Category Archives: Reviews

New translation of “NO-NO BOY” for the 21st century

Ryusuke KawaiJournalist Ryusuke Kawai says he decided to re-translate John Okada’s No-No Boy because readers found the previous rendering in Japanese to be filled with archaic words and incorrect grammar that made them put down the book. Kawai spoke to an attentive audience in Seattle on March 11, as a guest of former Uwajimaya CEO Tomio Moriguchi.

Steve Sumida, Gail Nomura, Ryusuke Kawai, Frank Abe

Also at the Nagomi Tea House event were longtime Okada scholars Stephen Sumida and Gail Nomura (left). Read the review of Kawai’s translation, “A No-No Boy for the 21st Century,” in the International Examiner.newspaper article

Ryusuke Kawai with Frank Abe

Tai Tung RestaurantAfter his remarks, Kawai enjoyed our nickel tour of John Okada’s historic Chinatown, starting with Maynard Alley and the vacant spot of the old Wah Mee Club. which regrettably burned down in a 2013 fire. He posed at the Wing Luke Museum’s restoration of the kind of storefront grocery Ichiro’s parents would have operated. And we enjoyed the classic Combination No. 1 lunch at Tai Tung, “Seattle’s Oldest Chinese Restaurant,” where Okada and draft resister Jim Akutsu passed through the 82-year old inner swinging doors and sat at the same counter to eat after John finished work at his family’s Pacific Hotel at 6th and Weller, and Jim was done with his grimy ironwork at the Olympic Foundry in SoDo.

Kawai’s translation is said to be well-received in the Japanese-language press. His work enables a new generation overseas to enjoy what we here already know to be a classic of the Pacific Northwest, and arguably “The Great Nisei Novel.”

poster for Japanese translation

REVIEW: Writing in the camps as an act of defiance

Relocating Authority In her revelatory new book, Mira Shimabukuro sets a new standard in camp studies with her framing of what she calls “writing-to-redress.” She goes beyond Bulletin #3 from the Fair Play Committee to recover a wide range of camp writing that challenges authority, much of it by women. such as the letter from the Mothers Society of Minidoka protesting the drafting of their sons, signed by more than 100 Issei women.

Our review in the International Examiner calls this a significant act of redress that once again changes the way we look at the Japanese American response to incarceration, and belies the claim of Mike Masaoka in our film that resistance in the camps was limited to “a relatively small number of dissidents.”
Continue reading REVIEW: Writing in the camps as an act of defiance

ALLEGIANCE fabrications just part of larger problem, critics say

Part Three of a continuing conversation. See Parts One and Two.

Guardian headline

Fabrication of the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is not high on the list of problems identified by critics of the musical Allegiance — although the most important of them did single out issues raised by our first critique and linked to this blog. No, foremost among their complaints is the other failing we pointed out: the derivative book, lacking  in authentic sensibility, devoid of artistic merit, and wrapped around bombastic songs stuffed with platitudinous lyrics and generic melodies. The mostly tepid reviews could depress the show’s box office and dampen the length of its run on Broadway.

review blurbsYou won’t see blurbs from these reviews touted in any Facebook ads. So here is a highly selective look at the bad reviews that back up our take on the show. As rated by the trade journal Broadway World, they add up to a cumulative reception of just 6.8 on a scale of 10.

The most-watched reaction on Broadway remains the review in the New York Times. Critic Charles Isherwood asked for a copy of our DVD, and recognized there is a real story lurking here:NY Times review

As we said before, the problem with Alleigiance is not one of inexactness but the fundamental fabrication of events that were impossible to occur in the real world and which cheapen the integrity of the Heart Mountain resistance. Nevertheless, it’s enough that the point is raised in the newspaper of record, leading more than a thousand curious readers to follow the link and discover this blog.

