A Heart Mountain resister reacts to “Allegiance”

The following was written at the request of the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, and appears in today’s Oct. 24 edition:

Kirk and Spock in 1920s guise
“A Piece of the Action?” – parallel universe only looks like the real thing
© 1968 Paramount Pictures

There is an episode of Star Trek in which aliens build an entire culture around a book about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s. The aliens recreate the guns, the clothes and the lingo, but it’s just a guess based on what they see in the book. The new musical Allegiance, now playing at The Old Globe in San Diego, feels a little like that, with its creators studying books, photos and websites to come up with an alternate reality for the Japanese American incarceration – one that looks like the real thing but is governed by different rules.

In the parallel world of Allegiance, the sound of bullhorns herds inmates around, female arrivals are forced to strip to their underwear at gunpoint, and military guards bearing rifles fixed with bayonets roam inside the confines of camp on an apparently daily basis – shoving unruly inmates to the ground, firing warning shots into the air to restore order, and taking more deadly aim at, of all people, the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of our film.

An Issei is slapped into handcuffs the instant he answers no-no to the Leave Clearance questionnaire. When his son surges forward, a private turns his rifle on him (“Back up, Jap!”). When an outraged crowd rushes the gate, a guard fires a warning shot.

Sound like the loyalty registration you or your parents remember? Of course not, because it’s a perfectly imperfect duplicate of camp, like the Bizarro World of Superman comics. It’s the incarceration as if it takes place in a German POW camp. But Heart Mountain was an American concentration camp, not Stalag 17.

Cast of "Allegiance" horsing around with props
Turnaround is fair play for the cast of Allegiance during a break in performance, enacting in reverse the rifle and bayonet action of the show itself.
(Allegiance Facebook page)

By design, the rifles and bayonets have a visceral impact on audiences. The theatrical devices can be argued to provide an emotional shorthand for the unrelenting physical and spiritual oppression of camp, but audiences do not share a sufficient base of common knowledge about the camps to recognize the difference between fantasy and fact.

Yes, the family at the center of Allegiance is fictional, but what’s wrapped around that fiction is billed as the true story of the Japanese American experience, and that story firmly anchors itself in the non-fiction world by invoking Heart Mountain, the Heart Mountain resisters, the 442, the Japanese American Citizens League and its wartime leader, Mike Masaoka. The show establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured.

And in the real world that many readers of the Rafu still remember, the armed guards at War Relocation Authority camps were restricted to the towers on the periphery of camp, a few hundred yards from the barracks. The internal security police were not trusted with guns, for fear they’d hurt someone in a quarrel. Yet in the internal logic of this mirror universe, the “Frankie” character who leads the draft resistance is seen running in the dark of night and hiding as guard dogs – guard dogs! – bark in the distance. A Quaker nurse offers him a place to hide. Frankie urges those around him to “Run!,” two guards arrive and order him to “Freeze!,” and one fires a shot into the dark.

It’s a key plot point that leads to a central tragedy. And it’s utter hokum. There is no artistic license expansive enough to justify the portrayal of guards on foot chasing a Heart Mountain draft resister through camp in order to detain him AND SHOOTING AT HIM. Even using the thinly-veiled fiction of “Frankie,” the notion violates the basic facts and circumstances of camp. And for those who have seen the show, think about this: the consequence that results from the shooting is an impossibility that could only exist in the annals of a galaxy far, far away.

“Frankie” of course is modeled on the late Frank Emi of the Fair Play Committee. There was only one draft resistance at the camp named Heart Mountain, and only one resistance leader named Frank. We sent the above to Frank’s fellow Heart Mountain resister, Yosh Kuromiya, who retorts:

“The portrayal of Frank Emi running away and hiding is absurd. Frank Emi was never one to hide or run away. There weren’t any guard dogs or firearms used in Heart Mountain. Our resistance was completely above board and open. All the FPC meetings were open to the public. Even our bulletins were publicized.

“The impressions that are given in this script are totally misleading. The whole situation wasn’t violent and it was an open forum for people to speak openly.

“The implications in the portrayal are an insult to the FPC and resisters. Even the rationale of artistic license becomes questionable in the critical accuracy of our personal history and that of Japanese American history.”

If Frank Emi had anything to fear physically, says Yosh, it was not from the guards, but from fellow incarcerees:

“I recall being concerned for their safety because they were speaking so candidly. There were inu’s (informers) in the meetings but still there was nothing covert or hidden.”

As we showed you in Conscience and the Constitution, the resisters posted fliers, held meetings, and collected dues. When the first 63 were arrested for draft evasion, the FBI needed only to look up their barrack numbers and knock on their doors at dawn. When the FBI later sought the arrest of the FPC leaders for conspiracy, Guntaro Kubota had his bag packed and was washing dishes while waiting for them. In our new DVD, Frank Emi tells how he challenged the FBI’s right to search his barrack without a warrant. He didn’t need to run, and he never had to hide.

