Movie Review: The Journal of American History

by Naoko Shibusawa
University of Hawai’i at Mânoa, Honolulu, Hawaii

The Journal of American History, Vol. 88, Issue 3
December, 2001
©2001 Organization of American Historians

Rabbit in the Moon. Prod. by Emiko Omori, 1999. 60 mins. (New Day Films)
Conscience and the Constitution. Prod. by Frank Abe and Shannon Gee. Independent Television Service (ITVS), 2000. 60 mins. (Resisters.com)

These two films about the internment superbly challenge a grand narrative about Japanese American history since the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to the familiar narrative, Japanese Americans stoically complied with evacuation and internment; demonstrated their patriotism through the valor and blood of their young men on European battlefields; and, with their loyalty to America thus reaffirmed and proven, moved into mainstream, middle-class America after the war. Among Japanese Americans, veterans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion have enjoyed near-legendary status, and recently the Nisei interpreters in the Military Intelligence Service have also been gaining greater public appreciation for their wartime duty in the Pacific. In opposition to the dominant narrative, however, the filmmakers Emiko Omori and Frank Abe in their separate films honor those who spoke and acted out against the injustice of their imprisonment.

Omori’s Rabbit in the Moon and Abe’s Conscience and the Constitution highlight Japanese American resistance, telling stories of rebellion and civil disobedience in the camps. Rabbit recounts mass protests at Poston and Manzanar about unfair conditions and narrates the ordeal of Nisei draft resisters in the camps—a story that Abe gives fuller treatment in Conscience. After Pearl Harbor, the government reclassified Japanese Americans as ineligible for service but decided in January 1943—after strong lobbying by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL)—to call for 5,000 volunteers from the camps to form an all-Nisei combat troop. Most Nisei men balked at volunteering: only 1,200 of the eligible 78,000 volunteered to serve a government that had revoked their civil liberties. Concern for their imprisoned families also deterred most Nisei men from offering to fight for “democracy” abroad. But when the government reinstituted the draft for Japanese Americans a year later, most internees complied. A significant minority, however, insisted on restoration of their constitutional rights before submitting themselves to the Selective Service preinduction physical. These men were arrested, tried, and convicted, spent up to two years in jail, and became pariahs, along with their families, in the Japanese American community for decades. As both films popularize this history, they effectively use oral interviews and archival images, along with period and mood music, to convey admiration for the men’s courage and sympathy for the travails they endured.

But with draft resisters and other protesters as heroes in their alternative narrative, Omori and Abe have identified a new villain: the JACL. We should pay attention that both filmmakers are Japanese Americans who came of age after the internment. Growing up during or after the civil rights movement and the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, the post-internment generation of Japanese Americans has been perplexed by their elders’ silence about their unjust wartime treatment. They have been confused—some even vaguely ashamed—that their parents and elder relatives obediently went into the camps. As the narrator asks in Conscience: “Why didn’t they resist?” They now have an answer, which Omori presents more polemically than Abe. They did not resist because JACL leaders exhorted them to demonstrate loyalty to America by complying with the government’s orders. The filmmakers also reveal how the JACL collaborated with authorities to suppress any protest among internees and any dissent by Japanese Americans outside the camps. The JACL’s wartime leadership deserves such stringent criticism for trying to crush opposing viewpoints. Omori and Abe, however, exaggerate JACL’s influence on the federal government and its coercive power over the Japanese Americans. Furthermore, casting JACL leaders as blackguards (Omori) or misguided, arrogant youth (Abe) oversimplifies the specific context under which they operated.

Offering no explanation of the JACL’s motivations, Omori presents its members as traitorous collaborators and censures the government for making them the representative voice of Japanese Americans. Abe offers a more balanced story, explaining the JACL’s preoccupation with Japanese Americans’ public image, but he also fails to contextualize their concern. Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor were a largely disenfranchised racial minority with hardly any stateside allies. FDR authorized Executive Order 9066 to evacuate and intern Japanese Americans because he knew that most Americans would greet it with enthusiastic approval or indifference. There existed, moreover, substantial Japanese American support for Japanese imperialism prior to December 7, 1941. Racially oppressed in the United States, many Japanese Americans reveled in the military thrusts that made Japan seem powerful; they did not believe that pride in their home country necessarily negated their commitment to America. Having affection and allegiance toward both nations, however, became untenable after Pearl Harbor. Recognizing the formidable task in gaining acceptance for Japanese Americans in wartime America helps us to understand—although not condone—why JACL leaders fervently tried to restrain any action they thought might be construed as disloyal by the dominant society.

The matter of loyalty is central to the traditional narrative about Japanese Americans and to Omori’s and Abe’s revisionist accounts, but neither interpretation deviates far from the narrow argument that “Americanism is a matter of the heart.” Omori begins to suggest a more nuanced portrait of loyalty when she describes her difficulty in seeing only “the man in the moon” rather than the Japanese “rabbit in the moon,” but she fails to acknowledge that this dilemma was shared by the JACL. Interpretative blinders about loyalty may be due to the justifiable fear that any other argument might invite attempts to vindicate the internment, and it is a shame. This worry has diverted our attention from the dynamic history of Japanese Americans in the years preceding the war. Nonetheless, Conscience and the Constitution is valuable in the classroom as a secondary source because it is a compelling, well-researched story. Rabbit in the Moon, a film about the filmmaker’s quest for a meaningful past as much as it is about resistance in the camps, is best as a primary source: it provides a fascinating interplay of memory, desire, and history.

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