Continue reading ALLEGIANCE fabrications just part of larger problem, critics say

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

HOLD THESE TRUTHS: the power of the real

Curfew violator Gordon Hirabayashi was a draft resister too. He resisted the 8 pm military curfew placed only on Japanese Americans, when he saw it didn’t apply to his white classmates at the University of Washington. He resisted the mass incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he resisted the draft when an induction letter was sent to him after his high court conviction was upheld

actor seated in chair
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

In her solo play on the lone resistance of Gordon Hirabayashi, playwright Jeanne Sakata shows that the truth of the Japanese American experience can work as powerful drama onstage, without violating the history or resorting to melodrama.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS, which is ending its longest run ever of four weeks at the ACT Theater in Seattle, uses nothing but the actual word and deed of the UW student and Quaker pacifist, based on Sakata’s hours of interviews with him. Where she compresses events or fictionalizes Gordon’s letters from jail, the words are always drawn from his actual writings, the minimum of dramatic license is taken, and the intent is always to illuminate the real nature of Gordon’s character.

Her approach succeeds brilliantly. Sakata brings Gordon’s inner life to the surface while retaining respect for the facts. She makes it look simple, but her craft is quite accomplished.

Having known Gordon through his visits to Seattle later in life, it’s odd to see him portrayed on stage by someone who bears such a striking resemblance. Ryun Yu captures something about the tilt of the head when Gordon would pursue a thought. He finds an expansive energy in the younger Gordon, while staying true to his pure convictions and measured speech. Yu holds the stage for 90 minutes, and earns a standing ovation every night.

lone actor on bare stage
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

At a pivotal moment in the play, Yu as Hirabayashi trembles at the gravity of his decision to violate the military curfew, and take on the government. He realizes his will be a test case, and the line he writes in a letter, “Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” precedes by two years the nearly identical stance of the draft resisters at Heart Mountain: “Therefore, we hereby refuse to go to the induction, or to the physical examination, in order to contest the issue.” The difference was Gordon had no organized resistance around him, no model for his selfless stand. He did it alone, and the Heart Mountain resisters had his example as a guide.

Seeing the play performed in Seattle is  especially meaningful, at a theater just a few blocks from the federal courthouse where Gordon was first arraigned in 1942, and a few blocks more from the King County Jail where he served nine months. Hearing a stage voice announce the wartime exclusion order in terms of real Seattle territory – Roosevelt and N. 85th – made the history all too tangible for an audience that can visualize those streets today.

That federal courthouse was also the scene where Gordon in 1985 was given a chance to put the government on trial for withholding evidence that could have changed the outcome of his Supreme Court test case.

Being a Courageous Citizen on July 20th at the Town HallTo promote the return to Seattle of HOLD THESE TRUTHS, I was pleased to moderate a July 20 panel at Town Hall Seattle featuring Jeanne and three of the Sansei attorneys who gave their time to back Gordon and Fred Korematsu in their attempt to overturn their high court convictions in 1985.

moderator with four panelists on stage
(L to R) Frank Abe, Jeanne Sakata, Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga. Photo by Monica Kong.

Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga took us inside their legal strategy to refute the claim of military necessity used to justify the wartime incarceration. On the eve of the hearing, Kawakami described how the government offered Gordon a Presidential pardon in exchange for dropping the case; it was revealing of Gordon’s character that he rejected the offer, saying “We should be the ones pardoning the government.”

While preparing for the panel, I dug up an article I wrote for the Pacific Citizen in November 1985 that examined in detail the final written arguments in the “Clash of Legal Arguments in ‘Civil Liberties Case of the Century.’” It was remarkable that we could share our memories of being in the same place at the same time — Rod and Daniel representing Gordon, me covering the hearing as a reporter — and each of us feeling the weight of history being re-enacted in that courtroom.

See more pictures from the panel in this Facebook photo album. HOLD THESE TRUTHS runs through Sunday, August 16.

REVIEW: Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

Confessions coverThis 1970s-era novel by Frank Chin, published for the first time today by the University of Hawaii Press, predates his work with the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of this blog. But as a Friend of the Fair Play Committee, the surprise recovery and restoration of Frank’s unpublished first novel is a story as notable as his recovery of the buried history of the resisters.

For the occasion, I wrote a review of the book for International Examiner arts editor Alan Lau:

A first look at Frank Chin’s Great Chinese American Novel

The Confessions of a Number One Son by Frank Chin
edited with an introduction by Calvin McMillin

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, April 1-April 14, 2015

newspaper coverThe emergence 40 years later of a tightly edited, slimmed-down version of a long-lost novel from the writer who first defined Asian American literature is an unexpected gift.

That’s because to read The Confessions of a Number One Son in 2015 is to peel back the decades and discover the creative foundation of the plays and later fiction of Frank Chin, in the moment before he became consumed with the polemics of separating the real from the fakery in the work of others.

