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Japanese Americans are still trying to grasp the impact of WWII on their families

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For generations after World War II, many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are still trying to understand the full impact of that war on their families. The podcast Inheriting tackles this issue as part of its first season - from the incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to imperial Japan's occupation of the Pacific islands, including Guam. And host Emily Kwong explores the question around how a historic event, such as World War II, can have far-reaching consequences generations later.

Emily, who many of you may also know from the NPR podcast Short Wave, is here with us now. Hi, Emily.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. It is so good to be with you.

CHANG: It's so good to have you. I loved this podcast so, so much. And one of the many things that was interesting to me about Inheriting is how it does look at historical events through the eyes of people who are living now. Like, tell me why you wanted to revisit the past through people who largely did not witness those events themselves.

KWONG: Yeah, so we like to say on Inheriting - which is a show produced by LAist Studios - it has this all Asian American team behind it - that the past is personal. I think there's a sense that history repeats itself over and over again as events. But the thing I've been wondering is how history repeats itself within a person - as feelings, as memories, as behaviors. And this kind of comes from my own questions about my family history.

My grandma and her sisters were survivors of Japan's invasion of China. And I think there are endless stories to be told about different waves of immigration in this country that are connected to historical events that are sometimes taught, sometimes not. But I've just long felt that immigrant communities in this country, especially Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, deserved space and time to really process that together - to ask how these events live on within us as people and what we want to do about that.

Like, the show is called Inheriting for a reason - not Inherited, not Inheritance - Inheriting - this idea that you get to decide what to do with what's passed down to you. You might - you know, as a child of someone who went through a war or genocide, you don't get to determine what that past was, but you get to determine your future as you walk with it.

CHANG: And what to do with what that past has left you.

KWONG: Yes.

CHANG: I was so moved by the episode about Japanese American incarceration because it really hit home how the past does live, literally, inside people generations later. Like, the story of Leah Bash is about what we mean by intergenerational trauma, which is this phrase that gets used so much, but often without explanation. But both you and Leah weave your stories together about struggles that have been passed down in your families. What was it about Leah's story that drew you to her?

KWONG: The first time I met Leah, I started crying, basically, immediately as she spoke about how her father's anxiety and her grandmother's depression and the variety of mental health conditions - diagnosed or undiagnosed - in her own family - how she felt strongly that that was all connected to camp. It reminded me so much of my own desire to understand why my family was the way it was. And I was like, this is a kindred spirit. This is someone asking this question about mental health today in a historical way.

CHANG: Yeah.

KWONG: Both sides of her family were incarcerated during World War II. And the thing maybe not everyone realizes about Japanese American incarceration is how seldom it was talked about in the generation after. And that's because the pressure to maintain silence and fit back into American society after World War II created this almost, like, conspiracy of silence, which is a reaction observed in trauma group survivors around the world.

Leah's trying to understand how, three generations out, camp impacted her. And the person she spoke to in her story is her 94-year-old aunt, Haru Kuromiya. This is Leah talking to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEAH BASH: Camp was such a hard time for everybody. How do you think you got through it?

HARU KUROMIYA: I just trusted my parents, I think. I was so naive. I think if I were 15 today, I would question it a lot more than I did then, but - you know.

KWONG: But then again, Haru also says she was raised to keep a lid on it. Growing up, if she or her siblings got hurt, she was told by her parents to suck it up and get on with it. And that way of thinking applied to camp, too.

BASH: Would Grandma say shikata ga nai?

HARU KUROMIYA: She said that a lot.

BASH: Yeah (laughter).

HARU KUROMIYA: (Laughter) Mmm hmm.

BASH: I think the Inabas learned that phrase pretty well.

KWONG: What does that mean - shikata ga nai?

HARU KUROMIYA: What happens happens, and there's nothing you can do about it.

BASH: I always learned it as it can't be helped.

HARU KUROMIYA: Yeah, it can't be helped.

KWONG: So you can see, Ailsa, how this principle of survival during their time at camp - shikata ga nai - it can't be helped; just move on; just act like it didn't happen - became, like, the style of parenting within this family...

CHANG: Yeah.

KWONG: ...That ultimately really impacted Leah in a negative way and other members of the family, too, and she's just trying to make sense of that.

CHANG: Yeah. Talk more about that because Leah is obviously struggling with mental health challenges herself. How might the trauma experienced by members of a previous generation in her family show up in her? She was never physically at those camps.

KWONG: She wasn't. And even Leah would be the first to say, I can't prove it. I can't prove that, in her case, her bipolar disorder is directly connected to camp. Bipolar disorder has a multitude of causes. It's extremely heritable, however. And the thing I started looking into on Leah's behalf while reporting this story is epigenetics.

So epigenetics is the science of how our environment affects our genes. We are learning more and more with each year how a traumatic event - like living behind barbed wire for three years in wartime - an event like that has the power to punctuate our genes with these chemical marks. That can signal to the body whether a gene should be read or not. It's that influential. And that explains how it's possible for descendants of trauma victims - so people like Leah, who never saw camp - to nonetheless be affected by trauma, too, because it affects them genetically.

But the thing I want to say that's really hopeful here is the opposite is true, Ailsa. Changing our environment for the better has the power to put the brakes on cycles of trauma. And if you can change your environment, you can change your genetics in the long run, too. And we wanted to show that in this story. So if you listen to the episode - you'll have to listen to the whole thing...

CHANG: Yeah.

KWONG: ...You hear Leah healing through therapy, through treatment, through nonclinical interventions - just runs and walks and community and conversation. There's this really beautiful moment where she goes to the Japanese American National Museum, and they're gathered - she and her family are gathered around this book called the Ireicho, which has the names of every known Japanese person incarcerated during World War II. And she and her family - they're stamping her father's name. As a whole family, they're saying, this was not OK. They're doing things together to heal this intergenerational trauma at the root.

CHANG: Yeah. And even though that episode was so wrenching for me to listen to, it was so hopeful.

KWONG: Yeah. That's what this show is about. It's not about what happened to people. It's how they're living with it.

CHANG: Emily Kwong is the host of Inheriting. You can find the show on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, Emily.

KWONG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.
Jonaki Mehta
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.