Isolated shootings near the fences at other camps, or the two fatalities in the Manzanar Riot, cannot be claimed as the basis for this invention. It is a knowing or unknowing mash-up of events at Manzanar and Tule Lake, or another tired conflation of the Heart Mountain draft resisters with the segregees and unhappy renunciants at Tule. The military entered only two of the ten WRA camps to control unrest, and not as a permanent occupation – a matter of hours at Manzanar and two-and-a-half months at Tule Lake.

Yes, photographs can be found of incarcerees under direct armed guard, but these are mostly of inmates building their barracks, harvesting crops outside the fence, or pushing back at the imposition of martial law at Tule Lake. The presence of armed guards inside the living areas of Heart Mountain was not a commonplace fact of life. If the show wants to convey Tule Lake-like conditions, it should do that story.

The risk here is the dumbing down of camp history in American popular culture. Should the show enter the literature of the Broadway theater, it will be performed in perpetuity by countless amateur and high school groups. Friends say oh don’t take this so seriously, it’s only an entertainment, it’s not a book or documentary, no one’s going to take it as fact. But some already have, according to at least one Yonsei attendee:

“I myself may be a victim of the show as a 4th generation JA – I don’t know much about the camps, but had assumed there were armed guards walking around camp pushing people around!”

Let’s say a revisionist created her own work of art that made out conditions in camp to be better than they were, with let’s say suburban tract homes, white picket fences, and no guard towers; we’d jump down her throat. By the same token, it weakens the integrity of the factual record if a popular work makes out the civilian administration of Heart Mountain to be more brutal than it was.

Our knowledge of the camps is hard-won through four decades of work by trained scholars like Roger Daniels and Art Hansen, self-taught researchers like Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig, and dozens more. Several were consulted for this piece. After knocking down revisionism spanning two generations, from Lillian Baker to Michelle Malkin, it seems a shame to sell our history short for the fame, fortune and fiction of a Broadway-style musical, or even the lure of making the camps and camp resistance better known.

Playwright Frank Chin proposes a simple answer to the problem of historical accuracy – just make the whole thing a flight of fancy:

“Set the play in the present: One day in year 2012 a group of young people walk into an empty and abandoned barn. One kid turns to another and says, ‘Hey! Let’s do a show!’

‘Yeah!’

‘In camp.’

‘Yeah.’”

Yeah, that would work, but that is not the premise of this show – and that is the problem audiences should recognize, even as they are swept up in the melodrama of the moment.

Veterans have often knocked the resisters by claiming they refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. That was never true for Yosh Kuromiya and the Heart Mountain boys, but in this instance it can be said that Yosh is declining to pledge this particular Allegiance. “It is after all,” he writes, “a matter of conscience.”

Resisters in crossfire between veterans and “Allegiance”

Japanese American Veterans Association logoAs predicted, the use of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee to advance the plot of a new musical set in the camps is dredging up old misconceptions about the nature of the resistance. Submitted for your consideration: the second open letter about Allegiance that arrived today from the president of the Japanese American Veterans Association (download a printable PDF of “Setting the Record Straight: The Play ‘Allegiance'”).

We agreed with several of the concerns Gerald Yamada expressed in his first open letter of Sept. 10.  In this new letter he draws attention to what he calls “misleading” elements of the show, such as “misdirecting the blame away from government officials responsible for falsely imprisoning innocent persons” in the second act.

“The ‘light bulb’ revelation in the play that soldiers die in war does not make the 442nd RCT a suicide battalion,” he correctly notes, and concludes, “If the producers continue to try to convince audiences that Masaoka was a monster who duped Japanese Americans into serving in the 442nd RCT as a suicide battalion, the play is doomed to hit an iceberg of facts and history which do not support this.”

On the way to making these points based on facts and history, however, the writer buys into the same false distinctions between loyalty and disloyalty that were promoted by the JACL immediately after Pearl Harbor, and later codified and enforced by the administrators running the camps — false distinctions that incarcerees then internalized among themselves to divide volunteer from resister, draftee from renunciant, friend from foe. As the writer takes his verbal shots at the show’s belittlement of the veterans, he complains the show “over-romanticizes the story of the resisters.” The resisters suffer a kind of collateral damage, caught in this peculiar crossfire:

In the play, resisters are those who answer no to questions 27 and 28 and those who refused to be inducted, but they still appear to believe in America (emphasis added) … It would be unfair to conclude that all resisters wanted Japan to win the war … The important point is that the resisters were in the minority and that all those in that minority may not have been loyal to America as compared to all who volunteered to serve in the 442nd RCT.”

This regrettable but familiar innuendo drew a quick response from the friend who forwarded me the open letter:

“Why are folks still invoking the loyal/disloyal paradigm to discredit dissenters and resisters? That comment is a reminder of the racist labeling that government institutions like the Western Defense Command, the Department of Justice and the War Relocation Authority imposed on our community and used to silence dissent. Sadly, many Japanese Americans like victims of Stockholm Syndrome where the prisoner identifies with the goals of their powerful captors internalized and still use these stereotypical and divisive labels … (W)hy is it necessary to demonize the imprisoned Japanese American minority that had the “baka guts” to protest the injustice of their incarceration? … Isn’t it about time that we accept civil disobedience and dissent as a legitimate 100% American response to injustice?”

