PACIFIC CITIZEN Q and A

“Award Winning Documentary on Resisters of Conscience Expands Content, Now on DVD”
Former P.C. assistant editor Martha Nakagawa sits down with “Conscience and the Constitution” creator Frank Abe

by Martha Nakagawa
special to the Pacific Citizen
issue of November 18-December 15, 2011 

The award-winning “Conscience and the Constitution” documentary has been released as a two-disc collector’s edition DVD with two hours of additional features that is a must-have for anyone wanting to learn how national JACL’s World War II policies affect the organization to this day.

The extended footage allows those from both sides of the issue to elaborate and reflect upon the reasons they had for taking the stand they did during the war. Prominent JACLers featured include an interview with John Tateishi, who was national JACL executive director during the apology ceremony, to extended coverage of Mike Masaoka, wartime JACL’s executive director who opposed the stand of the draft resisters.

An extended fair and balanced analyses by renowned scholars Dr. Roger Daniels and Dr. Art Hansen give an added credibility to the DVD set.

This new release is an important educational tool for not only understanding the history of JACL but also how being in a state of war affects our interpretation of the Constitution.

“Conscience and the Constitution” came out in 2000, the same year the national JACL passed a resolution to apologize to the Nisei draft resisters. Do you feel the documentary had some influence over how JACL members voted at the national convention?

I would pinpoint the turnaround in public opinion to our first concept for the documentary in 1992, which was to stage readings at San Jose State and a church in Little Tokyo to ceremonially welcome home the resisters, and film them. Remember that until then the resisters, if they were spoken of at all, were still regarded with suspicion by most in our community. Coverage of these events in the PC and other vernacular newspapers showed crowds turning out to recognize and support Nisei draft resisters – and that made an impression just as media coverage of the thousands who turned out for the first Days of Remembrance in Seattle and Portland sent a signal to the nation that maybe a radical idea called redress could fly. And we kept getting national media coverage for the resisters throughout the decade of the 90’s. That homecomings footage is seen at the climax of the film, and a longer sequence now survives as an outtake on the new DVD.

For the sake of the resisters I was pleased to see movement by JACL on the apology resolution, and some distance placed between them and the JACL of 1944. At the same time it presented a distressing technical problem – the film had already been “locked” for PBS broadcast in November 2000, but I knew we had to update the ending to acknowledge the JACL apology. We settled on a screen title that highlights the convention vote, but it required going back into the studio to squeeze in the new text and slide over the end credits, which may sound simple but it cost several thousand dollars that PBS wasn’t about to give us.

When you were working on “Conscience,” were you planning to come out later with an expanded version or did this idea come up after the national JACL passed the resolution to apologize to the draft resisters?

“Conscience” is still the same film as was broadcast. Shooting a bonus feature on the JACL’s public apology ceremony in 2002 seemed an appropriate way to tie up the story for the DVD. Andy Noguchi did such a thoughtful job hosting that event that we used his voice to connect all the shots, and Floyd Mori and John Tateishi were so gracious in making that event happen and speaking to us on camera.

Once we added that, the DVD became the perfect place to present valuable outtakes from earlier rough cuts, and assemble new features from the raw interviews, including:

  • The sequence of two resisters venturing into the 1994 JACL national convention in Salt Lake City to address an earlier attempt at reconciliation, which features interviews with the late Bill Hosokawa and a nice bit with the late Randy Senzaki, who was then JACL national director.
  • A new sequence capturing stories from the mass trial of the 63 resisters, which features newspaper coverage from the Wyoming Eagle.
  • Yosh and Irene Kuromiya going back to the spot where he used to sketch Heart Mountain as a young artist.

We produced so much bonus material we decided to add a second disc and make it a two-DVD set.

The Nisei draft resisters took on the US government and went against wartime national JACL policy of collaboration with the government. Aren’t these Nisei draft resisters just a bunch of law breakers? Why is it important to learn about their actions? 

Yes, they broke the law – to prove a point. Theirs was an act of civil disobedience. As Yosh said, after the Nisei submitted to the camps, this was their last chance to take a stand on the legality of mass incarceration. The Nisei soldiers fought bravely on the battlefield. For the Heart Mountain resisters, their battle took place in a Wyoming courtroom. We need both. 

The expanded DVD includes more photographs, some never before seen. Did people come forward with these photos after the original “Conscience and the Constitution” was released? 

Yes. We had a standing appeal online for a photo of Fair Play Committee founder Kiyoshi Okamoto. Marie Masumoto at the Japanese American National Museum came upon that page and said hey, that’s my husband’s uncle and we have Kiyoshi’s mug shot from his prison records! So with her National Archives contact I was able to secure the prison photos of all seven of the FPC steering committee leaders who did their time at Leavenworth, and that’s the montage you can see on the launch menu of Disc Two.

