Japanese America comes to Seattle this weekend for the JA National Museum annual conference at the Seattle Sheraton, commemorating the 25th anniversary of winning redress for the camps.
Heart Mountain resister Tak Hoshizaki speaks Saturday at 2:00 pm on a panel called “Standing on Principle.” I’ll be there Friday sharing the Conscience DVD at a Marketplace exhibit table. I’m also speaking on a panel called the “Tangled Routes to Japanese American Redress” — a title you’ll hear me dispute — and looking forward to reuniting with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston for a Friday evening screening of Farewell to Manzanar, which the Museum recently freed from the clutches of Universal Studios for a long-overdue release on DVD. More on that in our next post.
For the redress panel Friday we will welcome conferees to the region that, in our humble opinion, saved the redress campaign before it ever got off the ground. I will share the story of how the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee, with the advice and experience of writer Frank Chin, delivered the key strategy for reframing the issue after an AP story quoted California Senator S.I. Hayakawa calling the JACL’s resolution for redress “ridiculous,” and saying “The relocation was perfectly understandable … even the JACL supported it at the time.”The Wall Street Journal backed him up with an editorial titled, “Guilt Mongering.”
You could feel the air leading out of the redress balloon, until Seattle created and staged the first “Day of Remembrance” on Nov. 25, 1978, as a means of leveraging the media to tell our story and encouraging the local community to “remember the camps/stand for redress with your family.” At Friday’s panel we’ll talk about the turnout of 2,000 people — the largest single gathering of Japanese Americans since, well, World War II — that made national news and rallied our community behind our shared experience of incarceration and injustice.
Thanks to all at the AAAS conference who said they would order our educational edition DVD through their college libraries. Now is the time to pick up this valuable teaching resource for your classrooms and students with fund balance remaining in the current school year. To order is simple, just send a purchase order to Kate Ampel at Transit Media at firstname.lastname@example.org, or ring her up at (800) 343-5540, and she’ll do the rest. And please leave a comment if you have already done so!
In support of our film being featured on Comcast XFINITY video-on-demand this month, Cinema Asian America curator Chi-hui Yang conducted this online interview for their TV Blog. I told him his questions were among the most thoughtful I’d ever been posed. See what you think:
Interview: ‘Conscience and the Constitution’: Talking with Frank Abe
by Chi-hui Yang | May 2, 2013 at 2:44 AM
The history of Japanese American internment is a complex one and reveals many deep contradiction and divisions both within America, and more specifically, the Japanese American community. You chose to focus on the latter in “Conscience and the Constitution” noting that in 1944, the draft resisters at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming “served two years in prison, and for the next fifty were written out of the popular history of Japanese America.” What were the stakes for you as a journalist, and a Japanese American when you decided to dig deep into this contested history?
FA: I never bought into the idea that Japanese America’s only response to this massive violation of constitutional rights was passive resignation – shikatagai, Japanese for “it can’t be helped” – or patriotic self-sacrifice as embodied by the Nisei soldiers and go for broke! But as a baby boomer born after the camps, if you asked, “gee, why didn’t you guys contest this?” you’d get a pat on the head and told that “you weren’t there, times were different, you can’t judge us with your Berkeley civil-rights activism of the Sixties.” So when I first learned of the organized resistance at Heart Mountain, which incidentally was my father’s camp, I felt like I’d found a missing link. And the more we scripted out the story, the more we could see that it would shift the paradigm of Japanese American history and show that besides cooperation and collaboration, there was protest and resistance.
Here was a classic example of civil disobedience in the American 20th century, but it threatened the party line and the popular narrative of victimization. That made it critical to me as a journalist that we get the story right and tell it fairly, to document an unassailable case, and to get it into the marketplace with the legitimacy conferred by a presenter like PBS. It must have worked because none of the dismissive “old guard” really pushed back – well, maybe one, and he can be seen near the end of the film.
Most meaningful to me was that the film provided the historical context and framework through which the children of the resisters could finally understand what their fathers and mothers did. Many of these people my age had gone through life feeling vaguely uneasy about their fathers’ time in a federal penitentiary. When they saw that there was no community backlash to the film, and instead a large audience for the recovery of this untold story, they could see that their fathers were in fact principled people who acted in the best American tradition.
You’ve said that this film in many ways, would have been very difficult to make before the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the US government gave reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII. Why?
