Last summer, in July 2022, I attended my first ever pilgrimage at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming. I was there with my brother Finn Kaoru and our grandmother Carol to honor my grandmother’s aunt Dorothy Haruko Nagai, who was incarcerated during World War II alongside over a hundred thousand other Japanese Americans — first in Santa Anita, CA, then at Heart Mountain.
The pilgrimage was a revelation. Though I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, with family roots in Hawai’i, I had never been so surrounded and welcomed by Japanese Americans. My mother raised us with certain idiosyncratic Japanese American traditions, like setting up dolls for Girls Day or using the word bocha instead of bath, but I could count the number of Japanese Americans I knew (that I wasn’t related to) on one hand before I attended the pilgrimage. And as a half-Japanese yonsei, I experienced the classic “mixed kid” dilemma, always feeling out of place. Silly as it may sound, I didn’t know that strong Japanese American communities really existed, and if I had, I would have been too afraid that I would be rejected for not being JA enough to attempt to join them.
At Heart Mountain, my doubts dissolved, and I was filled with more joy and validation than I imagined possible. Attendees of all generations and backgrounds were incredibly kind and welcoming. From camp survivors to descendants, from sansei to gosei, from so-called Buddhaheads to kotonks, all had one trait in common: They were eager to share their stories, and to hear mine. I was incredibly moved by the breadth and depth of the conversations I had and the generosity of spirit that came with them.
While the pilgrimage brought me deep fulfillment, it also sparked a new urgency in me. I suddenly felt I needed to find a way to capture and preserve not only the beautiful stories that I heard, but the open and vulnerable spirit in which they were shared. The initial reason for my attendance at the pilgrimage was to honor my great-aunt Dorothy’s life and story; I now felt a greater responsibility to recall and preserve the lives and stories of as many in our community as I possibly could. And, based on the incredible creativity and work I had seen from other attendees at the pilgrimage, I knew that I wanted to harness our community’s artistry as the method for doing so.
Weeks after the pilgrimage, the answer came to me: a magazine. In many ways, it seemed like a natural fit. A magazine is tangible and can be held, which was important to me given our community’s history of lost and destroyed heirlooms. And while it can preserve art and stories permanently, it can also evolve with the community it serves. A magazine can both recall the past and reflect the present. Lastly, it can accommodate any type of art that can be printed, which was also important to me, because I’ve seen firsthand just how varied and beautiful JA artistry is.
The inaugural issue took a year from conception to publication. I worked on it at night after my full-time job and during weekends with Finn Kaoru, who lent his incredible artistic and writerly talents as creative director. The piece that was hardest for me to write is also my favorite: a researched essay called The Faintest Ink, in which I document my journey to “find” my ancestor Kise — who she was, what she was really like — trying to turn countless pieces of paper into a living person. In some ways, the essay is symbolic of Kioku’s mission, which is to preserve or rejuvenate the lives of our community’s loved ones, present and departed.
Fittingly, my great-aunt Dorothy is our cover model, in a photograph captured by the legendary Toyo Miyatake. I embroidered pine and mandarin blossom, symbols of Dorothy’s family prefectures, in gold to fill her hands. The cover is not only my attempt to pay homage to Dorothy’s strength and beauty, but also that of the tens of thousands of incarcerated Japanese Americans she represents.
The first issue is mostly comprised of my brother Finn Kaoru’s and my work, featuring a special interview with the talented photographer Haruka Sakaguchi, who we met at Heart Mountain when we participated in her project Campu. This approach allowed us to take our time in navigating the creative and logistical challenges of starting a magazine from scratch. And now, I am thrilled to share that the second volume of Kioku is open for submissions (as all future issues will be). I am beyond honored and excited to be able to provide a space for the amazing artistry that exists in our community. Along the way, the support from community members like Yo!, Nikkei Rising, Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages, friends, and family has been incredible and a rich reward in itself.
We named the magazine Kioku because kioku is often the word used to describe active remembrance. The name encapsulates the magazine’s purpose: a place to bring memories back to life, and to keep our stories alive forever. Kioku is a Japanese American family scrapbook. It is a compendium of our community’s recollections and artistry and opinions. And, for me, it is a labor of love in every sense of the phrase.
Visit kiokumag.com to learn more, read the magazine, and make submissions for the next issue. Submissions for Volume II are due October 27.
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