Category Archives: Densho

Guardian of history challenges historical integrity of “Allegiance”

Only four weeks, and we are already fatigued with the daily barrage of demonstrable lies and outright propaganda coming from the new Administration. Terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have suddenly entered the lexicon. In his climate of misdirection, it’s more critical than ever to hold tight to a sense of reality and a common set of facts.

Densho logoIn that regard the Densho Project in Seattle has been a leader in the documentation of facts about the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans, both through the video capture of first-person narratives and the preservation of photos and documents. So it is worth taking note when Densho addresses the question we’ve raised before of the historical integrity of the musical Allegiance, screening again today on this Day of Remembrance.

Here are the facts. No resistance leader was hunted by guards like an inmate escaping Stalag 17. No one at Heart Mountain was beaten bloody by guards. And for god’s sake, no guards shot and killed any white nurse in a jealous scuffle with a resister. But even among those who acknowledge both the fabrication and falsification of history in Allegiance, two excuses are often offered: it’s worth doctoring history if it introduces the camp story to more people, or helps “educate” the public.

Densho Content Director Brian Niiya has come forward to disagree. Niiya is editor of the definitive Densho Encyclopedia and editor of two print editions of the Encyclopedia of Japanese American History. After evidently seeing the film-of-the-stage-production in December, he posted this critique, “ALLEGIANCE: See the Film, But Watch For These Historical Inaccuracies,” in which he questions “whether these issues make it unsuitable as an introduction to the story or as an educational tool.” And he adds, “Isn’t there a limit, some point where things veer too far from what really happened, to say that maybe we shouldn’t support the work, that it would have been better if had not been made?

Read the full Densho post to see more of the factual issues Niiya raises. Then, if you attend the screening or watch the inevitable DVD, look past the melodrama to critically see the “alternative facts” being peddled.

What resistance means now: “Has the Gestapo come to America?”

The Heart Mountain resisters refused induction in 1944 as a last-ditch attempt to clarify their status as American citizens and challenge the constitutionality of the American concentration camps in which they were held. With the actions being threatened by a new Administration, a new kind of resistance is now being called for in the 21st century.

It’s only been one week since the election, and an adviser to the President-elect is testing the public’s willingness to go along with creation of a national registry of all Muslims in America — a database whose only useful purpose would be to make it possible to round them all up for some kind of mass action.

Journalist James Omura saw the dangers of mass registration in February 1942, in his testimony to the Congressional Tolan Committee, which was preparing the public for acceptance of the mass exclusion of a feared racial minority perceived as the enemy. “Has the Gestapo come to America?,” he asked.

This is how it starts,” warns the New York Times.  “1942 all over again?” This is what backers of the President-elect have in mind when he talks of going back to the good old days — when they cite the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans as a precedent for a Muslim registry.

Thankfully, there are voices in Congress now that can push back against these dangerous ideas, like that of Congressman Mark Takano.

Outgoing Congressman Mike Honda is echoing the cry for the President-elect to denounce the loose talk, in an interview with The New Republic: “This is fear, not courage. This is hate, not policy.” 

And the Densho Project in Seattle points out that if people seek a precedent, they need look no further than the government’s apology and monetary compensation for the Constitutional violations of mass eviction and incarceration without charges or hearings:

We as Japanese Americans realize we have a moral obligation to defend others targeted on the basis of race or religion, because we have been the targets before. That living memory of exclusion and incarceration brings with it a moral authority to speak when fear of a minority drives the nation down that road again. So we can be horrified at talk of a Muslim registry, and at the same time not surprised, because we’ve seen all this before.

In May, a different kind of fear brought us together in Seattle for a panel on Connecting the Lessons of History, the fear that the racial mistrust and fomenting of aggression seen in the presidential campaign would become normalized. We could see that regardless of the outcome of the election, meaning after Trump lost, we would have much work to do to repair the rips to the fabric of civil discourse. I never believed we would need to be fighting against authoritarians and demagogues gaining real power in America. But that’s where we are this week.

The resistance at Heart Mountain was a classic of American civil disobedience in the 20th century. The example they set — that is the precedent which should guide us now. This is how it starts.

logo for BBC World ServiceUPDATE: The BBC World Service called to talk after this post. Click on the image for the program page and drag the slider to the 30:44 mark. On the last question to me about fear for national security, add this thought: That’s what they said after Pearl Harbor. That we can’t tell the sheep from the goats, so lock them all up. But history has shown, and a Congressional commission concluded, that the real reasons for the incarceration were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. And it’s fear and racial demagoguery that are behind this call for a Muslim registry.

CONSCIENCE DVD part of new online teachers course

Densho Online CourseThe Densho online video archive is already a remarkable accomplishment: the filming, transcribing, archiving and posting of more than 1,600 hours of video interviews and over 12,000 historic photos, documents, and newspapers, all sharing the direct experience of incarceration in one of America’s concentration camps for Japanese Americans in World War II. The raw tapes of all 26 interviews we conducted for CONSCIENCE are archived there and available online, in what’s unavoidably dubbed the “Frank Abe Collection.”

Executive director Tom Ikeda and company have now taken their collection to the next level. After years of work they have synthesized the stories and images in their collection and organized them into a new online course, “Teaching WWII Japanese American Incarceration with Primary Sources.”

But there’s more. Among the benefits for completing the course and filling out an evaluation, teachers will receive a certification of completion to document professional development hours, and a copy of our new Two-Disc Collectors Edition DVD of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, documenting the largest organized resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

“The online course helps teachers create classroom activities to encourage students to closely examine and question what people say,” says Ikeda. “The men in Abe’s film questioned the government’s action to draft them from behind barbed wire, which led to their civil disobedience. We want teachers and students to see how thinking deeply about an issue can lead to action.”

Thanks to Densho for its longtime support of our project and for sharing our DVD with new teachers and students. The complete course takes about six hours to complete and it’s completely free, so sign up now.