FA: Because without an accepted foundation of verified fact, anything we put out there would have been too easily dismissed as opinion or hearsay. I was jolted into action to help kick-start the redress campaign when writer Frank Chin literally came to my door and said, “If you lose Japanese American history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” At that time in 1978 every attempt to raise the issue of injustice in the newspaper or on the radio was greeted with letters to the editor and callers on the air who would snarl, “yeah, but don’t forget these guys bombed Pearl Harbor,” or “don’t forget they were put in camp for their own protection.” Whenever Frank Emi spoke in classrooms he had to bring armloads of books and court cases to first prove the case against the camps before he could begin to talk about the Fair Play Committee. Frank Chin showed us that by staging events like the first Days of Remembrance in Seattle and Portland, we could use the media to get across the simple message that the camps were wrong, and that paved the way for the first redress bills in Congress.
While pursuing redress over the next ten years, we had to show a united front with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and others. We couldn’t muddy the argument by bringing up the cooperation of JACL leaders in the eviction from the West Coast and administration of the camps, or the resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain and other camps. Once we held the government accountable for redress in 1988, we were freed to turn to holding our own leaders accountable, a movement that climaxed with the events seen at the end of Conscience.
And are there still lingering histories of the internment which have not been told which future generations of filmmakers should uncover?
FA: It’s harder now with each passing year, but there needs to be an authoritative study of the false distinctions between loyalty and disloyalty that were forced upon us by the wartime government and internalized by our own community – the no-no’s, the renunciants and the expatriates. Whether by intent or incompetence, these expressions of dissent were driven by administrators who effectively created disloyalty, anger and alienation through the implementation of loyalty oaths and segregation of families based upon their answers.
“Conscience and the Constitution” was made more than a decade ago and you’ve remained very active in screening it and making it available in classrooms. How can we connect up the history you examine in the film, with current conversations and politics in the US?
FA: The unjust eviction and incarceration of Japanese Americans based solely on their race is the single largest precedent that inhibits the power of the federal executive to profile populations on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. We saw that in play right after 9/11, when the knee-jerk hostility and calls for roundup of Arab Americans were tempered by the acknowledgment that America made this mistake after Pearl Harbor. As historian Eric Muller put it, our memory is a precious resource in the fight against racism and scapegoating, and it’s one to which we bear special witness.
On the cultural scene, the specific story we frame of the wartime JACL’s promotion of military service and its suppression of the Heart Mountain draft resistance has found unexpected life in actor George Takei’s legacy project, a musical called Allegiance. The show premiered last fall in San Diego with aspirations for a Broadway run, and while there are certain issues with the script, which is still in development, it has certainly kept this story in front of a national audience.
You’ve been deeply involved in Asian American culture and politics for more than three decades, as a journalist covering the community, as a founding member of the Asian American Theater Company, and as a filmmaker. What was the starting point for you and what excites you about Asian America today?
FA: Coming out of college my imagination was captured by the AIIIEEEEE! Boys: the band of young writers who first proclaimed there was such a thing as an Asian American sensibility and who proved it by recovering and republishing the works of John Okada, Louis Chu and others. It was an imaginative home I never knew I had, and the works of fiction, poetry, and theater that were created were rooted in our shared history and the excitement of rediscovering a buried past.
Today I can get annoyed by the fashionable notion in some places that we’ve moved past history, past the camps, that it’s all been said and done and we’ve moved on. Then I can get excited by the emergence of former editor Naomi Hirahara as a celebrated mystery writer who can slip in references to the Fair Play Committee; or more recently the Kaya Press translation of Lament in the Night, a gritty 1925 novella written in Japanese by an Issei who authentically captures the back alleys and bathhouses of LA’s Little Tokyo before the war in a way we’ve never seen before.
What are you working on now?
FA: We’re marketing a two-disc special edition DVD of Conscience with outtakes, extensions of the interviews and new featurettes, because there was so much great material we couldn’t fit into the hour-long film. It’s a useful resource for students to enable research of the primary interviews along with the rich database of documents we put online at PBS.org/Conscience . Next is an anthology of essays that examines the postwar resettlement of Japanese America and the world into which the resisters were thrust after serving their two years in prison. That’s another lingering history that’s not been well examined, and we’ll investigate it through the lens of writer John Okada and his foundational novel, “No-No Boy.”
We’ve just learned that our film has been selected for national distribution through Comcast XFINITY’s video-on-demand service. Thanks to Chi-hui Yang, curator of the “Cinema Asian America” series, Comcast digital cable subscribers with On-Demand in select TV markets can watch Conscience and the Constitution for just $1.99 per view.
If you haven’t already seen Conscience, this is a limited opportunity, from today through May 31, to see it at home for a nominal fee. Please share the news with friends. Read more in the news release, with a list below of the TV markets where you can “demand” our film:
Conscience and the Constitution carried nationwide in May on Comcast video-on-demand
Award-winning documentary featured in “Cinema Asian America” series on Comcast XFINITY
To mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, XFINITY On Demand ‘s Cinema Asian America presents Frank Abe’s landmark documentary, Conscience and the Constitution.
