“Moment in Manzanar” is an interactive educational film, featuring a conversational experience powered by a generative AI. The audience engages with “Ichiro,” a fictional Japanese American character representing the experience of incarceration in the Manzanar concentration camp during World War II. Ichiro is portrayed by a digital AI actor.
Often, technology and entertainment cater to the interests of the majority for financial reasons. This approach tends to result in the creation of experiences that lack representation of diverse voices. For instance, many popular AI products exhibit a similar demographic in their voice, and numerous films feature a limited diversity in their cast. This project seeks to empower a historically marginalized Japanese American voice from the 1940s. Its goal is to demonstrate that technology can give voice to those who were historically voiceless in a compelling manner.
It is important to clarify that “Moment in Manzanar” is a work of fiction and does not provide an accurate depiction of a specific moment in 1943. Instead, it aims to fill in the emotional gaps within the historical record. As John Okada, the author of “No-No Boy,” expressed in a letter to his publisher, “...only in fiction can the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows of people be adequately recorded.”
History encompasses more than mere dates, numbers, and statistics—it is a human story filled with conversations and emotions. “No-No Boy” exemplifies a novel that effectively conveys the emotional aspects of the historical record and serves as a significant inspiration for this project. The main character in “Moment in Manzanar” shares the name with the protagonist of “No-No Boy” for this reason.
Published in 1957, “No-No Boy” by John Okada tells the story of a different Ichiro from the one encountered in “Moment in Manzanar.” The Ichiro in “No-No Boy” is a Japanese American who answered “No” to questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire. These questions were as follows:
- Question 27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”
- Question 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”
Responding “No” to both questions classified individuals as potential enemies of the state, leading to their confinement in maximum-security camps and social exclusion. Despite their significance and value, their voices were often overlooked. This project aims to empower these overlooked voices by facilitating a conversation between the audience and an AI actor portraying Ichiro. The hope is that this novel application of generative AI technology will convey at least a part of the emotional story from the past.
This experience has been made possible by funding from the Inworld Character Grants.
Photographs used in the experience courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, National Park Service, California State University San Bernardino Special Collections & University Archives, The Frank Abe Collection, Center for Asian American Media, and Flikr Creative Commons Images.