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Defining and Redefining the Everyday Hero

A Flicker in Eternity (2012) is a documentary film by co-directors, producers, and writers Ann Kaneko and Sharon Yamato that tells the story of Stanley Hayami and his family while they were incarcerated at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming and his service during WWII. 

Young Hayami, a teenager at the time, documented his experiences of camp life through touching and comical drawings and journal entries. Many incarcerees, including Stanley, were forced into an environment of displacement and loss. Following the Executive Order 9066, the Hayami family, including 16-year-old Stanley, were forcibly removed from their home in the San Gabriel Valley and had to abandon their nursery business. Despite his circumstances, Stanley had unwavering hope in both his future and the future of America. “I’ll try to become a greater man from having gone through such experiences.” This phrase from Stanley’s diary fully encompasses the unwaveringly brave optimism that he had. 

Donated by his family, the collection of Stanley’s work and life, including his illustrated diary, letters home from the war front, and other personal items is temporarily on display at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) located in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Transposing some of the ideas of the 2012 documentary film into new media, Stanley’s story can now be experienced in the form of virtual reality, as part of the immersive exhibition, A Life in Pieces: The Diary and Letters of Stanley Hayami

On October 29, 2021, as part of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium 2022 Educational Conference, JANM hosted an event called “Through Stanley’s Eyes: Telling the Stories of Heart Mountain.” A panel of guests involved in the creation of A Life in Pieces spoke about the exhibition and their connection to Stanley Hayami’s story. Two of the panelists featured were Judy Hayami, Stanley Hayami’s niece, and Dakota Russell, Executive Director of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. (Watch full conversation below)

Judy touched on how personal of an artifact that this diary is to her family. Judy shares that donating the diary was not necessarily hard for their family, “it was a very personal item but on the other hand it was something that they felt strongly enough about that it needed to be known it needed to be shared.” 

Russell explained that life for teenagers at Heart Mountain was evidently harsh yet they were still able to build some sort of community within it. When understanding what life was like for the incarcerated, it is important to note what was happening around this time: the drafting of young Japanese soldiers to fight for the U.S. in World War II. Throughout camp, there was ongoing debate of how the draft was viewed. There were those who saw this as an opportunity to prove their loyalty to the nation, those who sought to resist the draft on principle (e.g. the “No-No Boys”), and many others with a spectrum of unique responses. As a teenager in 1944, Stanley was drafted into the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. While enlisted, he would send letters back to his family, assuring them not to worry about him. 

Another distinguished panelist, Sharon Yamato, co-director of A Flicker in Eternity who was key in developing the virtual reality experience, joined the discussion and revealed that the evolution of Stanley’s story, from film to virtual reality, was not so much a discrepancy in content, but a shift in visual effect. This new adaptation allows viewers to fully take a walk in their shoes. The emotional appeal is now exceptionally powerful. 

In learning of Stanley’s story, I was reminded of an important aligning theme brought up in one of my Asian American Studies courses at UCLA: “ways we gather” and  “why we gather.” While conducting research for this article, I raised the question: why would JANM tell this story? There was a specific response from one of the panelists during the program that made the most impact on me. When asked about the reason why Stanley’s story seems to continue to resonate with so many people today, Judy elegantly answered, “because he was an ordinary guy.”

He was not set on a pedestal nor was he celebrated as a coveted hero. Stanley shared his experiences in the rawest of ways. It is the innocence of his nature that made him so relatable. The primary mission of community archival spaces, such as JANM, is to foster an attitude of collective empowerment and to preserve the stories of real, ordinary people. Anyone can create change in the community they belong to, it just takes a little courage. 

I cannot help but feel inspired by Stanley and his family’s bravery. In a society that essentially viewed them as a threat, they continued to show loyalty. It is an honor to have the opportunity to write his article about the program and the exhibition. They kept their dignity amid the undignified circumstances that incarcerated them. 

Upon my first in-person visit at JANM, I had the opportunity to walk through the A Life in Pieces exhibition. The slightest detail amidst the many displays caught my eye: the voluntary activity table. On the table lies a stack of yellow construction papers. The tops of the pages pose two questions, (1) What do you think makes someone a hero? (2) Who are the heroes in your life? Guests visiting the museum are prompted to share their responses and have them posted on the wall outside the exhibition. I owe it to the Hayamis, as well as countless other camp survivors, for their strength and relentless dignity. 

The overall definition of collective empowerment, is the idea that everyone’s individual role plays an important part in seeking change in our communities. In closing, I have a key takeaway for you as the reader. What is something you can do today to be an advocate for something you strongly support? Who would you recognize as your hero? Should you feel nervous to step out of your comfort zone…think of Stanley. 

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To learn more about Stanley, his remarkable story, and the documentary that helped inspire the exhibition, watch a screening of A Flicker in Eternity on December 4, 2021 on-site at the Japanese American National Museum (click here for more details and tickets).

A Life in Pieces: The Diary and Letters of Stanley Hayami will be on view at JANM through January 9, 2022.


© 2021 Jade Hinds

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