(UPDATED 4/23/19) Description and review of The Ito Sisters – An American Story, a feature-length documentary about the lives of three Japanese Nisei sisters who were born on a farm in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
A friend and I attended the last film screened during the 14th Annual Sacramento Japanese Film Festival (July 20-22) at the Crest Theatre. The film, The Ito Sisters: An American Story first caught my interest because of the local angle – the three sisters were born on a farm in nearby Courtland.
As I read a bit more about the film, I became very interested in learning more about these three women and how key events in history (1906 San Francisco Earthquake, The Great Depression, World War II) had impacted their lives.
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Antonia Grace Glenn, Producer and Director
The Ito Sisters: An American Story was written, directed and produced by Antonia Grace Glenn who is the granddaughter of Haruye (Lillian) Ito. She has a PhD in theatre and drama from a joint program at the Universities of California, San Diego and Irvine.
Antonia is the daughter of Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of California at Berkeley and Gary Glenn. She was awarded the 2018 Sacramento Japanese Film Festival’s Emerging Filmmaker Award.
Antonia and her mother Evelyn took to the Crest Theatre stage to make a few remarks prior to the screening of the film. They noted that the story told remains relevant and timely today – citizenship for immigrants and their children and tensions between new Americans and anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Ito Sisters: An American Story
The documentary featured interviews with the three sisters – Natsuye (Nancy), Haruye (Lillian) and Hideko (Hedy) when they were in their 80s and 90s. Also utilized were family and archival photographs as well as more recent family home movies, commentary from scholars, quotes from historical figures, and artistic illustrations.
The parents of the three sisters were Yetsusaburo and Toke Ito. In one of the interviews the sisters recalled the family story that their father as a young man had gambling issues, and that the family sent him to his older brother in the United States. Yetsusaburo was enterprising and had a jewelry store in San Francisco, but lost everything in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
From there Yetsusaburo moved to the Sacramento Delta in the vicinity of Courtland. He and his wife were sharecroppers on the Peck Family farm. The law at that time precluded Asian immigrants from land ownership.
Yetsusaburo worked the farm alongside Mexican immigrants, and his wife Toke cooked for the farmworkers. The three girls were born on the farm.
In the interviews the three sisters told stories about their school years. In the Sacramento Delta region the lower grade schools were segregated with separate white and Asian schools. The girls worked during the summer in nearby packing sheds packing asparagus and pears.
The family was saving up money to return to Japan when in 1926 a fire destroyed the house owned by the Peck Family that they lived in. They lost everything and the family was once again back to square one.
Then came the 1929 crash and The Great Depression. Could things get any worse? Yes, it could.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The already present anti-immigrant, anti-Japanese bias spiked. The Ito Family, along with 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, were relocated to internment camps in the interior of the United States. The majority of those relocated were American citizens living on the West Coast.
The three sisters recalled that Mr. Hicks took the family and the few belongings they were able to take with them in his truck to a collection center in Sacramento. The family had to sell the majority of their belongings for pennies on the dollar. Later, after the war was over, Mr. Hicks advised the family not to return to the farm as he was concerned about the reaction of the families whose sons had died fighting in the war.
The three sisters were strong women – and life went on despite the hardships experienced. The collective philosophy of the three sisters boiled down to acceptance if there is nothing you can do to about it.
Yetsusaburo became a naturalized citizen after the law was changed in 1952 to permit Asian and other non-white immigrants to do so.
My friend and I found the documentary, which was a winner in the Berkeley Video Film Festival in 2017, to be very powerful. In my opinion, the current anti-immigrant sentiment being voiced in his country is all too similar to this regrettable period in U.S. history.
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