Documenting 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.
Thanks 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. Continue reading What #Resistance Means Now→
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.
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!”
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:
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.
For 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.
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.”
The musical premieres at the Old Globe as a mild story of broken family ties, not a judgment of U.S. mistakes related to the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. … “Allegiance” presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, “Allegiance” retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom. For all its historical reach and welcome significance, the book (by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione) drifts into two generic romances and in the second act meanders into sentimental warblings that family is “what really matters.” … Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), head of the Japanese American Citizens League, the show’s sole historical figure, (is) here caricatured. … (T)heir show needs a sharper emotional focus and musical edge to match its bold subject.
There may be a reason for the fuzziness of the show’s focus. Whatever artistic aspirations they may have, Broadway shows are by their nature commercial ventures: they have to sell the tickets week to week to pay the cast and keep the doors open. Based on the show’s synopsis, video clips, and reports from preview audiences and first-nighter’s, the dramatic arc of this show appears calculated to shift the audience’s attention away from the actions of the U.S. government — the general who lied about military necessity, the army major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration — and onto a straw man: the show’s caricature of “Mike Masaoka.”
Make no mistake, the real Mike and the real JACL bear plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and Mike in particular for acting as a confidential informant for the government (see the evidence on the DVD extended interview with Prof. Roger Daniels).
But by setting up Masaoka as the antagonist of the piece, the show gets to take the focus off wartime America’s responsibility for accepting the mass eviction and incarceration, lest the predominantly white New York theater audience for whom this work is intended squirm in their seats – especially in a city just 11 years removed from its own 21st century experience of a Pearl Harbor.
From all accounts the focus on Mike as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or unintended, of letting the government off the hook, as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit, not the generals or the bureaucrats.”
This portrayal was especially strong in early drafts of the musical’s script, and the alarms went up after community pre-screenings of a videotaped workshop performance. However, the creators brought in a new collaborator to rewrite the book, and a first-nighter who provided the two photos offers this contrary view:
“(A friend) who had not seen the pre-screenings came away a bit shocked at how he (Mike) was portrayed. This was her first time to see the show, so she had nothing to compare it to. So I think she was surprised by the musical portraying Mike Masaoka in such a negative light. In the end, we see George yelling at the spirit of Masaoka “You son of a bitch!”… Wow…
“It is interesting -I have seen the pre-screenings so I came away thinking the representation of Mike Masaoka is much more balanced now. He is not the villain as originally scripted. In fact, at times he appears very uncertain, almost meek and indecisive. He is now a 26-year old thrust into all of this pressure and a bit unsure of what to do, trying to lead his people. We see him in uniform – grieving for his brother – trying to figure out what to do and sometimes struggling to remain strong.
“But at the end when the show suggests it was Mike that had the idea for a suicide battalion and George calls him an SOB, then I think it really leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. For me, since I had seen the earlier versions which were so bad, this current version is ironically very refreshing…”
More reaction is expected in the days ahead, so subscribe to new posts using the box in the column above and to the right, or leave your comment below. (Our DVD is now available in the Old Globe gift shop. Yes, next to the Lea Salonga CDs. Proving, as Brian Wilson sings on the Beach Boys reunion CD, that it’s a strange world after all.)
Like it or not, the history and legacy of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee is being dramatized and will be kicked around in the media for weeks and months to come. The vehicle for the uproar is a new musical with Broadway aspirations that appropriates the story of the resisters and puts them on stage against the Japanese American Citizens League and the real-life Mike Masaoka.
That’s the story first revealed to a national television audience by Conscience and the Constitution, and it informs the framework of Allegiance. Several years ago the songwriter and co-producer contacted us to ask for a copy of our film for a theater workshop. We obliged by sending a VHS tape, and heard nothing more until recently.