It’s unfortunate but like we said, the resisters get kicked around like this every so often. This time the dust-up is over a musical. Next year it will be something else.

Variety rips “Allegiance,” says what National JACL does not

Variety logoLike the Los Angeles Times before it, the trade newspaper Variety has just posted what can only be described as a thumbs-down review of the new musical inspired by the clash of ideas between the Heart Mountain draft resisters who are the subject of our film, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League:

“(W)hile the personal material lands, the political stuff lacks nuance and weight in “Allegiance.” Despite a handsome production and talent to spare, the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway’s harsh glare …

“The sloganeering libretto … portrays both points of view as more or less reasonable until a last-minute, cheaply manipulative flip-flop tells us, out of left field, exactly what to think. In so doing, “Allegiance” comes dangerously close to branding every member of the honored 442nd regiment as fools and dupes, though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal …

“(The songwriter) does seem to have played the “Les Miserables” cast album plenty …”

The Variety piece is important as it is the first objective industry review and will shape expectations among those in New York. And reviewer Bob Verini picks up on the same point raised in last month’s open letter from the Japanese American Veterans Association, in which President Gerald Yamada wrote:

“The play attempts to make the case that … those who volunteered were deceived by Masaoka and made the wrong choice.”

The JAVA letter and the Variety and Times reviews stand in sharp contrast to the Sept. 21st statement from the present-day Japanese American Citizens League. Given the show’s deriding of JACL’s wartime collaboration, its caricature of “Mike Masaoka” and its positioning of him as the antagonist of the piece, you would expect JACL to issue a ringing defense of itself and “they called me Moses” Masaoka.

Has JACL repudiated the legacy of Mike Masaoka?

Whether through lack of knowledge, a lack of interest, a desire not to offend, or a desire to distance itself from its past, National JACL issued a measured statement that labors to address a wide array of stakeholders and constituencies, and is calibrated to offend none of them.  (Download a printable PDF of the JACL statement.) As we’ve said, for some it will be enough that a musical brings the subject of the camps to a new audience, and it’s there that JACL finds a toehold on which to actually commend the production.

JACL officers with George Takei
National and local JACL officers with actor George Takei, on the Sept. 19 opening night of “Allegiance.” Photo: National JACL

But the statement goes on to neither confront its past or stick up for the legacy of its defining wartime leadership. Where the statement tip-toes towards criticism of the show, the repeated use of the passive voice allows the organization to avoid taking a clear and identifiable stand:

“As the confinement of the community lengthened with no access to due process, there was heated disagreement on the best response to the injustices perpetrated by the government …

“Although veterans and resisters are represented in the musical by fictional characters, it is unfortunate that writers have used Mike Masaoka’s name to represent those who promoted Americanism, and portray them in a negative light …

“Allegiance portrays the experiences of a single family at Heart Mountain, and focuses on one perspective of JACL and Mike Masaoka. Concerns remain that the musical pieces together different elements of Masaoka’s contributions during the period, and lacks the historical context to give audiences a broader sense of the external role of the government, press, politicians, military advisers, and others.”

Mike of course was the very face of the JACL’s brand of  Americanism, the author of the JACL Creed and the man who sang the praises of America, so it should come as no surprise that he is named to represent that. We named him in our film. But what is perhaps most significant in the statement is the absence of any rebuttal to the show’s climactic message that “Masaoka” somehow duped the protagonist, played by Mr. Takei, about the nature of the 442, “Go For Broke,” and the consequences of patriotic self-sacrifice — a disturbing message as pointed out by JAVA and Variety.

As Prof. Art Hansen pointed out over a gin martini on Friday, the JACL was unpopular before the war and in the first year of camp, as evidenced by the beating of JACLer Fred Tayama that led to the riot at Manzanar. On our DVD, Frank Emi recalls the pre-war JACL as”sort of an elite social club of lawyers and rich businessmen, things like that.”

But the group’s reputation turned around when Mike tied his star to the notion of restoring the draft for the Nisei as a first step toward the restoration of all their rights. That resonated with the thousands of young men who were itching for the chance to prove themselves, and JACL’s popularity was cemented as the dominant Japanese American political and social organization for the life of the Nisei generation, which sadly is fading into time.

The opening of the draft to the Nisei was as much a part of Mike’s legacy as his initial accommodations regarding the eviction, and for the modern-day JACL to fail to vigorously defend that is an omission that signals a sea change in the organization, whether intentional or not.

To be sure, it can’t be easy staffing a national organization that must bridge the gap between what we used to call the “old guard” and the younger members the group needs to attract and keep in order to survive — to try to function as a modern civil rights organization while lugging the history of a predecessor who waived Japanese American rights at the time when we needed them the most.

Next up: a review of the text (and subtext) of Allegiance, as frozen for the San Diego production, that expands upon the “lack of historical context” cited by JACL.