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New Music Reflects On The Internment Of Japanese Americans During World War II Through The Eyes Of A Child

A close up photo of a musician playing a violin.
The Moab Music Festival will debut a new piece of music called “Lost Freedom: Japanese American Confinement In America.” It features music by composer Kenji Bunch and narration by actor George Takei.

It’s been nearly 80 years since the United States forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. A new piece of music premiering at the Moab Music Festival this weekend reflects on that history.

“Lost Freedom: Japanese American Confinement in America” was inspired by the experiences of actor George Takei. He was just a child when he and his family were imprisoned in two of those camps.

The piece features text and narration by Takei and music by composer and violist Kenji Bunch. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Bunch about creating the music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: How would you describe the music itself? 

Kenji Bunch: Well, it's for a chamber ensemble. It's a piano, string quartet and percussion. I made the decision pretty early on that I didn't want to try to evoke sounds of that time or place too specifically. I love the sound of the 40s. I grew up with big band era music, and I love it dearly, but I didn't want to be too specific. I also didn't want to specifically recall sounds evoking Japanese culture. I made that decision because what I think is so powerful about George's words is that it's an account of when he was a kid. He was only five years old when this happened. And we don't all share the experience of being Asian American. I happen to. I'm Japanese American. But everyone was at some point a five-year-old kid, and I wanted to approach it from that perspective of childhood innocence. So I think you can hear that in the music.

CB: Because this was inspired by George Takei's experiences, what was it like to spend so much time in someone else's memory?

KB: I'm kind of used to that, I think more from being a performer myself. That's kind of our job. In this particular case, my family doesn't share the experience of the confinement in the camps, but it's so easy to see how that could have been our experience. It was hard work. It was a heavy story to live with, but it felt like something really worthwhile. And George is so inspiring in his passion for telling this story. We both really feel that particularly today with the way history is taught –– that itself being under attack –– it is for us as artists to step up and make sure stories are told and, more importantly, the humanity is preserved.

CB: What does it mean to you to have this work performed near the site of one of these camps, the Dalton Wells Camp near Moab?

KB: I really want to use my work to try to help people heal and specifically to heal transgenerational racial trauma. In some cases that could even mean healing the land itself where trauma occurred. I think of that when I think of this music and George Takei's words being performed near that site.

View of the Tulelake Internment Camp (Camp Tulelake), a War Relocation Center during WW2 for for the incarceration of Japanese Americans
Melissa Kopka
Actor George Takei and his family were imprisoned at the Tule Lake facility in California during World War II, in addition to another camp in Arkansas. His experiences as a child inform the new work “Lost Freedom: Japanese American Confinement In America.”

CB: With hate crimes against those of Asian descent making headlines, how does that impact how you view this history? Is there a sense of urgency about it now?

KB: When this project came about, there was no intention of making that connection, but sadly, it kind of happened. And George very astutely points out that that's always been there since there have been Asians in America. So we can look at that as a problem, which it certainly is, but also as in a weird way, the celebration of the resilience of Asian Americans.

CB: How do you think music, art and stories can heal some of those ruptures in a way that other things can't, things like policy or politics? What is it about art and music that give it that power?

KB: We're seeing today that rhetoric, no matter how eloquently presented, is limited in its ability to persuade. Scientific fact is limited apparently in its ability to convince people. On both sides of the spectrum there's a lot of emotion that takes over and clouds people's judgment. The thing with art is it harnesses that emotion, it doesn't argue against it. It, in a way, validates our strong feelings and gently suggests that maybe there are other people with very different beliefs who also have feelings of love and fear and the range of the human experience. And that leads to empathy, which then leads to understanding, then leads to maybe listening and finding common ground. So I really think it's our last, best hope for coming together.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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