In an early 1970s America where the postwar generation was just coming of age—where the world still celebrated the model minority, the Chinese Christian autobiographies of Betty Lee Sung and Pardee Lowe, and the movie stereotype of Charlie Chan—Frank Chin was putting a self-proclaimed Chinaman voice at the center of his stories. It was an act of self-invention he was perfecting in tandem with his better-known stage plays, The Chickencoop Chinaman and Year of the Dragon.  Read more …

Chin review

A Heart Mountain resister reacts to “Allegiance”

The following was written at the request of the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, and appears in today’s Oct. 24 edition:

Kirk and Spock in 1920s guise
“A Piece of the Action?” – parallel universe only looks like the real thing
© 1968 Paramount Pictures

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.

Cast of "Allegiance" horsing around with props
Turnaround is fair play for the cast of Allegiance during a break in performance, enacting in reverse the rifle and bayonet action of the show itself.
(Allegiance Facebook page)

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!’

‘In camp.’

‘Yeah.’”

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.”

Resisters in crossfire between veterans and “Allegiance”

Japanese American Veterans Association logoAs predicted, the use of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee to advance the plot of a new musical set in the camps is dredging up old misconceptions about the nature of the resistance. Submitted for your consideration: the second open letter about Allegiance that arrived today from the president of the Japanese American Veterans Association (download a printable PDF of “Setting the Record Straight: The Play ‘Allegiance'”).

We agreed with several of the concerns Gerald Yamada expressed in his first open letter of Sept. 10.  In this new letter he draws attention to what he calls “misleading” elements of the show, such as “misdirecting the blame away from government officials responsible for falsely imprisoning innocent persons” in the second act.

“The ‘light bulb’ revelation in the play that soldiers die in war does not make the 442nd RCT a suicide battalion,” he correctly notes, and concludes, “If the producers continue to try to convince audiences that Masaoka was a monster who duped Japanese Americans into serving in the 442nd RCT as a suicide battalion, the play is doomed to hit an iceberg of facts and history which do not support this.”

On the way to making these points based on facts and history, however, the writer buys into the same false distinctions between loyalty and disloyalty that were promoted by the JACL immediately after Pearl Harbor, and later codified and enforced by the administrators running the camps — false distinctions that incarcerees then internalized among themselves to divide volunteer from resister, draftee from renunciant, friend from foe. As the writer takes his verbal shots at the show’s belittlement of the veterans, he complains the show “over-romanticizes the story of the resisters.” The resisters suffer a kind of collateral damage, caught in this peculiar crossfire:

In the play, resisters are those who answer no to questions 27 and 28 and those who refused to be inducted, but they still appear to believe in America (emphasis added) … It would be unfair to conclude that all resisters wanted Japan to win the war … The important point is that the resisters were in the minority and that all those in that minority may not have been loyal to America as compared to all who volunteered to serve in the 442nd RCT.”

This regrettable but familiar innuendo drew a quick response from the friend who forwarded me the open letter:

“Why are folks still invoking the loyal/disloyal paradigm to discredit dissenters and resisters? That comment is a reminder of the racist labeling that government institutions like the Western Defense Command, the Department of Justice and the War Relocation Authority imposed on our community and used to silence dissent. Sadly, many Japanese Americans like victims of Stockholm Syndrome where the prisoner identifies with the goals of their powerful captors internalized and still use these stereotypical and divisive labels … (W)hy is it necessary to demonize the imprisoned Japanese American minority that had the “baka guts” to protest the injustice of their incarceration? … Isn’t it about time that we accept civil disobedience and dissent as a legitimate 100% American response to injustice?”

It’s unfortunate but like we said, the resisters get kicked around like this every so often. This time the dust-up is over a musical. Next year it will be something else.

