Augmented reality app lets users witness the abduction of Japanese Americans during World War II

June Aochi Berk remembers her habit of snuggling her mother as a child, and the special softness of a black coat with a fur collar.

Berk sought that solace as a 9-year-old forced from Los Angeles with her family during World War II to enter a years-long incarceration in an Arkansas camp — all because the government doubted her 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 deportation of 120,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants from their homes.

Viewers first download the free “BeHere/1942” app (currently only available for iPhones), then point their cameras anywhere in the museum’s Little Tokyo courtyard. What they see superimposed on the current scene are hundreds of people, dressed in 1940s clothing, moving through the yard with luggage and wearing tags with identification numbers, while members of the armed forces stand guard.

Berk – or rather his digitized likeness – can be spotted in the crowd sitting on a suitcase, his lips moving in conversation with a younger man who puts his hands protectively on his shoulders.
“Oh my God, it’s amazing what they can do,” said Berk, who previewed the free exhibit before it opened to the public on Saturday. “Looks like I’m actually here waiting for the bus.”

When photographed for the re-enactment, Berk wore a black coat with a fur collar, a tribute to her mother.

“It’s the story of the parents, the first-generation immigrants who had to give up everything,” said Berk, who notes with amazement that at 89, she is older than her parents while incarcerated. “That they can be so calm getting on those buses and trains. I’m just amazed they kept their dignity.

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 Thursdays, where admission is free for a limited time.)

“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 before noon.

June Aochi Berk was photographed for an augmented reality project now open to the public at the Japanese American National Museum.

(Screenshot from the short film “Behind-the-scenes” by David Leonard)

Increasingly, museums around the world are using augmented reality to capture and engage audiences by animating well-known works of art or projecting additional information onto an exhibited photo.

A screenshot from an augmented reality app shows an elderly woman in a fur coat sitting on a suitcase as a man standing next to her comforts her.

June Aochi Berk appears in the augmented reality app as a woman who has been evicted from her home in Los Angeles and is waiting for her transfer by bus.

A sepia-toned government notice titled Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33 ordering residents of Little Tokyo to evacuate by noon on May 9, 1942.

Civil Exclusion Order No. 33 ordered residents of Little Tokyo to evacuate by noon on May 9, 1942.

(California State University Japanese-American Digitization Project)

The Japanese American National Museum project is unique in its size and scope, with dozens of costumed people photographed in studios in Tokyo and Los Angeles by a Japanese media artist. masaki fujihata.
Fujihata used a new technique, called “volumetric video capture”, which makes digital people appear to occupy three-dimensional space, increasing 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. “New media make it possible to interact. We can give another kind of experience for the viewer.

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

Michael Emmerich, professor of Japanese literature at UCLA, leads the initiative, which was established in 2014 and endowed in early 2020 with a $25 million donation 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 set out as volunteers to build a camp in the Owens Valley, known as Manzanar name.

They waited to board buses at the original Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist temple, which still stands across the courtyard from the Japanese American National Museum.

A Japanese man in his 60s shows black and white photos on the walls of a museum, while a visitor looks at him.

Multimedia artist Masaki Fujihata takes visitors on a tour of the BeHere/1942 exhibition. He is seen with his protective mask down and gesturing with his left hand. He is addressing a woman, seen from behind, who is wearing a mask.

“Visit [the courtyard] filled with these kinds of appearances is powerful,” Emmerich said. “You realize it was done to these people, right here. It’s almost witnessing 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 recreation 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’s face as if to pass the photographer’s gaze.

A second, smaller augmented reality exhibit inside invites visitors to snap replicas of the large, bulky cameras Lange favored. Look through 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 to Santa Anita Detention Center in Arcadia during preparation long-term camps.

Photo of a room in a museum with giant photos of the faces of two young Japanese American girls taped to a wall.  In the foreground is a sign that reads "BeHere/1942," the name of the exhibition.

The BeHere/1942 exhibition will run until October 2022 at the Japanese American National Museum.

This was the trajectory of Berk, whose family left their Hollywood home for a five-month stay at the Santa Anita Center before a day-long train journey took them to a camp called the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

After three and a half years of incarceration, the family leaves the camp and has to start over. Berk said his older sister swore never to live in California again and moved to 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 like himself. But in Denver, he and his wife, Kei, became janitors, then hospital laundresses. Eventually, they saved enough money to buy a candy store that sold Japanese candies.

But Berk’s father never forgot the life he was forced to give up in Los Angeles. And as he got older, he announced that he would return home.

A Japanese American woman in her 80s looks through a window at the National Japanese American Museum.

June Aochi Berk continues to volunteer at JANM and participate in its cutting-edge exhibitions.

“I thought he was talking about Japan,” Berk said. ” But he did not do it. He meant Los Angeles, and we came back here.

He wouldn’t die until six months later, Berk said, “but he was so happy.”

Berk then raised a family in Los Angeles and had a career in community relations, including serving as 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 dabbles in new technology even though she jokes that she can’t figure out her iPhone. His next project? Serve as the subject of an artificial intelligence project that will have a video projection of Berk answering visitors’ questions about his life.

Have a question about Asian American communities in Southern California?

Josie Huang reports on the intersection between Asia and America and the impact of these growing communities in Southern California.

About Herbert L. Leonard

Check Also

Improve glycemic control with Diabetes app features

A review of data presented at ATTD 2022 dissects which features of smartphone apps created …