Setsuko's Secret cover

“Setsuko’s Secret” and Paul Tsuneishi’s fight for our film

Setsuko's Secret coverThe story of camp resistance is now recognized as part of our wartime experience, but a new book reminds us that it’s only been 20 years from a time when the subject was taboo.

Here’s how I describe Shirley Higuchi’s new book, Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration, when given the chance to read an early version of it last year.

“A rich and original story. Shirley Higuchi captures the sweeping narrative of incarceration through the lens of a single camp and ties it to our present reality. Her resolve as a daughter of the camps is Setsuko’s real legacy.”  — Frank Abe, director of Conscience and the Constitution

What’s remarkable about Setsuko’s Secret is how easily it moves between family memoir, geographic pre-history, government action, the shared experience of an incarcerated people, and the postwar reclamation of history. In a way the title is misleading, as the focus is not on Setsuko but on her daughter, Shirley, whose journey through this history led her to leadership of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and to a confrontation with personal tragedy which led to her coining of the term, the Sansei Effect. It’s an epic story told through the eyes of a number of characters who each bring their own perspective to a story spanning more than a century, including a full chapter on “Resistance” with a generous section on the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. 

As a child of the camps and a frequent contributor of incisive op-ed’s to major metropolitan newspapers, Shirley also directly addresses the racism and white nationalism promoted by an Administration supported by most of those who live around the Heart Mountain site and Interpretive Center. 

What I must have skipped over in my first reading last year was a story involving a former Foundation board member, Paul Tsuneishi, and his championing of Conscience and the Constitution while it was still in post-production.  I was alerted to it in this tweet:

The finished book recently arrived and lo and behold there was a story I had long forgotten, of a skirmish more than 20 years ago over a preview of the film for the Foundation board. In her book, Shirley Higuchi reveals the inside story:

The filmmaker Frank Abe from Seattle began working on a documentary called Conscience and the Constitution, while the University of North Carolina law school professor Eric Muller was researching and writing a history that would be called Free to Die for Their Country. Tsuneishi had shared oral history interviews of some of the surviving resisters with Muller, Abe and other scholars. By 1999, as the Heart Mountain Foundation began promoting itself more around Wyoming and inside the Japanese American community, Tsuneishi chafed at what he considered the patronizing attitude of Reetz, Wolfe and Collins toward him and other supporters of the resisters.

In January 1999, Ann Noble, a board member and historian, proposed showing at the upcoming board meeting parts of two documentaries in progress – Abe’s Conscience and the Constitution and Honor Bound by Wendy Hanamura, a film about her father, Sergeant Howard Hanamura, and his experience in the 442nd. Abe had specialized in work about civil rights and the inherent unfairness of the incarceration. He was not in the shikata ga nai camp. Tsuneishi hoped the preview would help Abe’s work in progress.

After some encouraging signs from the board leadership, Reetz, the foundation president, declined to show the excerpts, because he did not want to create the perception that the board support a film that could turn out to be controversial, particularly given the foundation’s need to raise money. While the resisters had stirred the interest of the Sansei and academics, the real clout and money inside the community remained with the veterans and their supporters. Angering them meant losing money needed to build an enduring memorial at the campsite.

Tsuneishi urged Reetz and the board to reconsider, but they declined,. Tsueneishi didn’t give up. “I really regret that you disagreed so strongly with my philosophy that you hung up the phone on me,” Reetz wrote Tsuneishi on February 17, 1999. Tsuneishi, livid, suspected political motives lurked behind the board’s decision. “I do not accept the stated reason that I was given: that a board policy is (now) in place wherein a decision cannot be made on a work in progress, as it might be biased or might embarrass Norman Mineta. … I also understand that there was concern over some negative comments made by one or more Japanese Americans here in L.A.”

Finally, Tsuneishi resigned from the board.

The next month, the board wrote Abe that it was sorry it could not show his film and that Tsuneishi had resigned. “While we believe that ultimately the right decision was made for the right reasons, we regret the process that got us there,” the letter said. “Our hasty action resulted in hurt feelings that we can only hope time will heal. We have learned a hard lesson.”

I recall receiving that letter from the HMWF board but not being much concerned about it at the time. I understood their reasoning and was untroubled by it,  as I was busy with post-production to prepare the film for broadcast. But Paul was always our biggest booster and I was sorry that this incident in 1999 was such a disappointment for him.  My thanks go to Paul’s memory and to Ann Noble for sticking up for the resisters, and to Setsuko’s daughter for documenting this slice of resistance history, signaling the HMWF’s change of direction since then to a more inclusive and community-centered organization. 

In this outtake from Paul’s interview featured in our DVD extras, he recalls first meeting the draft resisters and his growing awareness of their status as outsiders.

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