Category Archives: American concentration camps

HOLD THESE TRUTHS: the power of the real

Curfew violator Gordon Hirabayashi was a draft resister too. He resisted the 8 pm military curfew placed only on Japanese Americans, when he saw it didn’t apply to his white classmates at the University of Washington. He resisted the mass incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he resisted the draft when an induction letter was sent to him after his high court conviction was upheld

actor seated in chair
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

In her solo play on the lone resistance of Gordon Hirabayashi, playwright Jeanne Sakata shows that the truth of the Japanese American experience can work as powerful drama onstage, without violating the history or resorting to melodrama.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS, which is ending its longest run ever of four weeks at the ACT Theater in Seattle, uses nothing but the actual word and deed of the UW student and Quaker pacifist, based on Sakata’s hours of interviews with him. Where she compresses events or fictionalizes Gordon’s letters from jail, the words are always drawn from his actual writings, the minimum of dramatic license is taken, and the intent is always to illuminate the real nature of Gordon’s character.

Her approach succeeds brilliantly. Sakata brings Gordon’s inner life to the surface while retaining respect for the facts. She makes it look simple, but her craft is quite accomplished.

Having known Gordon through his visits to Seattle later in life, it’s odd to see him portrayed on stage by someone who bears such a striking resemblance. Ryun Yu captures something about the tilt of the head when Gordon would pursue a thought. He finds an expansive energy in the younger Gordon, while staying true to his pure convictions and measured speech. Yu holds the stage for 90 minutes, and earns a standing ovation every night.

lone actor on bare stage
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

At a pivotal moment in the play, Yu as Hirabayashi trembles at the gravity of his decision to violate the military curfew, and take on the government. He realizes his will be a test case, and the line he writes in a letter, “Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” precedes by two years the nearly identical stance of the draft resisters at Heart Mountain: “Therefore, we hereby refuse to go to the induction, or to the physical examination, in order to contest the issue.” The difference was Gordon had no organized resistance around him, no model for his selfless stand. He did it alone, and the Heart Mountain resisters had his example as a guide.

Seeing the play performed in Seattle is  especially meaningful, at a theater just a few blocks from the federal courthouse where Gordon was first arraigned in 1942, and a few blocks more from the King County Jail where he served nine months. Hearing a stage voice announce the wartime exclusion order in terms of real Seattle territory – Roosevelt and N. 85th – made the history all too tangible for an audience that can visualize those streets today.

That federal courthouse was also the scene where Gordon in 1985 was given a chance to put the government on trial for withholding evidence that could have changed the outcome of his Supreme Court test case.

Being a Courageous Citizen on July 20th at the Town HallTo promote the return to Seattle of HOLD THESE TRUTHS, I was pleased to moderate a July 20 panel at Town Hall Seattle featuring Jeanne and three of the Sansei attorneys who gave their time to back Gordon and Fred Korematsu in their attempt to overturn their high court convictions in 1985.

moderator with four panelists on stage
(L to R) Frank Abe, Jeanne Sakata, Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga. Photo by Monica Kong.

Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga took us inside their legal strategy to refute the claim of military necessity used to justify the wartime incarceration. On the eve of the hearing, Kawakami described how the government offered Gordon a Presidential pardon in exchange for dropping the case; it was revealing of Gordon’s character that he rejected the offer, saying “We should be the ones pardoning the government.”

While preparing for the panel, I dug up an article I wrote for the Pacific Citizen in November 1985 that examined in detail the final written arguments in the “Clash of Legal Arguments in ‘Civil Liberties Case of the Century.’” It was remarkable that we could share our memories of being in the same place at the same time — Rod and Daniel representing Gordon, me covering the hearing as a reporter — and each of us feeling the weight of history being re-enacted in that courtroom.

See more pictures from the panel in this Facebook photo album. HOLD THESE TRUTHS runs through Sunday, August 16.

Discovering my father was a no-no boy

chef George Heart MtnThis is the story of a rank-and-file supporter of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, one of the many never named who chipped in two hard-earned 1944 dollars to the defense fund for the young draft resisters.

His name was George Yoshisuke Abe, and yes, he was my father. Dad died in his sleep on April 1, his last laugh on all of us. He was 91.

Ht Mtn crew cropIn preparing for his service, I revisited a chronology he wrote some years ago, and was startled to discover something I’d completely overlooked: Dad was in fact a no-no boy.

This is what he wrote of the time he was handed the loyalty questionnaire in 1943.

