When Estelle Peck Ishigo followed her Japanese-American husband into an internment camp during World War II—one of the few Caucasians to do so—she created a legacy of works that live on as a painful reminder of one of America’s darkest periods, and as a testament to an extraordinary woman who refused to give in to prejudice and injustice.
Through vivid use of Ishigo’s own memoirs, photos, and paintings, as well as historic film footage of the Japanese-American internment, Steven Okazaki’s Days of Waiting, winner of both an Academy Award and Peabody Award, recreates the shattering experience of relocation from an “outsider’s” perspective.
Estelle married Arthur Ishigo despite the fact that interracial marriages were illegal in California. Thirteen years later, in 1941, the Ishigos and some 110,000 Japanese-Americans, most U.S. citizens, were placed under “protective arrest.” Estelle and Arthur spent more than three years living in two relocation camps, the first in Pomona, Calif., the second at Heart Mountain, Wyo.
Throughout their ordeal, Estelle Ishigo documented life in the camps—the cheap barracks, the barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and machine guns—on hoarded scraps of paper. Her evocative drawings of shabbily dressed workers, mothers with their children, food lines, and the ice of Heart Mountain give the sense of an everyday existence devoid of hope. They were, she writes, “thousands of people with nothing to do but wait … watch the sunset … and wait for the next day
When the war ended, Heart Mountain was closed, but the Ishigos, with no money and no place to go, lived in poverty for years afterwards. After Arthur died, Estelle continued to live in poverty, and her work was given its first public showing in 1972 at an exhibition of internment camp artists held by the California Historical Society.
When he was introduced to Estelle’s works, Steven Okazaki, a filmmaker committed to reclaiming Asian American history, learned that she was ailing in a convalescent hospital. Unwilling to accept the hospital director’s claim that she was insane, Okazaki persevered, and as he suspected, found her heavily medicated but able to comprehend what he wanted. “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell my story to,” she said. “Then I can die.”
With the help of other camp internees, Okazaki was able to piece together Estelle’s story. He was eager to show her his film, but Estelle passed away in March 1990 before the screening could be arranged.
Days of Waiting is co-presented by NAATA, the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.