Thanks to all those who stopped by our table at the 2013 Association for Asian American Studies conference in Seattle — especially those who took home our order card to recommend their college librarians acquire the new two-disc DVD of Conscience and the Constitution, for classroom use. It was incredibly validating to hear from so many professors over three days tell us of the success they’ve had in using the film in their courses. Not often one gets a chance to meet with the educators actually teaching the material, and it was rewarding to share the story of wartime resistance with so many students and scholars at once.
Thanks also to those who came to our Thursday afternoon panel, “Revisiting the Sites of Japanese American Wartime Incarceration.”
Our presenters revisited the camps on three very different levels – the physical, the emotional, and the imaginative. Brian Niiya described how the preservation of the physical site of the Honouliuli camp in Hawai’i expanded into a larger effort to modify the very narrative of Japanese American history in Hawai’i. Karen Inouye delved into the emotional heart of symbolic graduation ceremonies for Japanese American students removed from college after Pearl Harbor.
But it was the final piece from panel organizer Larry Hashima of California State University, Long Beach, that was most revelant to this blog about the resisters. Larry broke down the imaginative ways in which we construct narratives about the camp experience in his paper, “The Final Frontier Allegiance and Musically Remaking the Internment Narrative.” Larry examined the George Takei musical that debuted last fall in San Diego. He argued that by casting real-life JACL leader Mike Masaoka as “the key antagonist (if not outright villain)” of the musical, and by framing the Nisei veterans as “unwitting dupes volunteering for an unnecessary sacrifice,” the show engaged in “a radical reinterpretation of historical events” and “unchained” the story of camp from “the anchors of the established narrative” — anchors that are otherwise known as the facts.
He concluded that “while Allegiance may have attempted to ‘boldly go where no musical has gone before,'” it can also be viewed as a throwback to the bad old days when the common wisdom pitted the veterans against the resisters (“a false dichotomy,” Larry says), and Japanese Americans were understood only as victims.
Hashima is developing his ideas for a longer dissertation examining the development of common themes within fiction and film treatments of the camp story. We’ll keep an eye on his progress.
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.
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, 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.”
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.
Like 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.
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.
The musical premieres at the Old Globe as a mild story of broken family ties, not a judgment of U.S. mistakes related to the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. … “Allegiance” presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, “Allegiance” retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom. For all its historical reach and welcome significance, the book (by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione) drifts into two generic romances and in the second act meanders into sentimental warblings that family is “what really matters.” … Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), head of the Japanese American Citizens League, the show’s sole historical figure, (is) here caricatured. … (T)heir show needs a sharper emotional focus and musical edge to match its bold subject.
There may be a reason for the fuzziness of the show’s focus. Whatever artistic aspirations they may have, Broadway shows are by their nature commercial ventures: they have to sell the tickets week to week to pay the cast and keep the doors open. Based on the show’s synopsis, video clips, and reports from preview audiences and first-nighter’s, the dramatic arc of this show appears calculated to shift the audience’s attention away from the actions of the U.S. government — the general who lied about military necessity, the army major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration — and onto a straw man: the show’s caricature of “Mike Masaoka.”
Make no mistake, the real Mike and the real JACL bear plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and Mike in particular for acting as a confidential informant for the government (see the evidence on the DVD extended interview with Prof. Roger Daniels).
But by setting up Masaoka as the antagonist of the piece, the show gets to take the focus off wartime America’s responsibility for accepting the mass eviction and incarceration, lest the predominantly white New York theater audience for whom this work is intended squirm in their seats – especially in a city just 11 years removed from its own 21st century experience of a Pearl Harbor.
From all accounts the focus on Mike as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or unintended, of letting the government off the hook, as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit, not the generals or the bureaucrats.”
This portrayal was especially strong in early drafts of the musical’s script, and the alarms went up after community pre-screenings of a videotaped workshop performance. However, the creators brought in a new collaborator to rewrite the book, and a first-nighter who provided the two photos offers this contrary view:
“(A friend) who had not seen the pre-screenings came away a bit shocked at how he (Mike) was portrayed. This was her first time to see the show, so she had nothing to compare it to. So I think she was surprised by the musical portraying Mike Masaoka in such a negative light. In the end, we see George yelling at the spirit of Masaoka “You son of a bitch!”… Wow…
“It is interesting -I have seen the pre-screenings so I came away thinking the representation of Mike Masaoka is much more balanced now. He is not the villain as originally scripted. In fact, at times he appears very uncertain, almost meek and indecisive. He is now a 26-year old thrust into all of this pressure and a bit unsure of what to do, trying to lead his people. We see him in uniform – grieving for his brother – trying to figure out what to do and sometimes struggling to remain strong.
“But at the end when the show suggests it was Mike that had the idea for a suicide battalion and George calls him an SOB, then I think it really leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths. For me, since I had seen the earlier versions which were so bad, this current version is ironically very refreshing…”
More reaction is expected in the days ahead, so subscribe to new posts using the box in the column above and to the right, or leave your comment below. (Our DVD is now available in the Old Globe gift shop. Yes, next to the Lea Salonga CDs. Proving, as Brian Wilson sings on the Beach Boys reunion CD, that it’s a strange world after all.)
Japanese Americans who’ve questioned just how the new musical Allegiance will portray the Japanese American experience will find out this Wednesday, Sept. 19, when the production is opened to the press.
