DVD review by John Streamas

John Streamas is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at Washington State University in Pullman. His book, Japanese Americans and Cultures of Effacement, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

On Conscience and the Constitution, Two-Disc Collector’s Edition

Shortly after I met her in 1995, poet Toyo Suyemoto advised me never to join the Japanese American Citizens League.

She was still bitter, a half-century after the war, over the JACL’s presuming to speak for all Japanese Americans, as it urged them gladly to comply with government orders to evacuate their homes and enter concentration camps in barren, hostile places in the desert. At the time of her own evacuation, Toyo was a young mother whose husband had abandoned her and their infant son Kay. She and Kay left for camp with her parents and siblings, and they would all leave after the war for new homes in Ohio.

In the late 1950s Kay, who should have been a hearty teenager, died of illnesses induced by the harsh conditions of camp. All her life, Toyo wrote about her camp experience, and her poems, though seemingly serene descriptions of the Utah desert where she was imprisoned, are full of underlying despair, rage, and hope. Late in life she spoke before high school and college audiences about her wartime experience, and with energetic humor she urged them to fight back against institutional oppression, warning that only constant vigilance can hope to resist racism.

In the 1970s novelist Frank Chin and his literary circle helped the world rediscover Toyo’s poems, seeing in her life and work a feisty resistance of the sort they also saw in Frank Emi and the Fair Play Committee, young men in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming who resisted the military conscription that became possible during Japanese Americans’ incarceration.

Toyo had read the wartime editorials of James Omura, and was aware of the Heart Mountain resisters. The JACL urged the community to prove their loyalty by becoming part of the military effort, but Emi and the others, supported by Denver journalist James Omura, refused, insisting that their constitutional rights must first be restored before they would consider service.

The resisters’ refusal and subsequent trial was for decades a “dirty secret” of Japanese American history, as the JACL continued to presume to speak for the community. The story of these resisters forms the core of Frank Abe’s 2000 film Conscience and the Constitution, which was broadcast on PBS and which has surely done more than any other film or book to tell it from their perspective.

Now the film is reissued with new material. This is no gimmicky “director’s cut” with twenty additional minutes that amount to a vanity project. The core film remains, but Abe adds to the discs – of which there are now two, one of them dedicated exclusively to additional material – extended interviews with people featured in the film, footage from the 2002 event in which the JACL publicly and formally apologized to the resisters, and access to a helpful viewers’ guide.

In the film itself, historian Roger Daniels reminds audiences that history is written by the winners, and observes that in postwar Japanese America those winners have been the JACL, who have dictated how even a civil rights-era nation might read the incarceration – until now when, thanks to Abe and other activists such as Chin and historian Michi Weglyn, the suppressed narratives are finally surfacing.

The material in Abe’s new edition reinforces Daniels’s caution about the JACL version of history. More than a century ago, African American writer W. E. B. DuBois argued that the black American develops a “double consciousness,” one for engaging with whites, the other for living in the home community. History for all communities of color can be understood as existing on two planes. Most Americans know little about Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during the war, and so the historian’s first job is to teach that history. On this plane, the U.S. government reduced all Japanese Americans to potential saboteurs, a threat serious enough to warrant mass incarceration. On the other, interior plane, the JACL reduced them all to good Americans happy to prove their loyalty, even if at the price of incarceration; but, on this plane, they were not reducible, as some complied while others despaired and still others fought back. But the resisters fought two foes, the uncomprehending government and the capitulating JACL.

The focus of Abe’s feature film is to tell the story on both planes, focusing on the outer plane, the general history for audiences unaware even of the incarceration. The focus of the new material is the inner plane, the suppressed history of resistance’s consequences.

Most valuable, perhaps, are comments by Frank Emi, a core organizer of the Fair Play Committee. Emi acknowledges the JACL’s formal apology, but he also refers to the “unholy ghosts” of the organization’s past: During the war it willfully kept the government informed of resisters’ actions, and after the war it ostracized them, drove them out of community life. These ghosts must also be atoned for, says Emi.

Lest squeamish Japanese Americans worry that the new edition of Abe’s film package threatens to air the community’s dirty laundry, let it be remembered that the federal government acknowledged in 1988 that the wartime incarceration was not only wrong but even deserving of symbolic restitution – a fact that implicitly repudiates the JACL’s wartime position. During the war, Japanese Americans’ only enemy should have been institutional racism, not neighbors working as snitches for the racists.

Abe’s new material clearly shows the consequences of both complicity and resistance, and, maybe even more importantly, it celebrates the courage of those young men who resisted not only the government but even their community’s own weak leaders.

My old friend Toyo was proud of the resisters and, had she lived to see this film and its supplementary material, she would have been proud of Frank Abe.

                                          — John Streamas

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