Originally released in 2000, the film has become a vital part of the nation’s on-going conversation about race, citizenship and civil liberties – complex and fraught dynamics that have become even more urgent since September 11, 2001.
“With video-on-demand and Comcast’s national presence we can reach more viewers and give them a chance to learn more about the incarceration, at a nominal cost,” said Abe. “Thanks to series curator Chi-hui Yang for including our film among so many other outstanding offerings.”
From May 1 through May 31,Conscience and the Constitutionis availableto all Comcast digital cable subscribers with On-Demand for $1.99 per view.
Conscience and the Constitution examines the history of mass incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during WWII, the majority of them US citizens. The film focuses on a group of 85 internees, who refused to be drafted to fight for the US military – an act of protest that resulted, not only in the largest trial for draft resistance in U.S. history, but also in ideological rifts within the Japanese American community that persist even today.
At a time when community leaders advocated for Japanese Americans to sign up for the armed forces to prove their loyalty to the U.S., the resisters refused to do so, knowing that they and their families had been stripped of their civil rights and incarcerated, solely on the basis of their race. The film examines the deep schisms that opened in the Japanese American community during the incarceration and which persist today.
That story also informs the plot of the new musical, Allegiance, which premiered last fall in San Diego and is currently back in development in a workshop lab in New York. “This cablecast of Conscience is timely, as audiences who’ve seen or heard about the musical can now check out the source material for themselves,” said Abe.
“Cinema Asian America” is the groundbreaking video-on-demand offering on Comcast featuring Asian American and Asian films and videos in a monthly, thematically-programmed format. The curated series brings together award-winning films fresh from the film festival circuit and classics which beg to be revisited.
To find Conscience and the Constitution through the Comcast digital cable menu, viewers should click on the “On Demand” button, then look under the “Movies” folder and select the “Movie Collections” subfolder to find “Cinema Asian America.”
Conscience and the Constitution is also available as a Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD, which can be ordered online for home use for $29.95 plus shipping by visiting Resisters.com/orders. For institutional rates, schools and libraries should contact Transit Media at www.transitmedia.net or (800) 343-5540.
Thanks to all those who stopped by our table at the 2013 Association for Asian American Studies conference in Seattle — especially those who took home our order card to recommend their college librarians acquire the new two-disc DVD of Conscience and the Constitution, for classroom use. It was incredibly validating to hear from so many professors over three days tell us of the success they’ve had in using the film in their courses. Not often one gets a chance to meet with the educators actually teaching the material, and it was rewarding to share the story of wartime resistance with so many students and scholars at once.
Thanks also to those who came to our Thursday afternoon panel, “Revisiting the Sites of Japanese American Wartime Incarceration.”
Our presenters revisited the camps on three very different levels – the physical, the emotional, and the imaginative. Brian Niiya described how the preservation of the physical site of the Honouliuli camp in Hawai’i expanded into a larger effort to modify the very narrative of Japanese American history in Hawai’i. Karen Inouye delved into the emotional heart of symbolic graduation ceremonies for Japanese American students removed from college after Pearl Harbor.
But it was the final piece from panel organizer Larry Hashima of California State University, Long Beach, that was most revelant to this blog about the resisters. Larry broke down the imaginative ways in which we construct narratives about the camp experience in his paper, “The Final Frontier Allegiance and Musically Remaking the Internment Narrative.” Larry examined the George Takei musical that debuted last fall in San Diego. He argued that by casting real-life JACL leader Mike Masaoka as “the key antagonist (if not outright villain)” of the musical, and by framing the Nisei veterans as “unwitting dupes volunteering for an unnecessary sacrifice,” the show engaged in “a radical reinterpretation of historical events” and “unchained” the story of camp from “the anchors of the established narrative” — anchors that are otherwise known as the facts.
He concluded that “while Allegiance may have attempted to ‘boldly go where no musical has gone before,'” it can also be viewed as a throwback to the bad old days when the common wisdom pitted the veterans against the resisters (“a false dichotomy,” Larry says), and Japanese Americans were understood only as victims.
Hashima is developing his ideas for a longer dissertation examining the development of common themes within fiction and film treatments of the camp story. We’ll keep an eye on his progress.
One of the featurettes on our new DVD, “The JACL Apologizes,” will screen in San Francisco Japantown on Monday, Feb. 18 as part of this year’s, “Films of Remembrance.”
It’s a one-day film series held in conjunction with the Bay Area Day of Remembrance, commemorating the 71st anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which set the wheels in motion to forcibly relocate some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry into American concentration camps during World War II. Our piece caps off the day’s program, which ends with this description:
5:30 p.m. “A Divided Community: Three Personal Stories of Resistance” (2012, 73 min.) This documentary by Momo Yashima highlights the struggles of three Japanese American World War II resisters — Yosh Kuromiya, Frank Emi and Mits Koshiyama — who challenged the U.S. government’s decision to draft Japanese Americans while they and their families were being held in America’s concentration camps.
