Category Archives: JACL

What #Resistance Means Now

Smokey the Bear raising a fistDocumenting the history of Japanese American incarceration, and the resistance to incarceration, was always important, but it remained just that — history, something good to know about, to make sure that mass exclusion on the basis of race “never happens again in America.” But when rangers in the National Park Service have to go undergound, and Smokey the Bear is raising a fist in flames, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

We have just passed the tipping point and now live with an authoritarian American government. #Resistance is a trending hashtag. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich posts a daily “Resistance Report” on YouTube. Former sportscaster Keith Olberman rebrands his show on GQ as “The Resistance.” Reuters is instructing its reporters how to cover the new Administration as if it were a banana republic. And the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is getting renewed attention.

KUOW logoThanks to host Bill Radke and producer Shane Mehling for having me on Seattle’s NPR affiliate today, on KUOW’s “The Record,” to connect the Japanese American resistance to the current actions in the streets. Here’s a link to the full 11-minute conversation, which has been well-received. As I said to Bill, I feel both validated that the Fair Play Committee is getting recognized, and appalled that we are now talking about a very real threat to Muslim Americans and Mexican Americans for the purpose of fulfilling a campaign promise to a resurgent white nationalism.

Now everyone can know how the Heart Mountain resisters — 63 young men of high school and college age, really — felt in taking on the United States government in court and putting their futures and families on the line. But here’s a key difference — their draft resistance came two years after the initial expulsion and incarceration. Breaking the Selective Service law as the last hitch upon which they could hang a test case. Thankfully, as the mass actions of the last two weeks have shown, a significant number are standing and resisting now, before the authoritarian crackdown comes down. My favorite sign from last weekend’s airport protests protest signagainst the Muslim travel ban, edited for a family audience, was the one on the right. It captures the spirit of resistance today, one which comes with the benefit of knowing our history.

As social media posts are teaching us now about the German playbook from 1933, and how the German people came to embrace fascism, we’ve learned there’s a German proverb to “Beware the Beginnings.” We’re clearly at the beginning of something right now. I fear this is not likely to end well for our nation. What we can do is rely now on individual and collective action. To quote my favorite dystopian, time-travel film series, which also features a Resistance: “The future’s not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” We can hope for the best, but we must prepare for the worst and work to avert it.

Access needed to site of the barracks at Tule Lake

None of the 24,000 Japanese Americans sent to live in the shallow volcanic lakebed of Tule Lake for the duration of World War II wanted to be there, but their presence makes this a National Historic Landmark.

In hindsight, an airstrip operating on a site of this historic significance is not an appropriate or compatible use, but before anyone could know that, the government after the war granted homestead rights to farmers, and in 1951 granted two-thirds of the main detention and barracks site to the city of Tulelake for an airstrip, which today hosts just one business, a crop-dusting service. It’s not easy to see without an aerial view, but the airstrip runs left to right in the photo below.

airstrip at Tule Lake Continue reading Access needed to site of the barracks at Tule Lake

Tule Lake preservation gains national support

The irony was not lost on some, but kudos must go tonight to the JACL National Council meeting in Las Vegas, for providing the first national resolution in support of preserving the Tule Lake Segregation Center as a National Historic Site.delegates to National JACL convention Continue reading Tule Lake preservation gains national support

Now appearing nightly: Mike Masaoka!


Part Two of a continuing conversation. Part One is here. Part Three is here.

The problem with the new Broadway musical Allegiance is not just its historical inaccuracies, although it is riddled with them. It’s the fabrication of events that were impossible within the reality of America’s concentration camps. Unexpectedly, the one reality this show gets right is its portrayal of Mike Masaoka and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League — although making him the villain of the piece diverts attention from other, more uncomfortable truths.

Paolo Montalban as Mike Masaoka at Old Globe Theater, Sept. 2012 - photo: xxx
Singer/actor Paolo Montalban as Mike Masaoka at Old Globe Theater, Sept. 2012 (Photo by Henry DiRocco)

Some background: In its tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2012, audiences reported their dismay at seeing Masaoka burlesqued as “sleazy” and a “scheming villain” who plotted for Nisei boys to die in suicide battalions as a means of proving Japanese American loyalty. This first-draft “Masaoka” joined in on an all-singing, all-dancing production number (“Better Americans in a Greater America”) that parodied his accommodationist stand with such lyrics as “It’s not too late / Come celebrate / America and assimilate!” The show climaxed with the Nisei vet Sammy, played by George Takei, in full dress uniform screaming at the spirit memory of Masaoka, “You had me lead them to their deaths, you son of a bitch!”

Continue reading Now appearing nightly: Mike Masaoka!

