Tadaima! Lessons From a Community Virtual Pilgrimage

By Priya Chhaya posted 12-07-2020 10:43


Earlier this year the COVID-19 pandemic forced many historical sites across the country to re-consider and pivot their programming to the digital realm. This past summer the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages (JAMP) program and the National Park Service came together to pivot what was a regular in-person trip to places where Japanese American’s were incarcerated during World War II to a nine-week virtual pilgrimage for anyone to explore.

JAMP was started in 2016 by Kimiko Marr and Marissa Fujimoto, two filmmakers whose families were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps during World War II. They wanted to “share the experiences of those who were incarcerated and the intergenerational trauma that continues to be felt.” In 2018, after being awarded a Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant, Marr and Fujimoto produced a mini documentary that chronicled the experiences of families who took the pilgrimages to these sites and have personally traveled to all 10 Wartime Relocation Authority Camps and 16 Assembly Centers.

Hanako Wakatsuki, chief of interpretation and education at the Minidoka National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service located in Jerome, Idaho, writes that Tadaima! A Community Virtual Pilgrimage was a "collaborative undertaking, involving representatives from many different contingents of the Nikkei community, as well as scholars, artists, and educators committed to actively memorializing the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. Tadaima! means “I’m home!” in Japanese—it is our way of acknowledging that we are all home and the important reasons for why that is, while also celebrating the history, diversity, strength, and vibrancy of the Nikkei community.”

Learn more about Tadaima! in the Q&A below with Hanako Wakatsuki and Kimiko Marr.

Can you talk me through the partnership between the National Park Service and JAMP?

Marr: Hanako and I have known each other for a number of years and have attended many of the in-person pilgrimages together. This year, when I had the idea of a virtual pilgrimage, I reached out to Hanako—knowing she loves the yearly camp pilgrimages—to see if this was something the National Park Service would be interested in partnering with JAMP on.

Wakatsuki: Within the National Park Service site that I work at, Minidoka National Historical Park, we only have three full time staff at our site so we don’t have a lot of capacity to do a lot of things without partnerships. These relationships are really important in building not only the programmatic aspects of our work, but also some basic operations such as research and internships.

When Kimiko reached out after the last pilgrimage was canceled, saying “I have this crazy idea,” I said let’s see if something like this is even possible. I am a person who likes to build systems, and I wanted to make sure that we had a solid foundation so that this was successful. The first thing we did was reach out to the main stakeholders that deal with pilgrimages to gauge interest. Once we had buy-in we built a coalition to help with programming. In the end we had 70 partners, 43 of which were confinement sites, 368 programs, 46 states, 71 countries, and over 100k participants.

This is compared to in-person pilgrimages which range from 1500 at Manzanar to 320 at Heart Mountain, depending on the site.

With the advent of COVID-19 it was apparent that the pilgrimage could not go on as a physical journey to these historic sites. Can you walk me through how you pivoted to a virtual program? How did you approach this differently than you would have an in-person experience?

Wakatsuki-: Kimiko, the co-creator of the JAMP Program, came to me with an idea to do a virtual pilgrimage because the last of the big pilgrimages cancelled their program. We brainstormed and decided that we can create a virtual platform to try and create a sense of community during these unprecedented times. Tadaima! brought together many of the unique traditions from each site with new content - online exhibits, workshops, performances, lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, a community archive, and more - to create an accessible and a wide-range of opportunities for learning, sharing stories, and building community.

Spread across nine themed weeks, the Virtual Pilgrimage featured pre-recorded and live-streamed content, as well as opportunities to engage with presenters and gather virtually as a community. We wanted to make sure that we are providing something for everyone to "choose their own adventure" as they participated. We had over 380+ programs. Approximate 70% of the programs still can be accessed on the website.

Each of the nine weeks includes a variety of multi-media and visuals to connect the audience with the history. Why was it important to use a wide range of media to tell this story?

Marr: We feel that interpreting and understanding history is more than just learning names and dates, so we tried to incorporate as many types of interpretation as we could. Viewers have different ways to learn and we wanted to offer different avenues for each person to explore the incarceration story in a way that engaged and interested them. So, by having authors, artists, dancers, singers, musicians, playwrights, storytellers, as well as academics, we hoped to reach a much broader audience.

Wakatsuki: It was important to find different ways to connect with the community and audiences. We chose this format to try our best to be accessible to as many people as we could. We wanted to make sure that because people are tuning in from home, we wanted to make sure we were capturing their attention. Not everyone is interested in history, that won’t easily see the connection. When we were talking about this programming, we wanted to make sure there were different ways to build that connection—like a book club, painters, potters, and gardening. Those multiple mediums gave people many options on how to connect and understand this history. Fortunately, we were able to do everything, and while we talked about paring things down we ended making sure that all the projects found their place.

