SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.
The implied pact the musical Allegiance makes with its audience is that you will see an honest retelling of the Japanese American incarceration, and come away feeling comfortably uplifted. The show does entertain, through derivative songs and animated production. It achieves its effect, however, by sacrificing truth for theatricality, revising history, and offering a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters.
As producer/director of the 2000 PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution – which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and suppression of that resistance by the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka – I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.
After seeing the first public preview October 6 at New York’s Longacre Theater, it is apparent the makers of Allegiance found the fact of civilian administration of America’s concentration camps so ordinary and banal – which it was – that they needed to heighten the obstacles to their themes of love and hope by conflating Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake, near the California-Oregon border. They invent military rule at Heart Mountain.
Allegiance is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience of its star George Takei,” who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But the only events validated by his personal experience are those of every camp story – fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, dust and dances in camp, yes-yes/no-no, and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimura’s, is evicted from home and reaches the War Relocation Authority center in Wyoming, the makers of Allegiance selectively and progressively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp.
In Act I for example, upon their arrival at faux Heart Mountain, a campwide PA system broadcasts directives to evacuees, while Military Police order “women to the right, men to the left.” Hannah, a white nurse, asks the women to “please remove your clothes down to your underwear” for medical exams. When an Issei woman protests, a young man explodes, “It’s not right!” and is forcibly shoved to the ground by an MP. The PA announces a curfew at sundown. When the Kimura patriarch later angrily answers no-no on his loyalty questionnaire, MP’s march to his barrack to clap him into handcuffs and haul him away: “No touching,” they bark to his family.
Camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing. But this heavy-handed treatment inflames emotion at the expense of fact:
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.”
Amerasia Journal has published a special “wartime edition” that refocuses attention on the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, through the lens of the ongoing case involving Lt. Ehren Watada. The issue is titled “World, War, Watada,” and features letters from Heart Mountain resister Mits Koshiyama and supporter Paul Tsuneishi, both of whom are featured in our film. According to the UCLA news release:
Koshiyama, a Heart Mountain World War II draft resister, ends his personal letter to Lt. Ehren Watada, as follows: “Do what your conscience tells you what to do. We got punished by a prejudiced court but in the end, we prevailed.”
Writer Frank Chin contributes “A Call to Resist,” his take on Watada and the World II resisters, which also appears on his blog. Chin asks:
Lt. Ehren Watada, a Hawaiian Japanese Chinese American, exercises the rights the resisters defended, and brings the questions the Nisei heard tossed about in the camp war years, back to the present day. Will Japanese Americans react any differently than they did on their 9/11, Dec. 7, 1941?
There’s also an interview with filmmaker Curtis Choy and the making of “Watada, Resister.” Thanks to editor Russell C. Leong for referencing our film in his introductory editorial, “Is Resistance Your Real Name?,” and bringing some of you to this site.
Here’s the link to Lisa Chung’s July 7 column in the San Jose Mercury-News, “War resister’s predecessors stand with him” in which she quotes from Curtis Choy’s film of the phone call from Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya to Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq:
Besides the usual list of anti-war celebrities and politicians in Watada’s corner, what impresses me most are the members of the Heart Mountain draft resisters. They know all about taking an unpopular stand on principle. These are people like Mits Koshiyama in San Jose, Frank Emi and Yoshi Kuromiya in Los Angeles, and others. They know the personal cost can still resonate and sting, even after 60 years …
Writer Frank Chin sent me a DVD recording of a phone meeting between Watada and Emi, Kuromiya and Paul Tsuneishi, a World War II veteran. Koshiyama, 83, was going to take part until health issues intervened. The elders offered their analyses and support. Kuromiya told the young officer that he might very well go to prison, but it could be the beginning of something new. He has the character for leadership and a role to play.
In 1944 U.S. District Court Judge T. Blake Kennedy in Wyoming ruled 63 young Heart Mountain boys could not raise the unconstitutionality of mass incarceration as a defense in their trial for draft resistance. The jury could only rule on whether or not they failed to report for induction, and convicted the lot.
In 2007, although the cases are different, a military judge at Fort Lewis south of Seattle ruled this week that Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada can not raise the legality of the war in Iraq as a defense for his refusal to deploy there. The Seattle Times article has links to court documents in Watada’s court-martial trial. See also the Seattle P-I.
By the way, did you see the howler on the season premiere of “24” on Jan. 14? Under siege from terrorist attacks, in a terse exchange on the legal precedents for locking up American Muslims in concentration camps, “President Wayne Palmer” bemoaned how “Roosevelt imprisoned over 200,000 Japanese Americans in what most historians consider to be a shameful mistake.” Where were the fact-checkers? S.I. Hayakawa would have cried “semantic inflation.” What was troubling, though, was the next line of dialogue: “Well I would ask those historians how many of those Japanese Americans were thus prevented from perpetrating acts of sabotage in this country?” The answer, of course, is exactly none.