Category Archives: JACL

“The Power of Words” 2.0

Mako Nakagawa and Andy Noguchi
Mako Nakagawa of Seattle and Andy Noguchi of Florin, CA, shortly after the JACL National Convention adopted their revised handbook

As producer/director of Conscience and the Constitution, I finally signed on late this week as a community supporter for the revised “Power of Words” handbook.

I never understood why this was still an issue seething within the Japanese American Citizens League. In the film we freely refer to the camps as “American concentration camps” and point out, “Even the President called them concentration camps.” PBS approved the script and aired the film in 2000. I thought the issue of terminology was settled long ago.

The JACL National Convention came to town this weekend, so I finally had a chance to hear first-hand what the fuss was about. For whatever reason, the first version of the JACL’s handbook — the underlying purpose of which was to assert the legitimacy of using the term “concentration camps” — buried reference to the correct language. Instead, it incredibly and meekly recommended relocation camps — in quotation marks, as in wink-wink, nod-nod “relocation camps” –as the term to promote. Talk about a step backward. Activists from Seattle and Florin, CA, went ape, and spent the past year trying to rewrite it. That there was even opposition to their campaign inside JACL, is telling.

Early yesterday morning at around 8:00 am at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue, the activists finally succeeded, and national JACL unanimously ratified the Power of Words 2.0 handbook.

Still, I wondered, why the need for a handbook? Lillian Baker is gone. “Concentration camps” as the proper name was established more than 30 years ago with the state landmark at Manzanar, with the titles of groundbreaking books by Roger Daniels and Michi Weglyn, and with four previous handbooks by Roger, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, Jim Hirabayashi, Sue Embrey, and the granddaddy of camp-euphemism-rejecting papers, “The American Concentration Camps:  A Cover-up Through Euphemistic Terminology,” by Ray Okamura.

From the follow-up workshop, it seems the real value of having a national organization like JACL coalesce behind a simple statement of fact lies with work still be done by the National Park Service and other agencies that will be erecting monuments and landmarks to the camps, or to use the new term of art, confinement sites.  At places like Tule Lake and elsewhere, there will always be neighbors and revisionist historians who will want to turn back the clock and soften the truth, and agency staff need verifiable facts, documentation, and unified community support to get their wordings cast in bronze.

Seventy years after the fact it’s still a fight, so congratulations to all those who persisted on behalf of the power of words this weekend.

Author’s booth at the 2012 JACL National Convention

JACL convention logoLook for me in the author’s booth in the exhibit area for the 2012 JACL National Convention, which comes to town this weekend at the Bellevue Hyatt.

I’ll be at the table both Friday and Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

We’ll have the new Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD on sale for a special convention discount. Looking forward to meeting delegates who wander by and sharing the story of the Heart Mountain resisters. Thanks to convention  chair Elaine Akagi for making the arrangements.

DVD review by John Streamas

John Streamas is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at Washington State University in Pullman. His book, Japanese Americans and Cultures of Effacement, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.

On Conscience and the Constitution, Two-Disc Collector’s Edition

Shortly after I met her in 1995, poet Toyo Suyemoto advised me never to join the Japanese American Citizens League.

She was still bitter, a half-century after the war, over the JACL’s presuming to speak for all Japanese Americans, as it urged them gladly to comply with government orders to evacuate their homes and enter concentration camps in barren, hostile places in the desert. At the time of her own evacuation, Toyo was a young mother whose husband had abandoned her and their infant son Kay. She and Kay left for camp with her parents and siblings, and they would all leave after the war for new homes in Ohio.

In the late 1950s Kay, who should have been a hearty teenager, died of illnesses induced by the harsh conditions of camp. All her life, Toyo wrote about her camp experience, and her poems, though seemingly serene descriptions of the Utah desert where she was imprisoned, are full of underlying despair, rage, and hope. Late in life she spoke before high school and college audiences about her wartime experience, and with energetic humor she urged them to fight back against institutional oppression, warning that only constant vigilance can hope to resist racism.

In the 1970s novelist Frank Chin and his literary circle helped the world rediscover Toyo’s poems, seeing in her life and work a feisty resistance of the sort they also saw in Frank Emi and the Fair Play Committee, young men in the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming who resisted the military conscription that became possible during Japanese Americans’ incarceration.

Toyo had read the wartime editorials of James Omura, and was aware of the Heart Mountain resisters. The JACL urged the community to prove their loyalty by becoming part of the military effort, but Emi and the others, supported by Denver journalist James Omura, refused, insisting that their constitutional rights must first be restored before they would consider service.