ALLEGIANCE uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

Thanks for finding this post via links from Wikipedia, the New York Times and other reviews. See the real story of the Heart Mountain resisters as told in our PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution. Order here.

SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.Curtain call on Oct. 6

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:

Continue reading ALLEGIANCE uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

In Memoriam: Henry Miyatake, visionary for redress

photo: Densho EncyclopediaHenry Miyatake did not appear in our film, but we could not have told the story of the Heart Mountain resisters without first establishing a common foundation of understanding about the underlying facts of the incarceration. And we could never have those facts acknowledged without Henry’s vision of winning an apology and compensation for constitutional violations from the U.S. government.

It’s no exaggeration to call Henry the father of Japanese American redress. In the 70s he railed against Mike Masaoka’s “Japanese American Creed” when its words were used against him by a Boeing Company manager to levy a 25 percent pay cut. He researched and wrote the “American Promise,” apologizing for and rescinding FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Ford in 1976. Henry oversaw production of the very first Day of Remembrance in the nation. And he conceived the innovative “Seattle Plan” for redress and reparations, the essence of which was signed a decade later by President Reagan.

Henry passed away quietly in Federal Way, WA, on September 16. But the Seattle community would not let him go without some closure, as Bob Shimabukuro expressed so well in the International Examiner, “Remembering Henry Miyatake: A man with the plan.” So we held a community memorial service for Henry on Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall in Seattle. I said a few words, which were preceded by clips from Henry’s video interview for the Densho Project, which you can watch with a free registration.

“Day of Remembrance and Henry’s Impact on Redress”
Saturday, December 6, 2014

photo: Eileen Yamada-LamphereWe just saw the great value of The Densho Project. Thanks to Densho we will always have Henry’s image and words to remember him by. And seeing him again, I am reminded how that man could talk. Once you got him started, look out. Like Tom said, he had to interview Henry six different times to get his whole life story.

That was part of Henry’s charm. He could talk, and this was a time when we needed people who could talk. But he was also about action.

You have to remember that in the late 70s, the very subject of the camps was open to argument in the newspaper and radio. For every one of us who just mentioned incarceration, there was a war veteran quick to remind people that we attacked Pearl Harbor, or we were put in camp for our protection.

But Henry had a vision. He created a set of flip charts, as you saw in that photo. If we’d had PowerPoint back then, Henry would have made a PowerPoint presentation. But this was the 70s, all he had was paper, and he was a brilliant engineer, so he created flip charts. And he shopped his flip charts all over town. He’d talk to any group that would listen.

I was a young kid fresh from California, and Henry was unlike any Nisei I had ever met. He was unafraid. He thought nothing of going to a Congressman like Brock Adams to get his support, or of working his connections with Governor Dan Evans, or with State Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith, who we are honored to have with us today.

I met Henry through Frank Chin. Frank was writing a piece for the Seattle Weekly about Henry’s flipchart plan. Frank thought the move for redress was bold, and he wanted to help publicize it.

Now Frank was big on ideas. He said let’s call it a Day of Remembrance. His first idea was for us to recreate the eviction and form a car caravan down to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to go down on Thanksgiving Day, and once we got there, we’d get out and all chain ourselves to the fence. He thought that would be great television.

Henry screamed that Frank was nuts. No one’s gonna go out on Thanksgiving. It had to be a family event, he said, and people want to be with their families on Thanksgiving. So between the two of them we arrived at the program you see on the poster, framed as a formal invitation for the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  And not a protest, but a family potluck.

We nailed those posters to telephone poles, just like in 1942.  Just using the words “Remember the camps / Stand for redress with your family” was touchy with a lot of people. We took the poster to Imperial Lanes, and the manager refused to let us put it up. “I have a lot of white customers here. I don’t want any trouble.”

The signs invited people to assemble in a vacant lot next to the old Seattle Pilots baseball park, where Lowe’s is now. And on the morning of Nov. 25, we were stunned when we arrived at Sick’s Stadium and found a thousand people waiting in line with cars. People were ready for this to happen.

Ben Nakagawa arranged for the use of some National Guard trucks and buses. The driver didn’t know how to get to the Puyallup Fairground, so Henry had to sit in the first vehicle as a guide. And Diana, you may not remember this but you wanted to ride up front with him. But Henry saw another friend of mine from San Francisco,. Benjamin Tong, sitting in the cargo bed of a big 6-wheel-drive Army truck. And Henry says, “How come you’re riding in this truck?” And Ben says, “I want to know how it felt to be taken to camp in a truck, I want to go through the same experience that you guys did.”