At Resisters.com we will always appreciate George Takei for his two decades of support for the Heart Mountain resisters — from his volunteering to read the part of Frank Emi at our first resisters homecoming / readers theater event in San Jose in 1992 (sadly but understandably losing him to a paying film gig), to his later lending his voice talents to our film to read the manifesto of Frank Emi and an editorial from James Omura. With his massive following and two-million Facebook friends, George is emerging as our lead advocate for getting mention of the resisters into the mass culture, as evidenced by this NPR interview over the Labor Day weekend where he expresses his admiration for the resisters and what he correctly characterizes as their “courageous and principled stand.”
While audiences may only remember the performances, musical arrangements and stagecraft, and whatever the intentions of the creative team, the risk of staging this material is that even as Japanese Americans appreciate this history being exposed to a wider audience, there are many ways for them to take offense at the way this one is told:
The JACL — Where our documentary lets Masaoka’s words and deeds speak for themselves, the musical puts Mike on stage as a living person, by name, and that’s a different animal. The emotional arc of the stage play sets up Mike as the villain of the piece. In early drafts, and in a YouTube video, “Mike Masaoka” is portrayed as a “scheming vaudevillian,” to use the words in the video caption.For all his rhetoric and bluster, Mike didn’t create the camps, or the draft, nor did he have the authority to stop the drafting of young men into the 442. The government did. JACLers are up in arms, though the organization so far has been silent.
The veterans — With the show appearing to champion those who resisted over those who enlisted or complied with the draft in camp, the stage was set for pushback. The first shot was fired by Charles Kobayashi and others in Sacramento in a letter reacting to a community preview: “The dialogue in Allegiance where Sam Omura tells his father he wished he had never volunteered for the 442nd needs to be removed. It is demeaning and disrespectful of the Nisei veterans.” Another of Kobayashi’s complaints however is easily dismissed: artists have no obligation to “uplift the race,” as it were.
The resisters — I can only wonder what Frank Emi would say if he were still alive. The show in earlier drafts had the lead resister, called by the diminuitive “Frankie,” exhorting crowds in camp to resist, under a banner that proclaims “Resist!” Frank would tell you that is a conflation with the washo-washo cries at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. The draft resisters at Heart Mountain never publicly rallied or raised banners. That would have invited sure arrest, and confusing their methods with those of the Tule Lake no-no’s and renunciants was precisely the thing that Frank Emi insisted the group avoid. It’s not just a technicality.The Fair Play Committee was organized around a principle to which they hoped to attract support. Frank Emi made it clear they would not pressure anyone to join the Fair Play Committee or to resist the draft, in order to avoid a federal conspiracy or sedition charge. They studiously limited their activities to offering legal advice to those who asked for it, quietly posting fliers throughout camp, and holding public meetings in the mess hall. To show them rallying under a banner alters the fundamental nature of the Fair Play Committee’s stand. It feeds into the stereotype of “agitators” and “troublemakers” that has dogged the FPC for 70 years.
Murmuring about the content of Allegiance has simmered all summer, based on a series of community previews, clips on YouTube, and a glimpse of an early version of the script, as reported last month by J.K. Yamamoto in the Rafu Shimpo.
The murmuring finally burst into the open today with release of this from the president of the Japanese American Veterans Association (you can download a PDF of the letter here).
Open Letter about “Allegiance”
The play “Allegiance” is scheduled to open in San Diego, CA, on September 19th. The producers of the play have received criticism about a pre-opening version of the play and they may make some changes before opening. However, we understand that they do not intend to change the play’s characterization of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Mike Masaoka, who was National JACL Secretary at the time Executive Order 9066 was issued, and the Nisei soldiers. Thus, in our opinion, the play’s plot is objectionable in that it misleads the American public and is a disservice to the Japanese American community. The comments in this letter are based on a review of a pre-opening version of the play.
The play tells how two groups showed their loyalty to the United States during World War II. In telling their stories, the play pits those who volunteered to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team against the”resisters” (aka “No-No boys” and draft resisters). The play also implies that JACL and Masaoka colluded with the government in shaping various governmental policies. These policies related to the forced evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry, Question 27 and Question 28 in the loyalty questionnaire, segregation of “resisters” in Tule Lake WRA camp, and misleading Japanese Americans into volunteering for military service.
