Fort McCoy News June 13, 2014

Oscar-winning filmmaker leads AAPI observance

Public Affairs Staff

Fort McCoy's annual Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month observance was supported by an Academy Award winner — Chris Tashima.

Tashima, a Japanese American, recalled how he became an actor and a filmmaker. He discussed how he won an Oscar for the live action short film, "Visas and Virtue," and related work he's been doing about Asian American veterans from World War II who trained at Fort McCoy in the 1940s.

Photo for AAPI article
Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Chris Tashima from Los Angeles speaks to the audience about his experiences and history during the Fort McCoy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance May 27.

Tashima traveled to Fort McCoy from California to support the May 27 observance.

"It's a great honor for me to be asked to be here," Tashima said. "I have great respect for service (members) and for what you do."

In his conversational presentation — delivered without a microphone or a slide presentation — Tashima spoke from the heart about his Family's life during the 1960s and 70s in Southern California.

"(Growing up) I kind of knew I was different but I didn't know what it meant," Tashima said. "I remember having feelings about the movies and TV shows that I saw, and how it made me wonder how I fit in (with society) because of that."

In his early years, Tashima said he eventually felt disconnected.

"I think when you are little, you don't know what race is," Tashima said. "In first and second grades, I think I was only one of two people of color in my class. You just get a sense about it."

As he grew older, Tashima said he wasn't thinking much about becoming an actor, or being a part of the film industry, until he saw the first Star Wars movie in 1977.

"It completely shifted my appreciation for movies," Tashima said. "That turned me around. It made me want to become a director, because it showed the unlimited potential of your imagination, what you could do with movies, and how you could just take people to another place."

With a newfound appreciation for movies, Tashima said he set out for film school after high school. When he didn't get accepted, he opted for college instead.

"I dropped out of college thinking that if they aren't going to let me make films, I will just make films on my own," Tashima said.

The transition after leaving college was difficult, but he said as time went on he learned more about his own history and more about being an Asian American. Eventually, he began doing more and more things to honor his heritage.

"My parents had gone through the internment camps (during World War II) when they were children," Tashima said. "It was something that I grew up knowing about, but it wasn't until I was older and understood the impact of what that really meant and represented."

Tashima said he progressed from wanting to be a director of big blockbuster movies to doing more with acting. While he was in his mid-20s, he found work at Hollywood studios as an extra including making a small appearance in the movie, "The Sure Thing," which starred John Cusack.

Eventually, he said he auditioned and was hired as an unpaid actor to work with the East-West Players theater group in Los Angeles to perform in a musical there. The group was looking for Asian American actors specifically, and it was there he said he had his greatest growth as an artist.

"I was learning about the history of Asian Americans because the play we were doing was about re-telling our stories on stage," Tashima said.

After years of working in the theater group, Tashima said his artistic focus in acting, screenwriting and filmmaking shifted to telling stories about Asian Americans who have contributed so much to America.

"I wanted to tell the stories about people in my Family and the experiences of people I didn't learn about (historically) in high school or college," he said. "The stories are about people who have contributed to this country and who still are."

Tashima took his years of acting experience in the theater group and used it to eventually start making films about Asian Americans. In the mid-1990s he began work directing and acting in his Academy Award-winning film.

"Visas and Virtue" is a 26-minute portrait of Holocaust rescuer Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara, who was a diplomat at the Japanese consulate in Lithuania during World War II. Sugihara is credited with helping save thousands of fleeing Polish Jews from the Holocaust of Nazi forces. The film was adapted from an original one-act play written by Tim Toyama.

"I gladly took that role because it was about a multi-dimensional, heroic character," Tashima said. "It was so rare to be able to do that kind of role."

Tashima received the Academy Award in 1998. Since then he's continued to work on projects highlighting prominent accomplishments of Asian Americans. A recent project includes telling the story of the 100th Infantry Battalion — an Army unit composed largely of Japanese Americans who were former members of the Hawaii Army National Guard.

The 100th was a segregated unit that eventually merged with the 442nd Infantry Regiment and became the most-decorated unit during World War II. Soldiers with the 100th trained at then-Camp McCoy from June 1942 to January 1943.

"I've been learning about them, what they faced and how they overcame (obstacles)," Tashima said. "The story about the 442nd is still one I want to tell.

"From what I've learned (about the unit), the welcoming they received from the people of Wisconsin is well remembered," he said, "which is also why I am grateful to be here for this event."

Fort McCoy Equal Opportunity Adviser and Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Master Sgt. Matthew Fitzgibbons said having Tashima share his story at the observance was special.

"He brought to light the importance of integrating other cultures into everything we do," Fitzgibbons said. "He used examples of how that integration is taking place in Hollywood and other places. It was also nice to learn about the history of his Family and what they have done and of what he knows about the 100th Infantry Regiment. He shared some good history that I believe was appreciated by everyone."

AAPI Heritage Month is celebrated throughout the Department of Defense and the United States every May. It is a celebration of the culture, traditions and history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

"During Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we celebrate the accomplishments of Asian Americans, native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, and we reflect on the many ways they have enriched our nation," said President Barack Obama in the 2014 presidential proclamation for AAPI Heritage Month. "Like America itself, the AAPI community draws strength from the diversity of its many distinct cultures — each with vibrant histories and unique perspectives to bring to our national life."

For more information about cultural observances and other related activities at Fort McCoy, contact Fitzgibbons at 608-388-3246.