese internment camps are more prevalent than ever.

The Japanese internment camps are a part of history that I often considered creating a dance about. Although it was a significant and inhuman event in U.S. history, I did not feel I had the right to pursue this idea since I did not personally live through this experience. My grandpa, however, was one of many Japanese Americans who were detained. After being released from the relocation camps, being associated as a person of Japanese descent was a reminder of the events that took place after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This socially unjustified event was also the beginning of which my family lost part, if not all of our Japanese heritage.

Although not my own experience, it is rooted in my family history and one that will never be heard or spoken about. My grandpa did not like speaking about his time spent in the internment camps as a young boy and because of this, my family and I will never know his story. As an adult, I can respect my grandpa’s decision not to speak about it because to him, this was not a good time in his life. Although discriminated against, he was a proud American that even fought in the Korean War (which he took great pride in).

As a student attending college and studying dance, I read about choreographers who use dance as a way to express human conditions by creating socially conscious dance works. I admired these artists’ ability to create and use movement to bring awareness for social change. While a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, I was  surrounded by professionals that I only read about up until that point, such as legendary dance activist Donald McKayle—a respected choreographer who sought to showcase human conditions through dance, highlighting social injustices.

As a choreographer, I have always been interested in exploring subjects that I did not understand, the process of creating, and finding a deeper understanding or my own resolution. Although most of my time spent creating dance pieces has revolved around making sense of the unknown, I knew I wanted to make dances that could possibly affect change or at the very least bring awareness. I feel as artists, we hold a unique responsibility, in which movement speaks and can be interpreted even when words are not present. Dance can reach a wide range of people and to me, this is very powerful.

After considering the political climate and the weight of unheard stories of survivors who lived through social injustices caused by the government, I decided it was time I stood up and make my own stance. Shikata ga nai was choreographed to help bring to light one out of many adversities surrounding the treatment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To me, this dance holds a special place because it is an event that has influenced my family’s heritage, as well as many other Japanese Americans.

In spring 2017, my dance premiered at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). I was humbled to be asked by the UCI Dance Faculty to submit my work at the American College of Dance Association Regional Conference which aims to “support and affirm dance in higher education.” A panel of respected adjudicators within the dance community chose my dance to perform for the national conference at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. After performing at the Kennedy Center, Shikata ga nai has been invited to perform for the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival as part of the Inside/Out: American College Dance Association Gala Highlights on August 23, 2018.

I hoped I would be able to share Yae’s story since I strongly believe these experiences can help educate and remind others of history. Ones which will hopefully not be repeated again. Never in my dreams did I imagine the magnitude of people my dance could reach. For this reason, I believe dance can be a powerful tool in helping bring awareness for change.

I need to raise $1,100 in order to attend the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and need your help! My GoFundMe campaign will be up and running until August 23, 2018. You can donate via my GoFundMe page.


© 2018 Vanessa Kanamoto

5 Stars

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this series was eligible for selection as favorites of our readers and the Editorial Committees. Thank you to everyone who voted!

awareness camps Chronicles dance expression Nikkei Roots roots WWII Yae Aihara

About this series

Stories in the Nikkei Chronicles series have explored many of the ways that Nikkei express their unique culture, whether through food, language, family, or tradition. For this edition, we are digging deeper—all the way down to our roots!

We solicited stories from May to September of 2018 and received 35 stories (22 English; 1 Japanese; 8 Spanish; and 4 Portuguese) from individuals in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Mexico, Peru, and the United States. For this series, we asked our Nima-kai community to vote for their favorite stories and an editorial committee to pick their favorites. In total, four favorite stories were selected.

Here are the selected favorite stories.

Editorial Committee’s Selections:

  Nima-kai selection:

To learn more about this writing project >>

Check out these other Nikkei Chronicles series >>