Torrance man’s film about Japanese-American veterans tells story of sacrifice
by Nick Green, staff writer, Daily Breeze
Torrance filmmaker Steven Itano Wasserman, a fourth-generation American of Japanese and Russian Jewish descent, was always fascinated by the story of Japanese-Americans who proudly fought for their adopted nation during World War II - even while their families were imprisoned in internment camps.
The lesson was never taught in school, said the 1995 West High School graduate, who is named in part after his maternal grandfather.
Yet to Wasserman, 36, it was a story that helps define what it means to be American.
“These veterans decided to serve at a time when no one would have blamed them for saying, ‘I’m going to sit this one out,’ ” he said. “It was the only way they could prove the government wrong.”
“To me, part of what’s fascinating about the story on multiple levels is the idea of being able to define what is an American, what does make an American,” he added. “These veterans decided through their actions, and in the case of many of them their (ultimate) sacrifice, to redefine what is an American, not just for themselves, but for the larger culture.”
Now Wasserman has told their story in a 90-minute documentary that is part of the Smithsonian touring exhibit “American Heroes: Japanese American World War II Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal.”
The exhibit is making its third stop in a seven-city national tour at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. It runs through June 9.
The movie plays outside the Hirasaki National Resource Center, where the Congressional Gold Medal and exhibit is located, museum spokeswoman Helen Ota said.
“It gives a bit more history on the (segregated units) and their contributions,” she said. “(Wasserman) does such a great job of telling the story. He has such a good eye.”
The documentary tells the story of three members of the trio of famed military units - including the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.
The units were among the most decorated and suffered some of the heaviest combat fatalities of any in the U.S. armed forces. They were collectively awarded the medal - the nation’s highest civilian honor - in 2011.
Wasserman, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, managed the Hanashi Oral History Program for three years at the Torrance-based nonprofit Go For Broke, supervising 100 volunteers who conducted more than 300 interviews. So he was a natural to produce the documentary for the traveling exhibit.
The service of the Japanese-Americans is not just an uplifting military story; it had post-war implications for how American society viewed them and other immigrants.
“It’s a very inspiring story about people who can actually take real initiative and control of a bad situation and turn it around into something that benefited not just their community, but Americans as a whole,” he said. “In a lot of ways their service did impact the way they were accepted in American society after the war and how they were treated differently after the war than before.
“At its core, the Congressional Gold Medal is a reflection of what we value as Americans,” Wasserman added. “In that context, when you look at what Japanese-American World War II veterans did … it has really influenced the fabric of how we view ourselves as Americans. Without the contributions of these different groups, we wouldn’t live in the culture that we do.”