Followed by “The JACL Apologizes” by Frank Abe, from the DVD “Conscience and the Constitution.”
The screenings are at Nihonmachi Little Friends, 1830 Sutter St. (near Buchanan) in San Francisco Japantown. The event is sponsored by the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium, the Nichi Bei Weekly and the National Japanese American Historical Society. Free admission, though they’d welcome donations. Thanks to Kenji Taguma for including our piece in the series.
Sen. Daniel Inouye was a highly-decorated combat veteran, the first Japanese American in Congress, and an icon in the Japanese American community — so people took notice when a decade ago he began to give interviews in which he compared the courage of the veterans to the courage of the Heart Mountain draft resisters for being willing to go to prison to stand up for their rights. Maybe he sensed, after the broadcast of our film and other works, that the time had come for the reconciliation long talked about between the veterans, the resisters and other camp dissenters.
He was big enough to recognize that, as he put it, “it took a lot of guts” for the resisters to stand up to their own government — and by saying so, he showed a lot of gut himself.
I’m sorry to learn tonight that Mr. Inouye passed away today at the age of 88. In 2002, he was gracious enough to grant us an interview that is exclusive to our new DVD. Shot at Seattle Central Community College by our principal videographer, Phil Sturholm, producer Carol Hasegawa squeezed in two questions on our behalf at the end of her interview with him on the day’s Civil Liberties Celebration. In the good Senator’s memory tonight, here is the full featurette as it appears on our DVD:
One hundred years ago today, November 27, 1912, Utaka Matsumoto was born to a sawmill worker and his wife on Bainbridge Island, Washington. At age 6 his mother returned ill to Japan and he never saw her again. At age 13 he would take the name James Omura and leave home to work in the Alaskan salmon canneries. In this centenary year we recognize Omura as the Japanese American journalist most willing to take a stand — demanding of the Tolan Committee “Has the Gestapo come to America?,” editorializing against the draft resistance at Heart Mountain in “Let Us Not Be Rash,” and testifying decades later to the Bernstein Commission for redress.
Jimmie would always tell me that he didn’t expect to be remembered or recognized for his accomplishments until 50 years after his death. Then he would go on to complain about the lack of guts among the third-generation Sansei journalists, including, one had to assume, myself. But he seemed genuinely pleased to be awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the then-fledgling Asian American Journalists Association, and we were fortunate to have recovered and told his story in our PBS film Conscience and the Constitution.
In this centenary year we may get word of publication of Jimmie’s memoirs, a work left incomplete by his passing in 1994 and painstakingly edited ever since by Professor Art Hansen under the working title, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura.
We were saddened to recently hear from Art of the passing of Jimmie’s second wife, Haruko Karen Omura, on September 4th at the age of 85, but we have been in touch with the two sons of Karen and Jimmie. The younger son Wayne is a writer, author of the book Movies and The Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History, available on Amazon. We asked Wayne for his reflections on this date:
On the Hundredth Anniversary of My Father’s Birth
Many fathers tell stories about their lives, and it is hard to know how much is true and how much is tall-tales. It was only after my father retired that he became involved, once again, in politics, history, and journalism. It was then that I began to suspect that those “tall-tales” might be true.
After his death, after seeing all that was written about him, all the many books in which his name appeared, I realized that those tall-tales were really “true-tales.” I should have listened better and taken more interest as I was growing up. But like all kids, we had our own lives to live, our own problems in the here and now. The past was history. The words went in one ear and out the other.
A personal anecdote may be in order which displays my Dad’s character, as well as the most important principle he taught me.
While working after college as night-manager in a small grocery store, I had numerous physical confrontations with shoplifters. My Mom (being a mother) thought it was reckless and stupid. “Why risk your life and physical injury for a candy bar?” On a practical level she was right, but on an ethical level she was wrong. My Dad’s response was an unusual outburst of anger. (He had mellowed a lot in his later years.)
“He should do what he thinks is right!” he shouted.
Whether an action is dangerous, unpopular, destroys your career and reputation, makes you an outcast in your own community and to your own people: You should always do what you think is right! (Not just when the world is at peace and you are relatively safe.)
written on Thanksgiving Day 2012
If you knew Jimmie, or just share our admiration of him, consider this an open thread and please leave a comment below.
For this occasion here is a part of the extended interview with James Omura in which he describes his trial for conspiracy, as featured on Disc Two of our new DVD. Happy birthday, Jimmie. Your fighting spirit is deeply missed.
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.
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, 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.”
Like 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.
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.