So Henry says, “Well, Diana, you ride with Dr. Tong so you can experience what we went through.” And that’s what Diana did, riding in the back of Army truck in the cold November wind, at the head of a 2-and-a-half mile-long car caravan snaking down southbound I-5. And like he said in the video, inside the cars, parents opened up to their kids for the first time. Yasuko Takezawa calls it, “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.

And every newspaper and TV station was there to see the largest gathering of Japanese Americans in one place in Seattle since, well, since World War 2. We showed we could get the media on our side. And what people had feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. No “rekindling of old resentments and racism.”

Day of Remembrance made it safe for people across the country to step out of the shadow. We sparked the popular movement for redress and reparations that led ten years later to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act for an apology and individual compensation. Today Days of Remembrance are an invented tradition, observed wherever Japanese Americans live.

But taking credit, being in the limelight, was never for Henry.

For one of our newsletters Karen Seriguchi interviewed Henry and asked him, “Do you see yourself as a leader?” “No, I do not,” said Henry. “I ‘m one of the ditch-diggers. Hopefully, all the others will be digging the same way.”

Henry was not there when President Ford signed his American Promise. He was not in the photo when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. But neither of those turning points that fundamentally changed our history would have been imaginable without the dogged persistence, the selfless commitment, and the unassuming courage of Henry Miyatake.

And that’s why we’re all here today, to remember Henry and to let his family know that as long as our voices are heard, we will never let Henry’s life and achievements be forgotten. Henry taught us to look our history in the eye, with the passion of a professor and the inescapable logic of an engineer.

Henry was a great ditch-digger. He was the conscience of our community. He was my hero, my mentor, and my friend, and I, like you, will deeply miss him.

Update: December 23, 2014
See more stories about Henry in this new obit that was requested by the Nichi Bei Weekly out of San Francisco,

“Kiyoshi Okamoto and the Four Franks”

Tak Hoshizaki
Tak Hoshizaki at the “Standing on Principle” panel, July 6, 2013. Photo by Tracy Kumono Photography.

Tak Hoshizaki is one of the few surviving Heart Mountain resisters who continues to speak in public. At the Japanese American National Museum national conference on July 6, in a panel called “Standing on Principle,” Tak shared his first-hand account of the growing Fair Play Committee movement at Heart Mountain in 1944, and we thank him for allowing us to share it with you:

“KIYOSHI OKAMOTO AND THE FOUR FRANKS”

Kiyoshi Okamoto

“Fair play, fair play, civil rights, fair play” was what Kiyoshi Okamoto was saying as he talked to anyone who would listen in the cold, windy Wyoming concentration camp. Ten-thousand Japanese, most of them American citizens, held in a concentration camp in a desolate part of Wyoming, had little understanding of how their civil rights were violated. Kiyoshi was trying to tell the inmates that the United States government, their country, had wrongly imprisoned them. As he spoke to small groups, Kiyoshi called himself the “Fair Play Committee of One.”

In the winter of 1942-43, the Army came into Heart Mountain to recruit volunteers. This was the same time the infamous loyalty questionnaire with question 27 and 28 was being debated.

Frank Inouye

We now meet the first “Frank,” Frank Inouye. At the recruiting meeting, after the Army’s presentation, Inouye presented a manifesto demanding the U. S. government restore the rights of the men before drafting them. As a result, the Heart Mountain Congress of American Citizens was formed, represented by 2 people from each block. Inouye became the chairman. Before the Congress of American Citizens had time to develop, Inouye was able to leave the camp. With Inouye gone, the congress eventually evolved into the Fair Play Committee.

As a side note, Inouye later became a professor and an administrator at the University of Hawaii. He also was the main driving force who developed the University of Hawaii campus at Hilo. A few years ago, the University of Hawaii had a dedication and recognition for Frank Inouye’s efforts that brought about the existence of the Hilo branch. Frank Inouye passed away a few years ago.

Frank Emi

We now meet the second “Frank,” Frank Emi. Emi became one of the leaders of the Fair Play Committee. Emi played a major role in the Fair Play Committee conflicts with the camp administrators.

Emi at this time was married and had a family. He was not eligible for the draft. Again like Inouye, Emi also believed that before drafting the men, their full citizenship rights be restored.

The Fair Play Committee of One became the Fair Play Committee of Many. With Frank Inouye gone, the former members of the Congress of American Citizens joined together with Kiyoshi Okamoto, Frank Emi and others to form the Fair Play Committee. The Fair Play Committee began holding meetings, discussing the questionnaire and the draft. I attended a meeting and was surprised at the wall to wall attendance. The plan was to have our civil rights returned before we would serve. Also was surprised that I was not alone in my thinking of not answering the draft call.