Yes, the show will bring the story of the camps to a wider audience, and for many that alone appears to be enough. Others will be watching to see where the evolving script finally lands in regard to its treatment of the Heart Mountain draft resisters, the soldiers of the 442, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Among the things to watch for:
How will wartime JACL leader Mike Masaoka be portrayed?
No question it is remarkable to see the dark underside of loyalty, the community’s dirty laundry that was documented in Conscience and other works, brought into popular culture with this staging. However, even community members who recognize the failings of the wartime JACL and who were invited to workshop presentations of this show over the last two years reported their shock and dismay not only at seeing Mike Masaoka on stage, by name, but at seeing him caricatured as “sleazy,” a “scheming villain,” and the target of “character assassination.” Early versions of the plot unbelievably hinged on the opening of a safe in search of JACL records that would purportedly expose “Masaoka’s” plan for Nisei boys to die in combat, and thereby provide the proof needed to stop the drafting of Nisei from camp.
Preview audiences have since reported that in the rewritten show the “Masaoka” character is less “sleazy,”in uniform for much of the show, and in one scene grieves for the death of his brother in combat. That didn’t stop the Japanese American Veterans Association from denouncing the production last week in an open letter. More rewrites are said to be taking place right up to the opening curtain on Wednesday. National JACL officials will reportedly be in the opening night audience.
How many sources can you identify?
Besides the obvious influence of Conscience on the framing of the story of Mike Masaoka and the JACL vs. the resisters, another source of inspiration lies in the screenplay for the 1976 NBC-TV movie, Farewell to Manzanar. Not the book by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston, but the screenplay by the Houston’s and director John Korty.
(Allegiance synopsis) “Sammy … finds friendship and companionship with a quaker nurse in camp, Hannah … Sammy tries to bring the camp together with a talent show and social, but the night is hijacked by Frankie, who uses the occasion to stir opposition to their incarceration. Sammy leaves the dance angry at his sister’s apparent co-option, and he is is beaten up by men who see him as Masaoka’s stooge.”
“Frankie” in the play is Frank Emi, leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. Frank Emi never disrupted any events, and would have stopped anyone who tried. Where we have seen this scenario before is in the screenplay for Manzanar which invented three elements not in Jeanne’s book: a camp talent show that is disrupted by a fistfight over the loyalty oath, a mess hall meeting that is hijacked by torch-bearing agitators who use the occasion to stir opposition to their incarceration, and a wholly-invented romance between Jeanne’s Nisei brother and a white nurse in camp. Both the book and the screenplay shared a fourth element: the beating of a JACL leader inside camp — in the book it was the real Fred Tayama of Los Angeles, in the screenplay it was the fictional Frank Nishi. Nishi, incidentally, was played 36 years ago by a younger me.
The fantasy of a romance between a Nisei man and a white woman that starts in camp is evidently irresistible, with variations on the theme played out later in Come See The Paradise and Snow Falling on Cedars. As Roger Daniels points out to me, while interracial couples did exist in camp — Karl and Elaine Black Yoneda, Arthur and Estelle Ishigo — these were couples that had married before the war and went to camp together.
The resisters’ story is used, but how is it used?
The printed song list for the first preview includes an Act Two opening number titled “Resist.” Early drafts of the script have “Frankie,” the leader of the resistance, exhorting a group of young people beneath a banner that cries, “Resist.” Shades of Les Miserables. As we noted last week, the draft resisters at Heart Mountain never rallied others in support or raised banners, and to show them rabble-rousing is a profound disservice to their memory. If this staging is retained on opening night, the musical will further cement the confusion between the resisters and the segregants and renunciants at Tule Lake, whose actions held their own integrity but which were simply different from the Heart Mountain group.
(Allegiance synopsis) “Kei and Frankie lead the resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain … even while Hannah seeks to protect and hide Frankie and Kei from the authorities in camp …. Kei and Frankie are finally caught and arrested.”
The Fair Play Committee did not have to hide from the Nazi’s. This was not The Dairy of Anne Frank. Frank Emi and the others conducted their business openly and in public. They posted fliers, held meetings, and collected dues. When the first group of 63 resisters were arrested for draft evasion, the FBI simply looked up their barrack number in the camp registry and knocked on their doors, at dawn. When the first group was convicted, the FBI came back for the leaders on a conspiracy charge. Guntaro Kubora had his bags packed and was waiting for them. In our DVD, Frank Emi tells how the FBI came to his door and read him the charges, and how he even challenged their right to search his barrack without a search warrant.
None of these questions is likely to be asked by the first-night reviewers from Variety, Broadway World, or the San Diego Union-Tribune, but they should be. One writer who at least mentions the Masaoka controversy is Karen Wada in a feature in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times: “Some who viewed earlier versions were upset with certain aspects, including the depiction of Mike Masaoka.”
Musicals are escapist by nature and attention will focus on the interpersonal melodrama, music, and performances, with much said about the educational intentions of the book and the legitimacy conferred by the participation of Tule Lake survivor George Takei. On a personal level, our congratulations go to George for realizing his dream of a legacy project to spread the word about the camps. As mentioned in the Times and his interview in the Old Globe’s Playbill program, George’s father was a “no-no” segregant. As one preview audience member wondered aloud:
“George’s lines at the end are ‘You betrayed us. You betrayed your brother. These were my brothers that died.’ Who knows — he may be the driver of the anti-Masaoka themes, wanting people to understand his family’s side of the story. He may somehow see his family as victims of Mike Masaoka.”
Like 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.”
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.
RESISTERS.COM – The literature and history of Japanese American resistance to incarceration