Variety rips “Allegiance,” says what National JACL does not

Variety logoLike the Los Angeles Times before it, the trade newspaper Variety has just posted what can only be described as a thumbs-down review of the new musical inspired by the clash of ideas between the Heart Mountain draft resisters who are the subject of our film, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League:

“(W)hile the personal material lands, the political stuff lacks nuance and weight in “Allegiance.” Despite a handsome production and talent to spare, the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway’s harsh glare …

“The sloganeering libretto … portrays both points of view as more or less reasonable until a last-minute, cheaply manipulative flip-flop tells us, out of left field, exactly what to think. In so doing, “Allegiance” comes dangerously close to branding every member of the honored 442nd regiment as fools and dupes, though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal …

“(The songwriter) does seem to have played the “Les Miserables” cast album plenty …”

The Variety piece is important as it is the first objective industry review and will shape expectations among those in New York. And reviewer Bob Verini picks up on the same point raised in last month’s open letter from the Japanese American Veterans Association, in which President Gerald Yamada wrote:

“The play attempts to make the case that … those who volunteered were deceived by Masaoka and made the wrong choice.”

The JAVA letter and the Variety and Times reviews stand in sharp contrast to the Sept. 21st statement from the present-day Japanese American Citizens League. Given the show’s deriding of JACL’s wartime collaboration, its caricature of “Mike Masaoka” and its positioning of him as the antagonist of the piece, you would expect JACL to issue a ringing defense of itself and “they called me Moses” Masaoka.

Has JACL repudiated the legacy of Mike Masaoka?

Whether through lack of knowledge, a lack of interest, a desire not to offend, or a desire to distance itself from its past, National JACL issued a measured statement that labors to address a wide array of stakeholders and constituencies, and is calibrated to offend none of them.  (Download a printable PDF of the JACL statement.) As we’ve said, for some it will be enough that a musical brings the subject of the camps to a new audience, and it’s there that JACL finds a toehold on which to actually commend the production.

JACL officers with George Takei
National and local JACL officers with actor George Takei, on the Sept. 19 opening night of “Allegiance.” Photo: National JACL

But the statement goes on to neither confront its past or stick up for the legacy of its defining wartime leadership. Where the statement tip-toes towards criticism of the show, the repeated use of the passive voice allows the organization to avoid taking a clear and identifiable stand:

“As the confinement of the community lengthened with no access to due process, there was heated disagreement on the best response to the injustices perpetrated by the government …

“Although veterans and resisters are represented in the musical by fictional characters, it is unfortunate that writers have used Mike Masaoka’s name to represent those who promoted Americanism, and portray them in a negative light …

“Allegiance portrays the experiences of a single family at Heart Mountain, and focuses on one perspective of JACL and Mike Masaoka. Concerns remain that the musical pieces together different elements of Masaoka’s contributions during the period, and lacks the historical context to give audiences a broader sense of the external role of the government, press, politicians, military advisers, and others.”

Mike of course was the very face of the JACL’s brand of  Americanism, the author of the JACL Creed and the man who sang the praises of America, so it should come as no surprise that he is named to represent that. We named him in our film. But what is perhaps most significant in the statement is the absence of any rebuttal to the show’s climactic message that “Masaoka” somehow duped the protagonist, played by Mr. Takei, about the nature of the 442, “Go For Broke,” and the consequences of patriotic self-sacrifice — a disturbing message as pointed out by JAVA and Variety.

As Prof. Art Hansen pointed out over a gin martini on Friday, the JACL was unpopular before the war and in the first year of camp, as evidenced by the beating of JACLer Fred Tayama that led to the riot at Manzanar. On our DVD, Frank Emi recalls the pre-war JACL as”sort of an elite social club of lawyers and rich businessmen, things like that.”

But the group’s reputation turned around when Mike tied his star to the notion of restoring the draft for the Nisei as a first step toward the restoration of all their rights. That resonated with the thousands of young men who were itching for the chance to prove themselves, and JACL’s popularity was cemented as the dominant Japanese American political and social organization for the life of the Nisei generation, which sadly is fading into time.

The opening of the draft to the Nisei was as much a part of Mike’s legacy as his initial accommodations regarding the eviction, and for the modern-day JACL to fail to vigorously defend that is an omission that signals a sea change in the organization, whether intentional or not.

To be sure, it can’t be easy staffing a national organization that must bridge the gap between what we used to call the “old guard” and the younger members the group needs to attract and keep in order to survive — to try to function as a modern civil rights organization while lugging the history of a predecessor who waived Japanese American rights at the time when we needed them the most.

Next up: a review of the text (and subtext) of Allegiance, as frozen for the San Diego production, that expands upon the “lack of historical context” cited by JACL.