By this time 1943-44, I was of draft age. When I entered the Pomona Assembly Center I was 16, not very good in history and English, understood very little of the Constitution of the United States let alone an understanding of civil rights. It was there in the Pomona Assembly Center as I listened to the older Nisei talk, I learned about how we should have contested “Evacuation” by legal action. How we were betrayed by “JACL.” The Japanese American Citizens League. Who were they? How did JACL have a role? I began to realize that something was wrong. When I heard of the financial losses of many families, and that families were broken apart by the arrest, removal and detention of their fathers, I realized more than ever, our removal was wrong. While in Pomona I wrote to my homeroom teacher at Belmont High School. The letter expressed my very bitter feelings of what had happened. She answered she was sorry that I felt so angry.

Now two years later, I had decided that I would not go if called. A few weeks later I received my draft notice. I did not appear for my physical. I continued to work at the camp engineering office. One of the nisei workers approached me and told me an administrator’s son was killed by the Japanese. The nisei worker suggested that I not work there anymore to ease the pain of his loss. I stopped working.

A few days later I was picked up early in the morning. There were 63 of us. The largest Selective Service trial on record. We hoped that the publicity of the trial would help in the return of our civil rights, release from camps and return to our homes, our neighborhood.

We, the 63, decided for a trial by a judge only. The idea was that with the war on, members selected for a jury would not be sympathetic to us. A big mistake. In his book Free to Die for Their Country, Eric Muller describes the presiding judge as a racist. Strike three. In the trial, failure to report for the draft was only considered. The fact that we were being drafted from a concentration camp was not brought up. Only that we had broken the Selective Service Act. We were found guilty and given a 3 year sentence to serve in a Federal Penitentiary.

The leaders of the Fair Play Committee were later arrested, found guilty of conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act and sentenced to 4 years in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. They appealed the sentence and won. They served about 18 months. In 1947, President Truman pardoned all the Nisei draft resisters. All of us, the Fair Play Committee members and the resisters, now had our full citizenship back. The records of our imprisonment erased. We were now regular citizens.

We all returned to civilian life, going back to school or going to work, putting aside our thoughts of these experience. Except for Emi. Frank Emi gave talks before groups and at various universities telling the story of the Fair Play Committee and the draft resistance at Heart Mountain. News media and the Japanese American community gave little note and eventually swept the story “under the rug,” giving little mention of the resistance. We were written out of the Japanese American history. Our story of draft resistance to regain our civil rights buried and forgotten.

I continued my education and was studying for my master’s degree at UCLA when the Korean Conflict started. I was young enough and soon found myself drafted and in the Army. I personally know of five other Heart Mountain resisters who like myself later served. The age limit was 28 so only the youngest of the resisters were still eligible for the draft. We had our civil rights returned, our families were now out of the concentration camps. As we stated as our stand during the trial, give back our civil rights and release our families and we will gladly serve.

The story of the Fair Play Committee was seldom if ever mentioned in the vernacular papers, let alone the regular press. The exploits of the 442 were broadly and repeatedly publicized and rightly so. The Fair Play Committee was now a forbidden topic. Swept under the rug. Written out of history. The resisters, we were the bad guys.

Frank Chin

We now meet the third “Frank.” Frank Chin, a Chinese American, an outspoken playwright, novelist, and writer. Chin apparently discovered / uncovered the story of the Fair Play Committee and the Heart Mountain draft resisters and wrote in his typical manner about the Fair Play Committee and the resisters. Chin obtained copies of reports and documents on Heart Mountain, those that were written by the administrators. Chin published “The Organized Resistance” in the annual special edition of the Rafu Shimpo in December of 1981. Chin wrote a very in-detail, documented history of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

With this story, Chin was instrumental in bringing to light the resister story. Chin’s exposé answered the question put forth by the younger Japanese Americans, “Why didn’t you resist?” We did resist but our actions were never told. Chin has supported and written much on the resister’s story.

Frank Abe

Now we meet our fourth “Frank,” Frank Abe. Frank had also wondered, “Why didn’t you resist?” When Abe learned about the resisters, he set out on a long 20-year plus journey that culminated in the famous documentary film Conscience and the Constitution. He spent many hours tracking down and interviewing the surviving resisters. Abe’s question for the Japanese Americans now is, “Why did you turn your back on those who resisted?”

We are now meeting in Seattle, Frank Abe’s present home town. Thank you all for being here and for your kind attention. Kokoro kara.

Thanks again to Tak Hoshizaki for sharing his remarks. He’s been quoted in a few books about the resistance, but we hope he continues to write about the FPC in his own words.

