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!”

"Better Americans" production number
The “Better Americans” production number parodying the JACL slogan was cut after the San Diego tryout. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

This caricature was criticized by JACL and denounced by veterans’ groups for a) presenting Mike as a cartoon figure, b) using his real name while other historical figures like the Heart Mountain resisters he opposed were fictionalized, and c) appearing to brand every member of the 442 as “as fools and dupes,” as Variety called it, “though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal.” The Japanese American Veterans Association warned that without fundamental change, the play was a Titanic “doomed to hit an iceberg of facts and history.” At the National JACL convention this summer in Las Vegas, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta — Mr. Masaoka’s brother-in-law — said that while he and Mr. Takei share much in common, on this portrayal of Masaoka, George was “dead wrong.” And on Oct. 7 National JACL issued a new statement that weakly reflected institutional denial and a continued inability to renounce the legacy of Mike Masaoka.

Greg Watanabe taking his first curtain call as "Mike Masaoka" – photo:
Actor Greg Watanabe taking his first curtain call as “Mike Masaoka” (Photo by

For all its fabrications that violate historical reality, the final Broadway iteration of Allegiance addresses the Masaoka problem by playing him straight, with no singing or dancing. It’s the one thing the show gets right, by drawing from the record of Masaoka’s words and deeds: the initial suggestion of a suicide battalion, the advocacy for a segregated unit that could win white acceptance, the weeding out of the bad apples through segregation at Tule Lake.

Actor Greg Watanabe captures Masaoka’s earnest surrender of civil rights with a seriousness of purpose and flashes of stubborn defiance. Watanabe did his homework, reading up on the story and studying the Masaoka interview and video on our Two-Disc DVD. It shows in his performance; a non-singer, his portrayal is respectful, not a caricature or cartoon.

Act II now opens with a scene lifted straight from Conscience: a helmeted Mike Masaoka typing press releases in the European combat zone to drum up good publicity for the 442. In a poignant moment, the death of Mike’s brother in battle is represented as a dream in which the fallen Ben hands his dog tags to a stunned Mike. The moment is marred by the jarring musical intrusion of a Japanese koto, the wrong note for a character who called for eradication of expressions of Japanese language and culture in the camps.

By hearing Masaoka’s actual words, more or less, we begin to see the false distinctions between loyal and disloyal that the wartime government forced upon Japanese America, with help from JACL, and which we then internalized among ourselves. But unlike the brilliant interplay of American Revolutionary history and ideas presented a few blocks away in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishingly detailed Hamilton, Allegiance cops out in favor of safer melodrama. What finally drives the Nisei soldier Sammy to renounce his sister, his newborn niece, and the resister Frankie is (spoiler alert) the phony, impossible shooting of his white girlfriend in camp: “You were supposed to protect her!” The once-indivisible family is broken not by matters of principle and deep conviction, but over a personal beef arising from an absurd plot contrivance.

By using Mike’s real name, Allegiance establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured. So why use his name, despite community complaints and formal objections? One reason may be that in a city with the living memory of the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and threats to round up and remove all persons of Iranian descent, making a Japanese American the villain of the piece avoids grim realities in order and helps secure the feel-good nature of the evening.

Make no mistake, the real Mike Masaoka bears plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and for acting as a confidential informant for the FBI. But setting him up as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or not, of letting the government off the hook. It’s as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit,” not the general who lied about military necessity, the major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration, the President who signed the order, or the machinery of government that carried out the order.

The Japanese American veterans saw this in 2012, when they accused the makers of “misdirecting the blame away from government officials responsible for falsely imprisoning innocent persons.” The Los Angeles Times astutely noted in 2012, “Allegiance retreats from the challenge of its own material,” and that’s still true today. The show acknowledges race and economic greed, but does not confront the failure of political leadership that enabled mass incarceration, or the public’s acceptance of it, lest audiences squirm in their seats or just stay home.

The story elements of Allegiance that lie outside Mr. Takei’s personal experience play like a Googled version of Japanese American history that rifles through the canon – the invention of the sympathetic white girlfriend and nurse from John Korty’s TV version of Farewell to Manzanar, the baseball-in-camp setting of Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, the resisters from our film.

T-shirtAn inventive score might have redeemed this mashup, but the songs of Allegiance are themselves a pastiche of relentless optimism that admits to no darkness. The Nisei in this camp make their “Wishes on the Wind” and aspire to go “Higher,” because their native “Gaman” makes them “Stronger Than Before.” The trite lyrics and forgettable melodies derive from the show tunes of Sondheim or Kander and Ebb, but without their wit, edge, or skill in advancing character and story. Generic in tone, the songs could be lifted from any similar show, rather than springing from a specific Japanese American impulse – such as the anger and suppressed rage that we know the Nisei carried with them from camp, and which some finally expressed during redress. The only Nisei anger in this show, in fact, is reserved for last, for the family breakup over the killing of the white girlfriend.

The desire to have the camp story told is so strong, countless people are willing to overlook fabrications of history and a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters. I am not. The impact and message of Allegiance is at heart a plea for white acceptance, a posture so familiar to Japanese Americans, so ingrained in our DNA by a history of incarceration and a 70-year narrative of allegiance-pledging, we often fail to recognize it.

Next: What the critics are really saying about Allegiance.

2 thoughts on “Now appearing nightly: Mike Masaoka!”

  1. For what it’s worth: I saw the show yesterday and did not come away with the feeling that Mike Masaoka (whom I had never heard of before) was primarily at fault for very much. His character seemed a rational person under a lot of pressure, trying to do the right thing but not very savvy politically, and as a result making bad choices with awful consequences.

  2. Frank

    Your last paragraph is powerful!

    Allegiance is dubbed as fictional, but unfortunately sensationalism is needed in order to slap Americans in the face. It sells, but more importantly, it educates.

    Most people have very little knowledge of the WWII incarceration of Japanese-Americans. Allegiance will help with that. As long as you are there Frank to make historical corrections, I am okay with their message.

    Gene Uzawa Dorio, M.D.
    Santa Clarita, CA

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