Category Archives: JACL

Resisters at heart of new musical

Allegiance photoLike 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.”

Sincerely,

Gerald Yamada
JAVA President

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.

A new look for Resisters.com

You’ll notice a new look and feel for Resisters.com. Call it Resisters.com 2.0. You can now post your own comments on these pages, as well as subscribe to email news updates about the resisters in real time.

Use the subscription form in the right sidebar, or the RSS link, and share posts on your Facebook page. The feed fulfills a long-ago request by Kenji Taguma that we have a means of quickly sharing news about the resisters. It’s not quite the magazine of Asian American literary and cultural criticism that Frank Chin insists we must have, but it’s the best I can manage for now.

I promise the posts will be newsworthy and will continue to uncover discoveries about the largest resistance to the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans. After 70 years interest in the camps has never been stronger. The difference is that over the past decade, with our film and now the new DVD, the paradigm for that history has widened to include the camp resistance and the JACL collaboration as part of our basic common knowledge alongside the 442, the MIS, and others.

Please leave a comment below to let us know how you like the new site, which uses the sturdier WordPress platform rather than the hand-coded site that we held together with Dreamweaver.

If there is page from the old Resisters.com site you miss and would like to see restored, leave a comment and we will repost it. We’ll soon be adding videos and links to new research, along with catching up with old news updates, reviews, and anything else you’d like to see or hear.

“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.”