Revisiting “Farewell to Manzanar” and the revolt against the JACL

The screening and discussion of Farewell to Manzanar this Friday night at the Japanese American National Museum annual conference in Seattle provides an opportunity to share these newly-rediscovered photographs taken by photographer Nancy Wong.

rioters in truck
Mako, Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, and extras recruited from the Bay Area Asian community prepare to recreate the Manzanar Riot for the 1976 NBC/Universal film, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR. Photo by Nancy Wong.

Nancy shot these on location on the grounds of the former Santa Rita state prison in the summer of 1975 while we were assembled to recreate the Manzanar Riot of December 6, 1942. Mako played “Sam Fukimoto,” the character based on Harry Ueno, the fiery leader of the Kitchen Workers Union whose arrest for the beating of Los Angeles JACL leader Fred Tayama, played in the film by myself as “Frank Nishi,” sparked the Manzanar Riot.

The AIIIEEEEE boys with one actor
Three of the editors of the groundbreaking literary anthology AIIIEEEEE! with the brother of the fourth, posing on location for FAREWELL TO MANZANAR: (from left) Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, and Michael Paul Chan, who went on to perform in the cast of The Closer. Photo by Nancy Wong.

In my youthful enthusiasm I did not know that first-time film actors should not try rewriting their own lines, but that’s what I did the night before we shot the big mess hall confrontation with Mako/Sam Fukimoto/Harry Ueno — much to the dismay of scene partner Seth Sakai, whom I’d failed to notify and who cursed me after our scene and hurled his gloves in my direction, to the applause of the hundreds of extras in the scene. I have to thank director John Korty for allowing me to make the change. Among the extras were writers Toshio Mori and Shawn Wong.

But I felt compelled to make the scene more specific reading this seminal essay by Art Hansen and David Hacker that reconstructs the actual events in “The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective” [4MB], which had recently appeared in the fall 1974 issue of Amerasia Journal.

The piece reveals that one of the fundamental causes of the Manzanar Riot was not, as simplified in the film by Korty, simply a grumbling over sugar stolen from the mess hall. It was more, as mentioned in Conscience and told more fully in Jeanne Houston’s book,  a revolt against the power conferred by the government and the camp administration to the Japanese American Citizens League. As documented in Art and David’s essay, Fred Tayama and internee security chief Kiyoshi Higashi had returned the day before from an emergency meeting of the JACL in Salt Lake City attended by two delegates from each of the ten camps. In that meeting National JACL, enacting its own policies without any ratification or popular vote of the people, resolved to urge the U.S. government to reinstate Selective Service for the Nisei as a means of asserting their U.S. citizenship and proving their loyalty. As Hansen and Hacker wrote: “For the internees — Issei, Kibei, and Nisei — the time had come when something had to be done to prevent the corrosive effects of the JACLers … The events of December 6 were but a logical culmination of developments originating with the administration’s decision to bypass the community’s natural Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL hierarchy and to embark on a program of Americanization at the expense of Japanese ethnicity.”

Watch that scene in the film in this light. The revolt against the JACL prefigured the resistance at Heart Mountain and other camps that occurred a year later, when the JACL plea for a Nisei draft was finally granted.

In a somewhat related aside, Frank Chin now claims that Bay Area radical activist and early Black Panther Richard Aoki — recently named as an FBI informant, a charge that’s also been disputed — was there with us on location. I never knew Aoki, but in an email Frank writes, “Remember the first day at Santa Rita? There was a fattish fella in a mustache and tee shirt passing out lemonade. That was Richard Aoki.” He later speculates, “Why was Richard Aoki at the Santa Rita FAREWELL TO MANZANAR shoot? … Aoki might have been getting acquainted with Yellow actors in the parts of camp activists and victims.” Or, maybe he was just there to ladle out refreshments. We may never know.

“Allegiance” developmental lab concludes

Best wishes to actor George Takei and the cast, creatives, and crew of the musical Allegiance, on the private performance today near Times Square to present the results of their three-week developmental lab to industry reps and investors. A successful production, they hope next year, holds the promise of drawing thousands of new eyes to the story of the draft resistance at Heart Mountain and the clash of ideas between cooperation and resistance.

New 42nd Street StudiosFor Japanese Americans the thing to watch will be the “book,” or the script of the show that connects the songs. Rewrites are reported through Twitter to be part of the lab. The final book will be scrutinized by those whose history would be appropriated for the stage: the Heart Mountain resisters, the Nisei war veterans, and the Japanese American Citizens League as embodied in the show by the real-life Mike Masaoka. They are among those who look for rewrites to cure some of the fundamental script issues that have been identified here and elsewhere. But for now, break a leg.

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.”