Category Archives: Interviews

The first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters

Boys of Mtn View-San JoseFlashback Friday: Thanks to JK Yamamoto, former editor of the Hokubei Mainichi, for reminding us that it was on this date 23 years ago that we staged the first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

Under the sponsorship of Prof. Wendy Ng at San Jose State University, the May 29, 1992 event was a special evening program for the national conference of the Association for Asian American Studies, held in the Studio Theater of Hugh Gillis Hall.

Boys of Mt View SJWe called it “The Boys of Mountain View – San Jose,” and what lent it the ceremonial feel was the readers’ theater script compiled by writer Frank Chin that threaded together the original writings of the resisters, the editorials in support of the resisters by Rocky Shimpo editor James Omura, and a warm narration provided by poet Lawson Inada. Omura, Frank Emi, Mits Koshiyama, Dave Kawamoto, and Gloria Kubota read their own words from the time, from the scripts in the music stands in front of them. For a bit of dramatics we staged part of the interrogation of Frank Emi by camp director Guy Robertson, with Emi’s words read by the current editor of the Nichi Bei Weekly, Kenji Taguma.

We shot the event with three cameras, thinking that cutting between them would provide the framework for a documentary about the resisters. But once we got the tape into the editing bay, we immediately saw the problem: all the readers were looking down at their scripts in the music stands, and making no contact with the audience. It just wasn’t visually compelling.

That began an eight-year journey to shoot new interviews and gather archival film and stills for what would eventually become Conscience and the Constitution. The San Jose State homecoming  was the first event we shot, and it turned out to provide the last shots in the finished film, with the applause from the audience and the recovery of their history providing an emotional lift to help cap our story.

While only a few moments from the evening survived in the final cut, you can get a feel for this first ceremonial  homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters in the DVD outtake, “The Return of the Fair Play Committee.”

Order DVD for college libraries now

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 kate@transitmedia.net, 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!

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Cinema Asian America interview – ‘Conscience and the Constitution:’ Talking with Frank Abe

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

Cinema Asian America May lineupThe 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.”

Sharing the story at Asian American Studies conference

Staffing table at conferenceThanks 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.”

AAAS_panelOur 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. hashimaLarry 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.

In memoriam: Senator Daniel Inouye, who stood up for the resisters

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:

The James Omura centenary: 1912-2012

James Omura - Broadway High School photo
James Omura at Broadway High School, Seattle

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.)

Wayne Omura
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.

Wyoming Public Radio interview

Open Spaces on Wyoming Public RadioYou can listen online to our June 30 interview with Wyoming Public Radio on the Heart Mountain draft resisters. The program is “Open Spaces” — a great title for a series produced in Buffalo Bill country — and they called on the occasion of the formal dedication of Heart Mountain as a National Historic Landmark.

Thanks to host Kristin Espeland. The piece is 8:49 long.