Were all the media pieces in this program new pieces of content? Or did you use existing materials from the various historic sites?

Wakatsuki: Most of the content was new content that we crowdsourced from content providers. There were a few programs that were already made for other institutions, but a majority of the education sessions and live sessions were new created from academics and other subject matter experts.

Marr: All of our live sessions were new content and allowed for audience engagement with the speakers. Some content had already been created by an organization and they allowed us to share it on our Tadaima! page. This allowed for some older content to be presented to a new audience and also raised the profile of those organizations that participated. Many organizations created new content specifically for Tadaima! and in turn, we helped them edit what they created into short videos that they can also continue to use on their own websites.

What are some of the challenges and lessons learned from this program?

Marr: The biggest challenge was the short amount of planning time we had to pull it off. Obviously in a perfect world we would start planning way earlier than we did this year. The biggest problem was that we were flying by the seat of our pants. Programming was coming in and we were just spitting it back out.

A consequence of that was that I think our audience was a little put off by the fact that we didn’t have a full schedule at the beginning. We were literally putting things up the day before the events were going up. For next year, we are hoping to plan with a longer timeline, that way our audience could also plan on what events were live, which wasn’t possible this year.

Wakatsuki: From a broader perspective outside what Kimiko stated, it was challenging to build trust in the project. It wasn’t until the opening ceremony that community members came out asking to be a part of this after things had started. We thought a week with just 20 programs was our heaviest but by the end we had 32-40 programs a week. Our challenge was to find a way to make sure that the community voices were all being accepted without losing the broader intentionality around it.

For example, we had a survivor who wanted to sing, but instead of doing a stand-alone program we incorporated him into some of the other programs—one of the “block parties.” He wanted to be a part of the storytelling it his way, and afterward he got some of his other friends on Zoom to record their own songs, and we hosted a karaoke event around his interest.

List of organizations that participated in Tadima!
List of organizations that participated in Tadima!

I understand you would like to do this program (virtually) again next year. What are some of the things you are doing to plan ahead?

Marr: This year, we were just lucky that there were so many people willing to participate, and willing to participate for free. We had so much content, and I think because everyone worked together as a community, and said hey we’ll do this video for you, it was really a project done by the love of the community.

For next year, we have applied for a Japanese American Confinement Sites grant, so that we can actually pay people. We would like to provide a nominal honorarium if at all possible, especially since we had to make conscious decisions this year where we couldn’t support some programs that needed funding.

Also, I have my wish list of people we did not have time to reach out to. So my first step is to prepare proposals for these people with honorariums giving them plenty of time to process.

The other issue with the speed of this was that people needed to be very malleable, very flexible about things. Going forward and for other people planning to do this type of programming, to consider developing their projects with intentionality.

More importantly, for live components, it is also managing audience expectations, but also supporting technology use. We want to make sure to prepare our elders as much as possible to use the technology in a way that they can share those stories without anxiety. 

Image of all the participants in Tadima!
Collage of Participants in the Tadima! program. 

What is the most important thing you want to share about this program?

Marr: It was very important to me that this program was put on by Japanese Americans. I am very passionate about people telling their own stories, even to the point of we are the one’s who are reaching to survivors to tell their own stories. One thing we were trying to be intentional about was to have most of the presenters be Japanese Americans. This wasn’t something we communicated out to every single person on the committee, but I really feel like that this is an important piece of telling this history. Historians are great, but that doesn’t mean that their voice stands above the person who lived through these events is less of an authority on the subject.

Because this ended up to be a community effort, we may not have fact checked everything that ever performer was saying. These individuals were representing themselves and the way in which their contribution was a reflection of their interpretation of events.

Wakatsuki: We wanted to make sure that the community was involved with this because the National Park Service has an issue  where sometimes our interpretation is not reflective of how the community would like their stories to be told. I think that this was a great opportunity to build that trust with the community, and we really had to step aside and create that space for underrepresented voices to tell their stories. Even for me, as a person of color who was part of that community, it was important to create that safe space for the community.

On the flip side we have a lot of individuals not of the community using this as a training opportunity. We inadvertently created the largest secondary repository for Japanese American history.

With that in mind, when we closed out the nine weeks of programming, we said okaeri, which means “welcome home.“ While we started out by saying Tadima! i.e that we were all literally, at home, we wanted to close out with this returning phrase, okaeri, as a way to [acknowledge] this new community that we created where people feel safe.

Priya Chhaya is the associate director of content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation