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Unconnected Objects: Cultural and Collective Memory in Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige


Madison Furrh

On the one hand, we find an integrated, dictatorial memory—unself-conscious, commanding, all-powerful, spontaneously actualizing, a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth—and on the other hand, our memory, nothing more in fact than sifted and sorted historical traces.                                                                                                                                                           —Pierre Nora


They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.          
                                                                                                       —Karl Marx

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 resulting in the incarceration of 122,000 Japanese Americans. As a result of the order, “newborn babies, young children, the elderly, the infirm, children from orphanages, and even children adopted by Caucasian parents were not exempt from removal.”[1] While “the justification for the evacuation was to thwart espionage and sabotage,” not a single “person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States was ever convicted of any serious act of espionage or sabotage during the war.”[2] Disturbingly, “anyone with 1/16th or more Japanese blood was included” in removal, echoing a previous and notoriously racist Supreme Court decision where the “one drop rule” was codified into law.[3] As noted by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1983, and reported by Judith Miller, the incarceration of Japanese American men, women and children was on false pretenses resulting in a “grave injustice” due, according to the commission, to “racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership.”[4]

The internment of innocent Japanese Americans is the subject of independent filmmaker Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991). Tajiri, whose grandparents and parents were subjected to internment, revisits the site where her family was forcibly removed from society, stripped of all of their property and, effectively, written out of history. In an early scene, Tajiri, with a handheld camera, pans the desert landscape looking for signs of the injustices that took place on this land nearly a half century prior. The camera frame comes into focus on a date palm grove of some dozen trees that tower preternaturally over the native grasses and shrubs that sparsely cover the arid land outside Poston, Arizona. The palms, which appear much too large to be supported by the sandy, inhospitable soil from which they grow, seem alien to the landscape that surrounds. While all other signs of a Japanese American internment camp had vanished, the trees, a sort of last vestige of a cultural memory, remained.

Just as the harsh wind-blown climate has altered the morphology of the land, in a similar fashion, the continual flow of images, ideas, and narratives through radio, television and film perpetually reshapes the collective memories—or, popular historical memories—of a people; and how that group imagines their past, present, and future.[5] Pierre Nora, in his groundbreaking work “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” writes, “Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition.”[6] While Roediger and DeSoto argue that everyone “has some sort of collective memory for any important social group to which we belong,” these are not memories born out of experience.[7] Instead, collective memories, according to Coser, reach “the social actor only through written records and other types of records, such as photography,” or even more inexorably, via popular film.[8] Indeed, Grainge asserts that popular films and the collective memories they construct are the result of “a technology [that is] able to picture and embody the temporality of the past, cinema has become central to the mediation of memory in modern cultural life.”[9] In this way, collective memories are representations, which according to Edward Said, reveal “a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.”[10] Cultural memories, on the other hand, are “the knowledge required to survive, which is passed on from generation to generation” thereby binding members of that culture together through centuries and even millennia.[11] While cultural memories are in “permanent evolution,” they are also “vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation.”[12] Collective memories, in turn, prey on the vulnerabilities of cultural and autobiographical memories and in their place construct “a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition, linking the history of its ancestors to the undifferentiated time of heroes, origins, and myth.”[13] However, when the false, but always flattering, history is disrupted within a given population cultural conflict ensues; hence the need of homogenous collective memories.[14] 

The palm grove in Rea Tajiri’s independent film History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, like so many other images in the film which have been dislocated, fragmented, and disconnected by the hegemonic narratives of history, is emblematic, according to Tajiri, of the “Japanese American ability to make things grow.”[15] Cultural memories associated with farming, Nora notes, are evidence of “collectively remembered values,” and of “skills passed down by unspoken traditions.”[16] While the trees speak to wisdom inherent in the memory of a culture, they also provoke the bigotry used to write that same memory out of history. Tajiri narrates: “That was the thing about the Japanese; they took barren land and brought water to it. They bought up all the land that no one wanted and made things grow on it. They prospered and the white farmers hated them.”[17] This hatred found representation in government documents and laws, newspapers and popular films, resulting in the construction of collective memories which contributed to the “racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership” noted by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.[18]  


Tajiri’s History and Memory deals with the single memory fragment of her mother’s—a canteen being filled with cool water in the desert. Her mother’s lone memory fragment is directly related to the two major themes of the film. One is the annihilation of autobiographical and cultural memory through seemingly endless repetition of images with and without a history. The other is the restoration of her mother’s memory by collecting the familial remnants from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in order to provide her mother with what Nora calls “milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory.”[19] Tajiri traces the genealogy of images that have constructed a spurious, yet always faultless, collective memory, and in the process, documents the historical forces at work that have caused the failure of her mother’s memory. With the abatement of memory, “we feel obliged assiduously,” writes Nora in words that seem to be a directive for the filmmaker “to collect remains, testimonies, documents, images, speeches, any visible signs of what have been . . . The sacred is invested in the trace that is at the same time its negation.”[20] History and Memory is the attempt to salvage the memory fragment of her mother’s by connecting it to other visible signs that may have survived in form only. To make sense of this lone memory fragment, Tajiri literally collects remnants from her family's experiences in the camp. She then presents her family’s testimonies and artifacts, while footage of government propaganda and Hollywood movies set around the internment—from Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) to Come See the Paradise (Alan Parker, 1990)—compete for the viewer’s attention. By layering footage from multiple mediums and sources simultaneously, Tajiri uses independent filmmaking techniques to employ film against popular film and the collective memories they have inculcated in their audiences. Tajiri's family’s history is presented while the dominant histories scroll across the screen, often blaring over family testimony, as the filmmaker effectively unmasks the cannibalizing nature of collective memory over the lived experiences of the oppressed. In the end, viewers see how multiple narratives charged with differing interests within the social body compete and ultimately eradicate resistance and dissent while spreading a spurious but illustrious collective memory, based upon pure origins, across the social body. One of the many results is the obfuscation of marginalized peoples from the pages of history, a loss of cultural wisdom, and according to Daniels, ultimately, “collective social amnesia,” which is the case with Tajiri’s mother and a whole generation of interred Japanese Americans.[21] A subject who is born into this state, narrates Tajiri, is akin to something “like a ghost that floats over a terrain witnessing other people’s lives yet not having one of their own.”[22] While memory has long been discredited by history, it has, for Tajiri and other poststructuralists at least, far more explanatory power than its dominant counterpart, for memory houses the last vestiges of a people’s tradition and heritage.[23]

Further, the film dialectically draws on many of the ideas expressed in Pierre Nora’s “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Mémoire”  and Maurice Halbwachs’ Les cadres sociaux de la memoiré (1952) as Tajiri uncannily differentiates the distinctions between autobiographical, cultural and collective memory through the medium of film. Tajiri’s film is a visual testimony that exposes the high tension that often exists between collective and cultural memory. Indeed, as Rodriguez and Fortier argue, cultural memory “continues to exist after the historical moment because it continues to inform the need for identity, hope, and resistance to external forces that work to annihilate difference.”[24] Hence, the employment of collective memory to enact forgetting, as it can disseminate a teleological and homogenous history of heroes and myths as opposed to a history shot through with dominations and social injustices. With the loss of memory, so, too, ends any hope of social justice. As Albert Memmi writes, “The colonized seems condemned to lose his memory. Memory is not purely a mental phenomenon. Just as the memory of an individual is the fruit of his history and physiology, that of a people rests upon its institutions.”[25] To this end, Tajiri depicts how American institutions—from the executive branch and President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, to the California State Assembly’s attempt to redefine the camps as “relocation centers,” to the propaganda disseminated by the War Relocation Authority to Hollywood movies—threaten to write the Tajiris out of history so that they are left to live, as Memmi argues, in “painful and constant ambiguity.”[26] Indeed, Tajiri’s experiences and sentiments growing up in 1980s America parallel those outlined by Memmi. Tajiri narrates: “I began searching for a history, my own history because I’d known all along that the stories I’d heard were not true, and parts had been left out. I remember having this feeling growing up that I was haunted by something, that I was living in a family full of ghosts.”[27] In short, the colonizer’s history continues to haunt the Tajiris in spite of the fact that the father was a war hero injured in Italy while his family was interred.

Before the first image in History and Memory, the text of a free-verse poem runs across the screen:

December 7, 1961/ View from 100 feet above/ the ground … my father and mother/ have an argument/ about the unexplained/ nightmares their/ daughter has been having/ on the 20th anniversary of/ the bombing of/ Pearl Harbor the day that/ changed the lives of 110,000 Japanese Americans[28]

According to Halbwachs, “there seems to exist only one area in human experience that is not rooted in a social context and structure: the world of dreams … [for] dreams show unstable fragments and images that cannot provide the group support.”[29] For the young child of a family with a memory being crushed under the weight of history, the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the very event that commemorates the marginalization, the writing out of history of the 122,000 Japanese Americans which is the subject of her film—only accelerates that fate. The daughter, presumably Tajiri, can only encounter such memory fragments in a dream state because there are no external props to which she can contextualize such memories; the larger structure will not allow for them because they conflict with its very purpose of celebrating the oppressor.

As Memmi observes, “He endeavors to falsify history, he rewrites laws, he would extinguish memories. Anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy.”[30] In fact, as Tajiri documents, the falsification of American History found political support in 1980s America. In the scene, the following text scrolls across the screen: “Assemblyman Gil Ferguson, Republican, Orange County Calif., seeks to have children taught that Japanese Americans were not interned in ‘concentration camps’, but rather were held in ‘relocation centers’ justified by military necessity.”[31] Further, for Halbwachs there is a “crucial signification of periodic commemorations” for they assure “at least some cohesion across the ages.”[32] But this cohesion, which holds the larger and more dominant group together, results in the splintering off of those populations who occupy the margins of any given society, but first memory must be extinguished. To this end, the commemoration of Pearl Harbor amplifies and emboldens the hegemonic narratives that, in this case, have borne down so heavily on the autobiographical memory of this family that the memories, deprived of a social context in which remembering is possible, can only surface in the disconnected and sadly tormenting dreams of a child. To make sense of her dream, and her heritage, Tajiri must abandon the falsities inherent in constructed history, and trace her family’s history through seemingly unrelated remnants that have survived, in form only, the onslaught of history.

Just as commemorations and statues serve as storehouses of the dominant narratives of a society, so too do memory fragments, or lieux de mémoire, find their final bastion in the dreams of the oppressed. Nora writes, “If what [commemorations and landmarks] defended were not threatened there would be no need to build them.”[33] He continues, “If history did not besiege memory, deforming and transforming it … there would be no lieux de mémoire. Indeed, it is the very push and pull that produces lieux de mémoire—moments of history torn away from the movement of history.”[34] And so the nightmares of the daughter, and the sole memory of the mother from her time at the camp, have precious few remnants in the social world to attach themselves to and find expression. However, when they do survive, and are presented to the viewer, as is the case with the date palms in the desert, they possess a more profound explanatory power than the historical narratives that have pushed them to the brink of insignificance. In fact, the existence of such isolated images, for Nora, at least, “demonstrates the existence of an invisible thread linking apparently unconnected objects.”[35] This becomes the objective of one of the two narratives running through the film. It connects a grove of date palms, a train depot in Poston, some rodeo grounds in Parker, a wooden bird carved by her grandmother at the camp, the daughter’s nightmares, the mother’s memory of a water faucet, a few ID cards, and a photograph of the Tajiri’s house that had vanished. “Contrary to historical objects, however,” writes Nora, “lieux de mémoire have no referent in reality; or, rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs.”[36] The traces all speak of memories that are on the verge of being subsumed in the conflagration that is history. In an attempt to salvage the memories of her family, Tajiri skillfully weaves these remnants together in reconstructing a past counter to the warp of history; film is critical to this task.​

The first image that the viewer sees in Tajiri’s film, coming immediately after the introductory poem, is a reenactment of the narrator’s sister following a boy around for whom she presumably has a “crush,” but is too nervous to approach. To overcome this social anxiety, she asks him to pose for a photograph. He reluctantly agrees. She then gives him a series of confusing commands: “Look down. Look up. Look a little happier, look dejected.”[37] He begins to demand an end to the awkward affair when she replies, “This is a long exposure.”[38] Janet Sternberg, in “Long Exposures: A Poetics of Film and History,” offers the following analysis: “[T]he phrase ‘long exposure’ implies that events once hidden in the dark are now revealed and clarified through the sustained light of inquiry.”[39] While I agree with her commentary, I would like to suggest an additional reading for the above scene. Immediately thereafter Tajiri narrates that the photograph was “enshrined” with the girl’s aunt’s collection of Hollywood still shots.[40] The fact that the Tajiris possess this collection indicates a desire to be included in the sterilized, faultless, and popular history that is Hollywood movies. “The first ambition of the colonized,” Memmi argues, “is to become equal to that splendid model and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him.”[41] While the Japanese American woman who owned the box of photos clearly wanted to assimilate, she would instead be segregated in an internment camp as, Memmi observes, “all efforts of the colonialist are directed towards maintaining the social immobility, and racism is the surest weapon for this aim.”[42] Indeed, the Tajiri family, like so many other oppressed families in the history of the United States, is subjected to the logic of colonization: racial branding and segregation. As a character from the Hollywood production, Come See the Paradise, says in an audio overlay later in the film: “We stopped being Americans the moment they put up the barbed wire.”[43]

This opening scene serves as a microcosm for much of what follows: namely, that this random photo of a young Japanese American male was to be absorbed into the much larger forces of collective memory—or popular historical memory—that is Hollywood movies. Further, this image, along with the many images of the still shots from popular culture, is, like all the others, images without a history. That photo—once it is included with photos of a bunch of famous “white people,” (as narrated in the film) which are emblematic of the collective memories of most Americans—becomes a fragment, an unconnected object, like so many others that the viewer will soon encounter.[44] If someone were to discover the box at a later date and view the image of the young Japanese American among still shots of Hollywood stars, the photo would appear nonsensical, like a disconnected object removed from history. In this opening moment, we glimpse the workings of collective memory interrupting and uprooting autobiographical and cultural memory. The cost of assimilation—of participating in the collective memories of the dominant group—is the loss of cultural memories and the wisdom, guidance and identity they supply. The perturbation that the young man expresses will be heightened in the audience over the course of the film. 


Critical is the concept of “collective memory,” which is not without controversy and is a seminal concept that finds visual expression in Tajiri’s film.[45] The theory was first voiced in the work of Maurice Halbwachs, a mid-twentieth century sociologist from the Durkheim School. His research into memory is the work on which many poststructuralists rely, particularly in their opposition of history as it relates to memory. For Halbwachs, “our conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employ to solve present problems, so that collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present.”[46] It is on this theoretical point that the practices of the culture industry—which is a major force in the construction of collective memories in post-World War II America—and the more rigorous discipline of history converge as, according to Nora, both seek to reconstruct the past which is “always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.”[47] Although Halbwachs’ ideas often get applied to “rituals, ceremonies, monuments, and written history,” it was inevitable that they would also be of use when considering the most effective means of molding collective memory, that of film.[48] Indeed, Tajiri, in her film, states “I often wondered how the movies influenced our lives.”[49] Tajiri documents the antagonisms of the culture industry against the cultural memories of Japanese Americans as well as the autobiographical memories of her mother.​

Autobiographical memories, as opposed to collective memories, are, obviously, those memories of our individual past experiences, and must be contextualized, according to Halbwachs, within a larger milieux de mémoire or they will be lost. Halbwachs holds that “autobiographical memory tends to fade with time unless it is periodically reinforced through contact with persons with whom one shared the experiences in the past.”[50] In short, “memory depends on the social environment.”[51] To this end, society constructs its monuments and statuary, conducts its parades and commemorations thereby altering the iconography of the social landscape so that the collective memories of the dominant group are privileged, redoubled, and legitimated. Conversely, when that social environment has removed many of the external props that allow for memory, which is the case for the narrator’s mother and a generation of Japanese Americans, then the autobiographical subject is left with what Pierre Nora terms lieux de mémoire—a memory fragment that is largely unintelligible within the collective memories of the dominant group—and the true mission of history, which is “to suppress and destroy [memory]” is brought into stark relief.[52] Halbwachs continues: “There is no point in seeking where [memories] are preserved in my brain … to which I alone have access: for they are recalled to me externally, and the groups of which I am a part at any time give me the means to reconstruct them, upon condition, to be sure, that I turn toward them and adopt, at least for the moment, their way of thinking.”[53]  As a result, the collective memories of the dominant group requires marginalized peoples to “learn the history, culture, and literature of the colonizers,” while simultaneously stifling their cultural memories.[54] Meanwhile, Tajiri, whose grandparents and parents were interned, is left “searching for a history, [her] own history because I’d known all along that the stories I’d heard were not true.”[55]

When there is disagreement in the interpretation of history, the social frameworks constructed by the dominant group redouble collective memory while simultaneously preparing the autobiographical memories of the oppressed for a “final consumption in the flames of history.”[56] For example, when Tajiri and her mother visited the town of Parker, Arizona during the 1980s in their quest to restore her mother’s remembrances, “an Asian face,” Tajiri narrates, serves as an external prop for the residents of Parker.[57] Tajiri observes: “When I arrived in Parker, I reminded them of a history they wanted to forget. The internment of the Japanese Americans on an Indian Reservation … a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”[58] The power of history to enact cultural amnesia is apparent as Tajiri states, “when I got there I found out that it was built on a Native American Indian Reservation, the Colorado River Tribal Indian Reservation.”[59] Imperial project after imperial project had occurred on this land and yet all the social actors are oblivious to these historical resonances. In fact, one resident of Parker refuses to believe the internment even happened, saying “I can’t believe what you tell me. Our government wouldn’t do that.” The mother replies, “Well, I’m sorry. My folks [were] in the camp, what proof do you want?” The mother added, “She still wouldn’t believe it.”[60] The viewer bears witness to the glorified collective memory of a typical American effectively eliding the autobiographical memories—born out of lived experience—of Tajiri’s mother. In fact, to the resident of Parker, Tajiri’s mother seems so disconnected from the collective memories of most Americans that she is viewed as an intruder bearing “fake news.”​

Indeed, when the memories of an oppressed group are no longer supported by the collective sources, or milieux de mémoire, necessary to sustain them, then they can no longer contextualize their memories to the external social and historical matrices necessary for memory to survive. “Memory needs continuous feeding from collective sources and is sustained by social and moral props,” Halbwachs maintains.[61] It should be noted that the resident of Parker has her spurious collective memories continuously nourished with images and text of a heroic America during World War II; Tajiri’s mother, however, has precious few external props to jog her memory. Where the subject forgets, history thrives. It is in this fashion that the hegemonic narratives of history write over the memories of the marginalized groups in any given society. An effective means of accomplishing this goal is through the reinterpretation, alteration, or eradication of the external props—statuary, commemorations, movies, etc.—which run counter to the collective memories of the dominant group and are necessary for the autobiographical memories of the oppressed to function.[62] The oppressed subject, being excluded from the collective memories of the dominant group, is then left with a memory trace that is, like the palm grove, the enshrined photo of the young Japanese American, and, even Tajiri’s mother, seemingly disconnected from the passage of time.

Due to the apparent fact that history (at least from the post-structuralist’s perspective), often writes against memory, it is not surprising that the discipline of history, from its very inception, has devalued and vitiated memory in order to privilege its own methodologies, constructions, and outcomes. It is an indisputable fact that history has long sought to interrogate the legitimacy of autobiographical memory and all that comes with it: namely, the witness and their testimony. For example, historians such as Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, in responding to the ideas of Maurice Halbwachs, write that the “obvious gap between history and memory” is due to the “well-known fact that memory is an unreliable source of valid history.”[63] This issue of the unreliability of memory further compels the historian, according to Gedi and Elam, to “apply critical analysis and verification methods in order to substantiate [testimony] as a source of evidence.”[64] As historians focus on the unreliability of memory and testimony Nora charges: “History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it.”[65] The very fragments of memory that historians are taught to distrust, are for Nora and other poststructuralists, the most cogent evidences of the misuses and abuses of history. If Tajiri does not construct this milieux de mémoire—which her film becomes as she skillfully employs the medium of film against the film industry in order to salvage the memory of her mother—then the lone memory of her mother filling her canteen in the desert will vanish with her and the spurious collective memories of the dominant group, which “tends to center on iconic scenes and heroic figures and to tell stories of progress, transformation and redemption”—will proliferate unchallenged.[66] These constructed and flattering narratives have dire political consequences as any hope for social justice ends as well. In fact, instead of social justice, there is a reassertion of racist laws like Executive Order 9066 and the “one drop rule.”​

In many ways, Tajiri’s film is a personal testimony, that is not only “the search for an ever-absent image and a desire to create an image where there are so few,”—as cameras were forbidden in the camps—but that also exposes how history, in a technological age, armed with images of images, eradicates first the autobiographical memories of the mother, and subsequently the cultural memories of a people.[67] The strength of History and Memory is in its effective demonstration of how collective memory exerts immense pressure on the autobiographical memories of the oppressed through the constant repetition of images in the form of Hollywood movies, government propaganda, speeches, and footage of actual historical events. This is done with such frequency, and to such a vast audience, that, according to Adorno, “real life becom[es] indistinguishable from the movies” so that “the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.”[68] To counteract the cultural productions intended for mass consumption, Tajiri juxtaposes the testimony of her mother and aunt, and the seemingly unconnected fragments—the wooden bird carved by her grandmother while at the camp, the alien ID cards, the date palm grove, the photograph of their family house that was literally put on jacks and taken to some unknown locale—on which her family’s memory depends, in order to expose the irrationality of popular historical memory and the collective memories they construct.

In one telling sequence, footage from the Department of War Information—titled “Japanese Relocation” where a government official explains the “necessity” of the “relocation camps,”—plays as several other forms of media compete for the audience’s attention: testimonies given by her Aunt Betsy, narration which reveals that the father served in the European theater and was wounded in Italy at the same time that his house was literally stolen, and his family interned; and most poignantly, while this information is communicated to the viewer, clips from the highly patriotic—and Academy Award winning— production, Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942), complete with the accompanying score, rolls across the screen. The dire predicament of autobiographical and cultural memory is disturbingly highlighted as a Yankee Doodle Dandy scene showing African Americans singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in front of the Lincoln Memorial—at the height of segregation—reveals how collective memory is “a memory without a past that ceaselessly reinvents tradition.”[69] The multi-layered sequence ends with the narrator of Yankee Doodle Dandy, stating, “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”70] While the colonizer feels a sense of inclusiveness, the colonized are further alienated. For the father of the family—a decorated veteran who returning home from combat—asserts: “It’s impossible to accept being placed behind barbed wire for no reason at all.”[71] Another family member states: “What I lost was my faith in the American Constitution.”[72] The gulf between history and memory—specifically, how World War II is remembered within the collective memories of Americans—shocks the viewer.​

In the struggle of memory to overcome history, Tajiri resorts to the medium of film for obvious reasons. “Historical films,” argues Anton Kaes, “interpret national history for the broad public and thus produce, organize, and, to a large extent, homogenize public memory.”[73] Near the beginning of her film Tajiri states: “There are things which have happened in the world while cameras were watching. Things we have images for.  There are other things that have happened while there were no cameras watching which we restage in front of cameras to have images of.”[74] This comment strikes at the heart of how popular film reinforces and even manufactures the collective memories of the nation. Along a similar line of inquiry Kaes, speaking specifically about the eighteen-hour mini-series, The Winds of War (Dan Curtis, 1983), which drew 140,000,000 viewers, observes: “Thus, images of images circulate in an external cycle, an endless loop, in a Mobius strip of cliché images, validating and reconfirming each other, ‘swiftly spreading identical memories over the earth’.”[75]

The result of the homogenization of memory, which is so clearly analyzed in Tajiri’s History and Memory, is the gyrational splintering of autobiographical and cultural memory. As individual subjects living under the weight of a hegemonic history feel compelled to write their own histories, it has led, according to Nora, to the democratization of autobiographies, an obsession with micro-histories and genealogy; and for Rea Tajiri in her pursuit to make sense out of the fragments of her family’s history, has led her to forgiveness. She narrates the film’s closing remarks: “Feeling a lot of pain, not knowing how they fit together. But now I found I could connect the picture to the story. I could forgive my mother for her loss of memory. And I could make this image for her.”[76] Only two years earlier Pierre Nora apparently hadn’t conceived of the potentialities of film being employed against film for the sake of memory. “The psychologization of memory,” he writes, “has thus given every individual the sense that his or her salvation ultimately depends on the repayment of an impossible debt.”[77] Indeed, Tajiri gives her mother and the audience a seemingly impossible gift: a memory fragment that can survive the onslaught of history and forgetting. History and Memory, like the forlorn grove of date palms that rest motionless in the American desert, stands as a testament to the possibilities of memory.

End Notes

[1] Jeffrey F. Burton, et,al,, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2002), 34.


[2] Burton, et,al,, Confinement and Ethnicity, 25; Burton also observes that “between 1942 and 1944, 18 Caucasians were tried for spying for Japan; at least ten were convicted in court.” Burton, Confinement and Ethnicity, 25.


[3] Burton,,Confinement and Ethnicity, 34; See the Plessy v. Furgeson Supreme Court ruling from May 18, 1896.

[4] Judith Miller, “Wartime Internment of Japanese was ‘Grave Injustice,’ Panel Says,” New York Times (February 25, 1983):


[5] Due to the controversy surrounding the term “collective memory,” which is addressed later in the essay, the term “popular historical memory” is used in an attempt to distinguish the discipline of History from more popular histories disseminated largely through Hollywood movies, high school textbooks, and cable news channels amongst other sources meant for popular consumption.


[6] Pierre Nora, “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” Representations 26, (Spring 1989), 8.


[7]  Henry L.  Roediger and K. Andrew DeSoto, “The Power of Collective Memory: What do Large Groups of People Remember—and Forget?,” Scientific American, June 28, 2016.


[8] Lewis A. Coser, “Introduction,” On Collective Memory, (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2002), 23.

[9] Paul Grainge, Memory and Popular Film, (Oxford UP, 2013), 1.


[10] Said, Edward W. Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 1978), 13.

[11] Jan Assmann, “The Cultural Memory,” Henn Akademie (June 10, 2009):


[12] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 8.

[13] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 8.

[14] Consider the role of Confederate statues on the University of Virginia campus played on August 11, 2017. The differing interpretations effect how the differing groups imagine America’s past, present, and future.


[15] Rea Tajiri, History and Memory (New York: Women Make Movies, 1991), 24:17.

[16] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 13.

[17] Tajiri, History and Memory, 24:00; The history of racism directed at Japanese Americans leading up to World War II, particularly as it relates to their highly successful farming practices, is overwhelming. For example, the Heney-Webb Alien Land Law of 1913 sought to disallow Japanese Americans from owning land. State Attorney General Webb, concerning the legislation, stated: “It is unimportant and foreign to the question, whether a particular race is inferior. The single and simple question is, is the race desirable…. It [the law] seeks to limit their presence by curtailing their privileges which they may enjoy here: for they will not come in large numbers and long abide with us if they may not acquire land. And it [the Act] seeks to limit the numbers who will come by limiting the opportunities for their activity when they arrive.” (Jere Takahashi, Nisei Sansei. Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics, [Temple University Press, 1998], 23). While there are countless other examples of state racism directed at Japanese Americans it is not the focus of this essay. For in-depth discussions also see Greg Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, (Columbia University Press, 2009).


[18] Qtd. in Judith Miller, “Wartime Internment of Japanese was ‘Grave Injustice,’ Panel Says,” 1.

[19] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 7.

[20] Nora, “Between History and Memory,”13-4.

[21] Daniels, Roger, Sandra C. Taylor, Harry H. L. Kitano. Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. (University of Washington Press, 2013), 5; In fact, in a sociological study focused on intergenerational responses to cultures under severe stress, Heller argues in “Themes of Culture and Ancestry among Children of Concentration Camp Survivors,” that “the responses of the Japanese to internment resemble quite closely the responses of survivor children to the Jewish Holocaust” so that “the stressful events of concentration camp survivors greatly influence the lives of their children (evidenced by) a heightened sensitivity to culture and ancestry and to the primacy of ethnic survival.” This sociological response of the children of interred parents—where they have “a heightened sensitivity to culture and ancestry and to the primacy of ethnic survival”—puts them at odds with popular constructions of American History. (David Heller, “Themes of Culture and Ancestry among Children of Concentration Camp Survivors,” Psychiatry, 45.3, 259. DOI: 10.1080/00332747.1982.11024155).


[22] Tajiri, History and Memory, 22:12.

[23] Historians, since at least Thucydides, have questioned the validity of personal accounts: "And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eye­witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible . . . The task was laborious because eye-witnesses of the same occurrences gave different accounts of them, varying with their memory or their interest in the action of one side or the other.” (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book II. Ed. Jeffery S. Rusten, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989]). In a similar account Leo Tolstoy effectively describes how the collective memory of a relatively small group cannibalizes the autobiographical memories of the individuals within: “But in two or three days the reports begin to be handed in. Talkers begin to narrate how things they didn’t see took place; finally a general report is compiled and the general opinion of the army is formed according to this report. Everyone is relieved to exchange his own doubts and questions for this false, but clear and always flattering presentation. A month or two later, question a person who took part in the battle, and already you will not sense the raw, vital material that used to be there, but he will narrate according to the reports” (qtd. in Morson, Gary Saul. Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in ‘War and Peace’, [Stanford: Stanford UP, 1987], 106).


[24] Jeanette Rodriguez and Ted Fortier, Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity, (University of Texas Press, 2009), 33.                                                                                                                                                           

[25] Albert Memmi. The Colonizer and the Colonized (London: Routledge, 2013), 147.


[26] Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 15.

[27] Tajiri, History and Memory, 12:52.

[28] Tajiri, History and Memory, 00:25.

[29] Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory. Ed. Lewis A Coser. (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992), 23.

[30] Albert Memmi. The Colonizer and the Colonized, 52.

[31] Tajiri, History and Memory, 27:10; See Katherine Bishop’s “Bill on Internees Raises New Alarm,” New York Times (August 28, 1990): See also CBS News’s “Trump Defends Muslim Plan by Comparing himself to FDR,” (December, 8 2015):

[32] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 26.

[33] Nora, “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” 12.

[34] Nora, “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” 12.

[35] Nora, “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” 23.

[36] Nora, “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” 23.

[37] Tajiri, History and Memory, 03:16.

[38] Tajiri, History and Memory, 03:29.

[39] Janet Sternberg, “Long Exposures: A Poetics of Film and History,” Common Knowledge 3.1, (Spring 1994), 179.


[40] Tajiri, History and Memory, 03:44.

[41] Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 120.

[42] Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 74; See endnote 17.

[43] Tajiri, History and Memory, 29:40.

[44] Tajiri, History and Memory,, 04:12.

[45] See endnote 5.

[46] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 34.

[47] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 8.

[48] Michael S. Roth, “Remembering Forgetting: Maladies de la Mémoire in Nineteenth-Century France,” Representations 26, (Spring 1989), 49.


[49] Tajiri, History and Memory, 04:34.

[50] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 24.

[51] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 37.

[52] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 9.

[53] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 37-8; See Tolstoy quote in endnote 23.

[54] Lawrence Alschuler “Oppression, Liberation, and Narcissism: A Jungian Psychopolitical Analysis of the Ideas of Albert Memmi,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 21, no.  4 (Oct.-Dec. 1996), 513.              


[55] Tajiri, History and Memory, 12:52.

[56] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 13.

[57] Tajiri, History and Memory, 23:40.

[58] Tajiri, History and Memory, 22:50.

[59] Tajiri, History and Memory, 21:16.

[60] Tajiri, History and Memory, 23:30.

[61] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 34.

[62] While there are countless examples to demonstrate the phenomena of a dominant history writing over the memories of the oppressed (and the cultural misunderstandings and conflicts that result) consider the following excerpt from Native American poet Jimmy Durham’s “Columbus Day.” It reads, in part: “In school I was taught the names/ Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro and/ A dozen other filthy murderers./ A bloodline all the way to General Miles,/ Daniel Boone and General Eisenhower./ No one mentioned the names/ Of even a few of the victims./ But don't you remember Chaske, whose spine/ Was crushed so quickly by Mr. Pizarro's boot?/ What words did he cry into the dust?/ What was the familiar name/ Of that young girl who danced so gracefully/ That everyone in the village sang with her--/ Before Cortez' sword/ hacked off her arms/ As she protested the burning of her sweetheart?/ That young man's name was Many Deeds,/ And he had been a leader of a band of fighters/ Called the Redstick Hummingbirds, who slowed/ The march of Cortez' army with only a few/ Spears and stones which now lay still/ In the mountains and remember.” (Jimmy Durham, Columbus Day: Poems, Drawings and Stories about American Indian Life and Death in the Nineteen-Seventies, [Albuquerque: West End Press, 1983], 10-11).

[63] Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, “Collective Memory—What is It?,” History and Memory 8.1, (Spring/Summer 1996), 33.


[64] Noa Gedi and Yigal Elam, “Collective Memory—What is It?,” History and Memory 8.1, (Spring/Summer 1996),33-4.

[65] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 9; Concerning “the significance of historical events chang[ing] from one generation to the next according to a changing infra-structure of societal problems and needs,” see Barry Schwartz, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61, no.2, (Dec. 1982), 374-97.


[66] Jose Brunner, “From the Editor,” History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the Past, Vol. 29, No.1, (Mar 22, 2017), 1.


[67] Tajiri, History and Memory, 26:58.

[68] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” (London: Edward Arnold, 1977), 354.


[69] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 8.

[70] Tajiri, History and Memory, 16:48.

[71]Tajiri, History and Memory, 25:38.

[73]Tajiri, History and Memory, 30:10;  Indeed, Donna Nagata observes, “Many made a conscious effort to be more American or raise their children to be as American as possible … while others emphasized to their children the importance of not being conspicuous in society. … Still others retained a cynical attitude toward democracy.” (Donna Nagata, “The Japanese American Internment: Exploring the Transgenerational Consequences of Traumatic Stress,” Journal of Traumatic Stress Volume3, Issue1 [January 1990]: 51. ).


[74] Anton Kaes, “History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination,” History and Memory 2.1, (Fall 1990), 112.


[75] Tajiri, History and Memory, 05:57.

[76] Kaes, “History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination,” 112.

[77] Tajiri, History and Memory, 31:10.

[78] Nora, “Between History and Memory,” 16.


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