The resisters’ refusal and subsequent trial was for decades a “dirty secret” of Japanese American history, as the JACL continued to presume to speak for the community. The story of these resisters forms the core of Frank Abe’s 2000 film Conscience and the Constitution, which was broadcast on PBS and which has surely done more than any other film or book to tell it from their perspective.

Now the film is reissued with new material. This is no gimmicky “director’s cut” with twenty additional minutes that amount to a vanity project. The core film remains, but Abe adds to the discs – of which there are now two, one of them dedicated exclusively to additional material – extended interviews with people featured in the film, footage from the 2002 event in which the JACL publicly and formally apologized to the resisters, and access to a helpful viewers’ guide.

In the film itself, historian Roger Daniels reminds audiences that history is written by the winners, and observes that in postwar Japanese America those winners have been the JACL, who have dictated how even a civil rights-era nation might read the incarceration – until now when, thanks to Abe and other activists such as Chin and historian Michi Weglyn, the suppressed narratives are finally surfacing.

The material in Abe’s new edition reinforces Daniels’s caution about the JACL version of history. More than a century ago, African American writer W. E. B. DuBois argued that the black American develops a “double consciousness,” one for engaging with whites, the other for living in the home community. History for all communities of color can be understood as existing on two planes. Most Americans know little about Japanese Americans’ imprisonment during the war, and so the historian’s first job is to teach that history. On this plane, the U.S. government reduced all Japanese Americans to potential saboteurs, a threat serious enough to warrant mass incarceration. On the other, interior plane, the JACL reduced them all to good Americans happy to prove their loyalty, even if at the price of incarceration; but, on this plane, they were not reducible, as some complied while others despaired and still others fought back. But the resisters fought two foes, the uncomprehending government and the capitulating JACL.

The focus of Abe’s feature film is to tell the story on both planes, focusing on the outer plane, the general history for audiences unaware even of the incarceration. The focus of the new material is the inner plane, the suppressed history of resistance’s consequences.

Most valuable, perhaps, are comments by Frank Emi, a core organizer of the Fair Play Committee. Emi acknowledges the JACL’s formal apology, but he also refers to the “unholy ghosts” of the organization’s past: During the war it willfully kept the government informed of resisters’ actions, and after the war it ostracized them, drove them out of community life. These ghosts must also be atoned for, says Emi.

Lest squeamish Japanese Americans worry that the new edition of Abe’s film package threatens to air the community’s dirty laundry, let it be remembered that the federal government acknowledged in 1988 that the wartime incarceration was not only wrong but even deserving of symbolic restitution – a fact that implicitly repudiates the JACL’s wartime position. During the war, Japanese Americans’ only enemy should have been institutional racism, not neighbors working as snitches for the racists.

Abe’s new material clearly shows the consequences of both complicity and resistance, and, maybe even more importantly, it celebrates the courage of those young men who resisted not only the government but even their community’s own weak leaders.

My old friend Toyo was proud of the resisters and, had she lived to see this film and its supplementary material, she would have been proud of Frank Abe.

                                          — John Streamas

Manzanar Committee apologizes for guest speaker Frank Chin

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.

Read the entire, indignant news release from the Manzanar Committee.

Five scripts for staged readings from Frank Chin

Writer and scholar Frank Chin is offering you, as readers of this site, a series of scripts that boldly bring to life issues of Japanese American art and literature, all tied tightly around the questions of loyalty, betrayal and resistance in WW2.

Frank says the scripts can be read or performed in class, and used in conjunction with his recent compilation of oral history, research and original insight, Born in the USA. You can download them here as Adobe Acrobat files [requires free Adobe Reader] and print them out just as they came out of his Powerbook.

The first script serves as an introduction to the series. They are framed as proposals for a conference at the Japanese American National Museum. He suggests using actors for the readings.

[update July 2012: Keep in mind these are imaginative works based on facts, and as I pointed out in my review of Frank’s book, be sure you know which part is fact and which part springs from his imagination. While some sections quote actual documents, articles, and interviews, other selections may not be actual interviews. I just had to warn one writer not to quote from the Chiye Mori monologue as if they were her words from an actual interview; it is not.]

Chin is also drumming up support for publication and distribution of a resisters newsletter. He points out that 2004 is the 60th anniversary of the institution of Selective Service for the Nisei inside the camps, the rise of draft resistance inside 8 of the ten camps, the formation of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, and their arrests, trials, convictions, and the start of their prison terms.

As he puts it, “The object is to prod Japanese America into taking over their history, art, and Japanese American criticism.”