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Augmented Reality App Lets Users 'Witness' WWII Removal Of Japanese Americans

The side profile is visible of a person with short hair and hoop earrings, holding a digital tablet with an image of people in 1940s-era dress superimposed over the present-day scene of a courtyard.
A new augmented reality app allows users to step back to 1942, when the government ordered the forced removal of people of Japanese descent.
(Josie Huang/LAist)
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June Aochi Berk remembers her habit of nuzzling her mother when she was a child, and the particular softness of a black coat with a fur collar.

Berk sought that comfort as a 9-year-old forced to leave Los Angeles with her family during World War II to enter years-long incarceration at a camp in Arkansas — all because the government doubted the loyalty of people of Japanese descent.

Eighty years later, Berk is part of an art installation at the Japanese American National Museum that uses augmented reality to open a window into the eviction of 120,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants from their homes.

Viewers first download the free “BeHere/1942” app (currently available only for iPhones) then point its camera anywhere in the museum’s Little Tokyo courtyard. What they see superimposed over the present-day scene is hundreds of people, in 1940s-era clothing, moving through the courtyard with luggage and wearing tags with identification numbers, as armed service members stand guard.

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Berk — or rather her digitized likeness — can be spotted in the crowd sitting on a suitcase, her lips moving in conversation with a younger man who rests his hands on her shoulders protectively.

“Oh my God, it’s incredible what they can do,” said Berk, who got a preview of the free exhibit before it opened to the public Saturday. “It looks like I'm actually there waiting for the bus.”

When she was photographed for the re-creation, Berk wore a black coat with a fur collar, an homage to her mother.

“This is a story of the parents, the first-generation immigrants that had to give up everything,” said Berk, who notes with amazement that at 89 she is older than her parents were during incarceration. “That they can be so calm, getting on those buses and those trains. I am just astounded that they kept their dignity.”

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The augmented reality project is part of a show at the Japanese American National Museum called “BeHere/1942” that will run through October. (Tickets are required for indoor exhibits, except for Thursdays, when admission is free for a limited time.)

A Japanese American woman in her late 80s is sitting down wearing period dress from the 1940s: a black hat and fur-collared black coat, with a green screen behind her. Next to her is a younger man in 1940s-era jacket and pants.
June Aochi Berk was photographed for an augmented reality project now open to the public at the Japanese American National Museum.
(Screenshot of David Leonard's 'Behind-the-scenes" short film)

“BeHere/1942” was timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of May 9, 1942 — the day thousands of Little Tokyo residents were ordered to evacuate the neighborhood by noon.

A screenshot from an augmented reality app shows an older woman in a fur coat sitting on a suitcase while a man standing next to her provides comfort.
June Aochi Berk appears in the augmented reality app as a woman who's been evicted from her home in Los Angeles and is awaiting removal by bus.
(Josie Huang/LAist)
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A sepia-colored government notice titled Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33 that ordered residents of Little Tokyo to evacuate by noon on May 9, 1942.
Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33 ordered residents of Little Tokyo to be evacuated by noon on May 9, 1942.
( California State University Japanese American Digitization Project)

Increasingly, museums around the world are using augmented reality to capture and engage audiences by animating well-known art pieces or projecting additional information onto a photo on display.

The project at the Japanese American National Museum is unique in its size and scope, with dozens of costumed people photographed in studios in Tokyo and Los Angeles by Japanese media artist Masaki Fujihata.

Fujihata used a new technique, called “volumetric video capture,” which makes digital people look like they are occupying three-dimensional space, kicking up the reality factor.

“For many years, we only have text [in a] book or document, but for that we need a strong imagination,” Fujihata said. “The new media can be interacted with. We can give another type of experience for the viewer.”

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The project is funded by the Yanai Initiative for Globalizing Japanese Humanities, named after Tadashi Yanai, founder of the Uniqlo clothing company and one of Japan’s richest individuals.

UCLA Japanese literature professor Michael Emmerich directs the initiative, which was created in 2014 and endowed in early 2020 with a $25 million gift to the university.

Emmerich said the collaboration with Fujihata began in 2019, when he was a visiting professor at UCLA. The plan was to launch a project to mark 80 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the incarceration of Japanese Americans.

The scene depicted in the augmented reality project is based on photos from March of that year, when a group of Japanese Angelenos left as volunteers to build a camp in the Owens Valley that became known as Manzanar.

They waited to board buses at the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which still stands today on the other side of the courtyard from the Japanese American National Museum.

A Japanese man in his 60's points to black-and-white photos on the walls of a musuem, while a visitor watches him.
Multi-media artist Masaki Fujihata gives a tour of the BeHere/1942 exhibition to visitors. He is seen with his protective mask lowered and gesturing with his left hand. He is speaking to a woman, seen from behind, who is wearing a mask.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

“To go and see [the courtyard] filled with these kinds of apparitions is powerful,” Emmerich said. “You realize that this was done to these people, right here. It's almost bearing witness to history in a different way.”

The exhibition also features the art of photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, curated by Fujihata. He made a video re-creation of a well-known Lange photo of a girl holding an apple as she waited to leave for camp, zooming in on the young actress' face as if to get past the photographer's gaze.

A second smaller augmented reality exhibit indoors invites visitors to pick up replicas of the large, bulky cameras that Lange favored. Peer into the viewfinder and digital people appear all around the room, which is transformed into the old Santa Fe train station in Los Angeles, from where evacuees were shipped off to the Santa Anita detention center in Arcadia while long-term camps were being prepared.

Photo of a room in a museum with giant photos of the faces of two young Japanese American girls plastered on one wall. In the foreground is a sign that reads "BeHere/1942," the name of the exhibition.
The BeHere/1942 exhibition will run through October 2022 at the Japanese American National Museum.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

That was the trajectory for Berk, whose family left behind their Hollywood home for a five-month-stay at the Santa Anita center before a days-long train trip took them to a camp called the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

After three and a half years of incarceration, the family emerged from camp having to start over. Berk said her older sister vowed never to live in California again and settled in Michigan. Meanwhile, Berk, the youngest of four, moved to Denver with her parents, where they had family friends.

Berk's father, Chujiro, once had a business in Los Angeles finding work for day laborers and gardeners such as himself. But in Denver, he and his wife, Kei, switched to being janitors, then hospital laundry workers. Eventually, they saved up enough money that they were able to buy a candy store that sold Japanese sweets.

But Berk's father never forgot about the life he was forced to abandon in Los Angeles. And as he got older, he announced he would return home.

A Japanese American woman in her 80s looks through a window at the Japanese American National Musuem.
June Aochi Berk continues to volunteer at JANM and take part in its cutting-edge exhibits.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

“I thought he meant Japan,” Berk said. “But he didn’t. He meant Los Angeles, and we came back here.”

He would die only six months later, said Berk, “but he was so happy.”

Berk went on to raise a family in Los Angeles and enjoy a career in community relations that included working as the executive assistant to Irene Hirano Inouye, the first president and CEO of the Japanese American National Museum.

The grandmother of eight continues to volunteer at the museum, and wade into new technology even as she jokes she can’t figure out her iPhone. Her next project? Serving as the subject of an artificial intelligence project that will have a video projection of Berk answering questions from visitors about her life.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.