At first I answered Yes, Yes to questions 27 and 28 but late after talk with Mr. Oda and Nisei friends I changed the answer to No, No and went to administration building to have it notarized. Before that Nisei girl officer in the office wrote explanation for reason of changing the answer in loyalty questionnaire. After notarized I hand the letter to hakujin officer in the same office. At that time I never realized the seriousness of Yes, Yes and No, No. I sure found out the consequence later.

About a month later Yes, Yes and No, No groups were separated. The Yes, Yes and the disloyal to U.S. about 1000 of them were shipped to different camp later known to be Tule Lake segregated camp in Calif. I went to see departure of Yes, Yes group [here he probably means the No-No group] because some of my friends were going. It was terrible scene to see. Loved ones and family being separated and tears were flowing everywhere. Out of segregated, some had change of heart and some were shipped to Japan.

Dad then wrote of the later JACL campaign to solicit volunteers for the Army as a demonstration of Nisei loyalty, and the reinstitution of the draft in early 1944.

Some volunteered.  Others resisted draft and taken to jail. There were talk of drinking soy sauce that made heart rate to go way up so that Army examiner will reject on ground of bad heart. Somehow the draft never came to me. I had already registered for draft before the evacuation in 1941 in County of Santa Clara draft board #111. I carried draft card with me so I wasn’t worried too much.

1948 portrait croppedIt’s regrettable the things one never thinks to ask until it’s too late. Why did he change his answer from yes-yes to no-no? Since he did register as no-no, why wasn’t he segregated to Tule Lake with the others? And since, on paper at least, he was 22 when Selective Service was reinstituted for the Nisei in 1944, why didn’t he get the call until  1947? He may not have known himself.

I can’t say that Dad’s personal wartime resistance was the reason for making CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, or for maintaining this blog. I’ve never drawn the direct connection. But it’s not hard to see how one’s origins shapes a person and motivates them.

He will, of course, be deeply missed. Goodbye, Dad, and thanks for everything.

“Stop the Fence at Tule Lake” lawsuit update

Tule Lake mapWe received this news update from leaders of the Tule Lake Committee, which  has filed suit to stop construction of a massive 8-foot high, 3-mile fence around the local airport that will cut off public access to the Tule Lake site.

“Besides being utterly unnecessary in such a desolate place, such a fence would desecrate the physical and spiritual aspects of Tule Lake, which has great historical and personal importance to me and many others,” says filmmaker and therapist Satsuki Ina in her petition on Change.org.

The Herald and News of Klamath Falls, Oregon, recently reported on a March 19 meeting  on National Park Service planning for the overall site. In discussing what it calls the” knotty lawsuit,” the article quotes locals who support the fence without getting comment from Japanese American opponents.

Here, then, is the comment from fence opponents:

NEWS UPDATE: Thank you for your support of our action to stop the fence at Tule Lake.

We maintain that this $3.5 million dollar plan to erect a massive 3-mile long, 8-foot high perimeter fence around the Tulelake Airport, accompanied by a dozen related projects, will cause destruction to Tule Lake’s historic fabric and close most of the site to future visitation.

In American history, the Tule Lake concentration camp was the site of devastating offenses to our Constitution, the rule of law, and the right of due process. It is a place of mourning, a place where thousands of lives were destroyed. Rather than helping to heal the wounds of the wartime injustice, the proposed Tulelake airport expansion on this historic site continues to send an unfortunate message of exclusion.

Herald and News photo by Gerry O'Brien
Mike Reynolds, superintendent of Lava Beds National Monument and the Tule Lake Unit, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, describes the size and scope of the Newell project to about 60 people March 19 at Tulelake High School — Herald and News photo by Gerry O’Brien

Under California law, Modoc County’s plan to extend an expiring 40-year land lease for another 30 years requires environmental review because Tule Lake is a California Historic Landmark. Attorneys for Modoc County believed they could waive compliance, leaving the Tule Lake Committee little recourse to filing a Writ of Mandamus so the courts could decide.

We are currently in pre-trial discussions.  Parties to the lawsuit include Modoc County, the City of Tulelake, the Macy’s crop dusting business, and the Tule Lake Committee.

In the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed the petition to Stop the Fence at Tule Lake, please consider doing so now. You’ll be joining nearly 26,000  signatories, most of whom signed thanks to the support of actor/activist George Takei on the basis of this one single tweet:

Here also is Mr. Takei’s personal testimony on the petition:

When I was but a small child, my family and I were forced at gunpoint from our home in Los Angeles and spent years in two internment camps, first in the swamplands of Arkansas, and then at Tule Lake. I have spent my life ensuring that we never forget, and never repeat, these mistakes of the past. This fence would prevent any visitors to the grounds of the former internment camp, include the infamous stockade. It would be a body blow to our efforts to keep this critical piece of American history, however blighted, from fading from our collective memory.