First, the play gives the false impression to the American public that the evacuation and unjust imprisonment of persons of Japanese ancestry would not have happened but for the aid provided by JACL and Mike Masaoka. In reality, JACL and Masaoka had no ability to influence Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Army to evacuate persons of Japanese ancestry from the western United States. They should be applauded for their efforts to minimize the pain and harshness of the Executive Order’s implementation during a time of war hysteria and within a culture of hostile and deceitful governmental officials.
Moreover, the play makes no mention of the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066, and LTG John DeWitt, who implemented Executive Order 9066. These actions were later found to be the result of “prejudice, war hysteria, and lack of political leadership.”
Rather, the play would mislead the American public by attributing
unsubstantiated actions to Japanese American leaders who were attempting to bring reason to absolute chaos confronting the community. The play appears to be pandering to the American public with the implicit message: “We don’t blame the government for what happened to us during World War II. JACL and Masaoka did this to us.”
What happened to persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II was overt racial profiling. The lesson learned from that experience is that we must guard against racially motivated governmental policies. This play, “Allegiance,” only serves to dilute or confuse the lesson that the American public should take away from the sacrifices and suffering of those who bore the unjust effects of Executive Order 9066.
Furthermore, there is no question that there was an angry division in 1943 within the Japanese American community between those who volunteered to serve and “resisters” on the matter of loyalty. The play attempts to make the case that the “resisters” made the right choice and that those who volunteered were deceived by Masaoka and made the wrong choice. By fueling this controversy, the play attempts to re-open old wounds and does a disservice to both groups.
Both choices were difficult and had permanent life-altering consequences. In hindsight, both groups should recognize that there was more than one way to show one’s loyalty. Neither choice was the right one or the wrong one. Today, we should celebrate both groups for following their convictions rather than fueling this hostility by continuing to pit these two groups against each other.
Finally, the play uses fictional characters except for Mike Masaoka. The play assaults his good name and reputation by alleging his direct involvement in shaping the government’s controversial policies. Let us hope that the play’s producers and investors can substantiate their apparent character assassination of Masaoka. We will leave it to Mike Masaoka & Associates, a consulting firm that continues to do business in Washington, DC, to raise any challenges related to possibly malicious damage to its business reputation caused by “Allegiance.”
A couple of things are worth nothing about this letter. It signals we’re in for another round of confusing the resisters at Heart Mountain with the no-no’s at Tule Lake. The resisters were not “angrily divided” against the boys who served; they always said they made their choice and the volunteers made theirs. The resisters always recognized there was more than one way to show one’s loyalty; it was the veterans groups and JACL that took 60 or 70 years to come around. What’s notable is the degree to which the two letters above acknowledge the civil disobedience as a legitimate response.
Yamada’s challenge that the producers document their characterization of Masaoka was evidently anticipated by their reposting on their site of Mike’s 1942 and 1943 memoes to the WRA, the color scans of which were downloaded uncredited from our site, Resisters.com, along with several photos of Mike and the HTML code that William Hohri created for us for posting of the uncensored Lim Report. Having said that, and to show how many conflicting interests are at play, we do appreciate the link to our PBS. org site and to the DVD ordering page and hope they remain.
Previews for the show began last Friday. Opening night is Wednesday, September 19, and the all-important trade reviews will come in soon after that. More as this story develops.
The bad boy of Asian American letters has done it again. The Manzanar Committee has discovered what the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Northwest Asian American Film Festival learned before them.
Frank Chin may make for a lousy guest, and I didn’t hear exactly what he said, but I think characterizing his legitimate points as “name-calling” diminishes what he had to say and the intelligence of their constituency:
The Manzanar Committee expresses their deepest apologies to those who were offended by remarks made by Frank Chin, one of the speakers at the 37th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage.
Though the intention and focus clearly communicated to Chin in the Committee’s invitation was to focus on his central role with beginning the annual Day of Remembrance and being part of a Pan-Asian movement that supported redress as well as encouraging youth today to become more politically aware and informed, Chin departed from this intention when he resorted to name calling against the Japanese American Citizens League and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
These are views which may reflect those of Chin but not the Manzanar Committee.