Documentary explodes myth about Japanese-American internment

by John Levesque
Seattle Post-IntelligencerDecember 7, 2000

Frank Abe doesn’t ask much. He simply wants history teachers to stop filling their students’ heads with misinformation about the “passive resignation” and “patriotic self-sacrifice” of Japanese Americans from the West Coast who were herded into concentration camps during World War II.

That’s right – concentration camps. Even FDR called them that, before the term took on an ugliness that made America grope for something less unseemly. But, just as we’ve settled on “internment camp” as an agreeable palliative, so have we willingly failed to acknowledge a chapter in this nation’s history that should probably be celebrated as a 20th-century tribute to Thoreau’s concept of the individual as “a higher and independent power” from which the state generates its authority.

Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience, so readily ascribed to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., isn’t often mentioned in connection with those who went to places such as Heart Mountain, Manzanar and eight other camps where the U.S. government could keep an eye on the Issei (Japanese immigrants who were barred from U.S. citizenship) and Nisei (full-fledged American citizens who had the misfortune of looking like the enemy after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor).

Abe aims to change that with “Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary so brutally frank that Abe isn’t likely to get much fan mail from old-timers in the Japanese-American community. But Abe, whose own father was confined at the camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., thinks it’s time to correct the “master narrative” of Japanese-American internment.

Abe, a former reporter for KIRO Newsradio and KIRO-TV in Seattle, wants America to know that not all Japanese-American internees submissively complied with every government order. At Heart Mountain alone, 85 young men resisted induction into the U.S. military on the grounds they shouldn’t be expected to fight for a country that was systematically denying their constitutional rights. The numbers at the other camps weren’t as impressive, but 267 from the 10 camps were eventually convicted.

While the courage of their conviction wasn’t the red badge usually associated with wartime heroism, their wounds were painful, deep and lasting. Same goes for the resistance leaders, whose Fair Play Committee earned them the scorn of their government, their community and, in many cases, their own families. They, too, were imprisoned until their convictions were overturned on appeal.

This ostracism at the hands of fellow Japanese Americans lies at the core of Abe’s film, airing at 10 p.m. Tuesday on KCTS-TV (Channel 9). He doesn’t let the U.S. government off the hook for its racist, arbitrary policy. (For example, Japanese Americans in the U.S. heartland weren’t rounded up because they were perceived to be less of a threat than those on the West Coast.) But Abe is pointedly asking his own community to look beyond victimization and to ask itself why it turned its back on the resisters.

For half a century, the draft resisters from Heart Mountain and other camps have been shunned, not only because they have prison records but also because they dared to defy the conscience of their community, a conscience that preached – and still preaches – accommodation, nonconfrontation and passive assimilation.

This credo was the linchpin of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), a group created in the 1930s by Japanese-American businessmen eager to prove their loyalty to the United States. The JACL vigorously opposed the protesters, and it wasn’t until this year – 56 years after the resisters went to prison and several months after the film was completed – that a very divided JACL apologized to them.

Abe’s film, already the recipient of several awards, doesn’t demonize the JACL. In critical matters of personal conscience, he perceives no villains and makes it clear that there are many Japanese Americans who think no apology was necessary.

But he makes even clearer his own sense of frustration at the bitterness and hostility that lasted long after President Truman pardoned the resisters in 1947 and the U.S. government admitted the relocation of Japanese Americans was wrong.

“The story is about the price you pay for taking a principled stand,” says Abe, now a media producer and spokesman for the King County Transportation Department. “It’s also about two responses to injustice: collaboration or resistance.”

In “Conscience and the Constitution,” Abe definitely has a point of view on which response he’d prefer. Even more forceful, though, is the message that has been delivered many times before, primarily in books like “No-No Boy” by John Ohada and “Years of Infamy” by Michi Weglyn, but which never seems to find a wide audience, at least not in history classes that continue to present an image of Japanese Americans in cheerful compliance as their rights are being trampled.

Well-written, artfully photographed (by Phil Sturholm) and beautifully narrated (by the poet Lawson Fusao Inada), “Conscience and the Constitution” is a worthy addendum to any American-history lesson. “It’s a classic example of civil disobedience,” Abe says, “And it should be added to the classroom canon.”

John Levesque is the TV critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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