For the photos of Wyoming journalist Vern Lechliter and of Sylvia Toshiyuki, the mystery hakujin woman who furtively brought Okamoto’s manifestoes out of camp to journalist James Omura in Denver – for those photos I had to work the phone hard to trace relatives. But I was successful with those two and I am glad this DVD can give us a much fuller visual gallery for the resisters. 

Isamu Sam Horino was one of the 7 leaders of the FPC. Why wasn’t his footage included in the original film? 

Sam was in our first rough cut with his sound bite about the government throwing the FPC in jail for conspiracy. When ITVS took us on they said they liked the story but felt our rough cut played too much like a book, so here’s some money to go hire a film editor. Lillian Benson took our footage and turned it inside out, to build our story visually rather than literally, through words alone. She really made the film what it is today. Somewhere in there Sam hit the cutting room floor, and I never missed it. But this is why he’s on the DVD, he’s a hoot. 

Ben Kuroki’s expanded interview includes a sensitive, reflective man who voices some regrets. How difficult was it to get an interview with Kuroki and why weren’t his comments included in the original film? 

We wrote to Mr. Kuroki and said we wanted to get his side of the story. As he says on the DVD he was reluctant at first, but he later told us the promise to tell both sides helped convince him. Maybe he recognized me as a fellow journalist who would treat him with respect. He clearly had something he wanted to get his chest and I’m glad we could provide the avenue for that. He sat for 90 minutes and it wasn’t until the very end of the interview, when he could sense we were wrapping up, that he gave us the sound bite that appears in the film where he acts out the feeling of being shelled by anti-aircraft fire. After the film aired he sent a nice note to say we were welcome to his home anytime, which struck me as a gentlemanly thing to say.

If the film is effective it’s because Lillian showed us how the narrative needs to keep driving forward and keep the audience focused on the story of the young resisters. That took discipline and it meant leaving out some of the best bits. Looking back I wish we could have found a way to work in Ben’s longer comments, but that’s why I’m glad we can release now them on DVD to present a more complete picture of the man.

You include a 19-minute taped interview from 1988 with Mike Masaoka. Why wasn’t Masaoka interviewed on video camera? 

I wish I could have. I was a radio news reporter working with my trusty Sony audio cassette recorder. I didn’t yet have the pull to do it for the TV news department, and home video technology was still pretty crude. On reflection though, having it be just Mike and I in an empty hotel dining room, with the sound of dishes clanking in the distance, kept the interview more intimate, and Mike might not have been as expansive and revealing had a camera been trained on him. I hope people get a chance to listen to it.

But we do have Mike on camera, delivering his rebuttal to critics at the 1982 JACL national convention in LA. It was one of the first uses of Sony’s new Betamax home video system. On the tape you can hear Min Yasui praise Sony for its donation of the equipment and credit Karl Nobuyuki for operating the camera! 

Mike Masaoka’s recollection on JACL’s treatment of the Tule Lake renunciants is the most problematic portion of the DVD because what Masaoka says is unsubstantiated and contradictory to what had occurred. Why did you include this in the DVD? 

It’s raw material for the benefit of students and teachers for generations to come. It’s not an endorsement. I trust in viewers to understand that. Aside from our outtakes, the bonus material on Disc Two is what scholars call “primary material,” not editorial content that is shaped by the filmmaker. How Mike characterized JACL’s treatment of wartime dissent is revealing in and of itself. This was the only point in his peoration that he directly addressed the subject of the Heart Mountain resisters, and presenting him unfiltered, in his own voice, gives viewers a unique window onto our shared history, and a chance to judge for themselves.

To help provide context, immediately following Mike’s comments on DVD we invite viewers to our website at www.resisters.com/jacl to learn more, and once there they will find more documentation, including material on Wayne Collins and the Tule Lake renunciants. 

For you personally, your father purchased JACLer Bill Hosokawa’s book, “Nisei: The Quiet Americans,” when it first came out. But after the release of “Conscience and the Constitution,” you found out your father had actually donated $2 to the FPC and subscribed to the Rocky Shimpo, edited by James Omura. What did your father share about his views on the JACL and the draft resisters? And how did you feel when you found out what your father had done during the war at Heart Mountain? 

He didn’t say much more than that some people came around asking for contributions, and he gave them $2, and that he remembered taking the Rocky. But when I considered this, I realized that $2 was a significant donation to make at the time for a teenage kid with no money, and that while he doesn’t remember more about it, it had to speak to his tacit support for people who were agitating for action to make things right. That impressed me. 

If readers want to learn more about the Nisei draft resisters, is there a website they can visit? 

Yes, we actually have two sites, the site we created for PBS Online at PBS.org/conscience that is a repository of narratives and primary documents on the resistance and the wartime JACL, and my own site for new research and information at Resisters.com, where the DVD can be ordered online.

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