All posts by Frank Abe

Producer/director of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, now available as a Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD with two hours of new bonus features on the largest organized resistance to the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans.

YouTube preview of forthcoming graphic novel, “We Hereby Refuse”

“Three voices …  Three acts of defiance …  One mass injustice.” That’s one of the taglines for our forthcoming graphic novel which presents an original vision of America’s past with disturbing links to the American present. We had a fast-moving conversation about it on Black Friday, with a special look inside the 3-D modeling by  one of our two artists, Ross Ishikawa, to recreate key scenes based on  historical reality.

Here’s the one-hour JAMP YouTube channel event moderated by Erin Aoyama,  to get you ready for publication on February 9, 2021.

Our thanks to Kimiko Marr and Erin Aoyama of Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages for bringing us to their online audience.

Here’s more from a draft synopsis of the book to be published by Chin Music Press of Seattle:

Japanese Americans complied when expelled from their homes in World War II and forcibly incarcerated in American concentration camps – but when it came to their ongoing incarceration, many among them refused to submit without a fight. For the first time, three of their stories are tied together within an epic narrative of the entire camp experience:

  • We hear the voice of Jim Akutsu, the inspiration for John Okada’s No-No Boy, who refused to be drafted from camp after the draft board classified him as a non-citizen, an enemy alien;
  • We take the closest and most comprehensive look ever at Tule Lake, the segregation camp for those who refused a government loyalty questionnaire, and through the eyes of Hiroshi Kashiwagi we trace the events which led to disturbance, denationalization, repatriation, expatriation, and (for many) the mistaken renunciation of American citizenship;
  • And for the first time, we hear the personal voice of Mitsuye Endo, a California state employee made a reluctant but willing plaintiff to a lawsuit which led to a decisive victory at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Through their eyes, we see the devastating impacts of mass incarceration based solely on race, and expose the depth and breadth of the long-suppressed story of camp resistance.

We Hereby Refuse is accompanied by an online Educators Guide for secondary schools. It was commissioned by the Wing Luke Asian Museum of Seattle through a grant from the National Park Service.

Looking forward to sharing the finished work with you on February 9th. #WeHerebyRefuse


“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.

Interview with producers of new Densho podcast series

podcast logoIn two forthcoming books, I try to capture the epic arc of the camp experience — whether through the voices of characters in our graphic novel on camp resistance, or in the selections we choose for a new anthology of camp literature. Producers Hana and Noah Maruyama take much the same approach with their new Densho podcast series, which expertly weaves scores of sound bites into an aural tapestry to create the effect of a single voice conveying the shared experience of camp.

Campu is a remarkable feat of knowledge and editing. Listen to the first 48-minute episode, centered around “Rocks” as an object-based theme.

Continue reading Interview with producers of new Densho podcast series

First public panel for forthcoming graphic novel

Our graphic novel on Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration,  WE HEREBY REFUSE, is not due for publication until February — but when doing a project like this, you can’t pass up the opportunity when asked to be part of a panel titled, “Japanese American Voices in Graphic Novels.”

UPDATE October 27: Here is the YouTube program, cued to start with our 5-minute debut of the artwork and story, followed by the panel moderated by librarian Jessica Buck and featuring Mari Nomi, Sarah Kuhn, Kiku Hughes, and Yuko Ota. [The screen is blank but the video does play.]

Continue reading First public panel for forthcoming graphic novel

The “Frank Abe Collection” expanded at Densho

With the 32nd anniversary this week of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act, this is a good time to belatedly acknowledge one year’s worth of work by the good people at  Densho to scan and archive seven bankers’ boxes full of archival Day of Remembrance and redress materials from the decade that spanned 1978 to 1988, along with the raw materials that went into production of  Conscience and the Constitution from 1992 to 2000.
Continue reading The “Frank Abe Collection” expanded at Densho

Voices of early redress activists captured in 1980 audio archive

symposium posterIf the fuse for public support of redress was lit with the first Days of Remembrance in Seattle and Portland in 1978 and ’79, the question was how to keep the momentum going into 1980. Our local congressman, Mike Lowry, had quickly introduced the first bill calling for direct and individual compensation for the government’s violation of Constitutional protections, but National JACL was going its own direction. Without a national organization of our own, we needed a vehicle to advance the discussion and keep the community engaged. 

Continue reading Voices of early redress activists captured in 1980 audio archive

Sharing “NO-NO BOY” with teachers in six cities

The story of No-No Boy and John Okada is being shared this summer with middle and secondary teachers of history and the humanities in six cities across the nation, as part of a series of place-based online workshops sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society of San Francisco and the National Park Service. Continue reading Sharing “NO-NO BOY” with teachers in six cities

Okada book club & “Conscience” director’s commentary set for virtual camp pilgrimage

Tadaima imageAn ambitious nine-week online event kicks off today,  a virtual camp pilgrimage designed to make up for all the summer site visits cancelled by the pandemic. Among the plethora of programs are two that we’ve agreed to host.

In Week 3, on Saturday, July 4 at 2:00 pm PDT, join me and moderator Erin Aoyama for a live group viewing of Conscience and the Constitution with a twist: while the film is streaming, I will offer the kind of director’s commentary on the making of the film that we were never able to include on the DVD. Tune in for behind-the-DVD coverscenes stories about the Heart Mountain draft resisters, and leave questions in the chatroom for discussion afterwards. Erin brings her own experience of working on building a forthcoming database with the biographies and archival files of all 63 defendants in the largest mass trial in Wyoming history [UPDATE: Here’s the YouTube video of the Director’s Commentary].

No-No Boy cover illustrationIn Week 4, on Friday, July 10 at 5:00 pm PDT, we will have a live book club presentation and discussion of the novel No-No Boy and the story of the author behind it.  If you missed our book release events last year for our biography of John Okada, we’ll reprise that presentation while mixing in a fuller discussion of the themes of the novel. Vince Schleitwiler will moderate.  [UPDATE: Here’s the  YouTube video of the Book Club].

Continue reading Okada book club & “Conscience” director’s commentary set for virtual camp pilgrimage

John Okada’s MIS service shared in new PBS film

The story of John Okada’s wartime work in the U.S. Military Intelligence Service is now airing nationwide in a new film on PBS.

Frank Abe in office
photo: Steve Ozone

The filmmakers of The Registry, Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone, flew out from Detroit seven years ago to speak with me about the author of No-No Boy. In particular we focused on the two years Okada spent training at the MIS Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota, and then flying in the belly of a B-24 out of Guam to intercept and translate Japanese air-to-ground radio transmissions. If my words seem to falter it was because this interview was conducted in 2013, well before I had begun the final round of research and writing on the featured biography in our recent volume, John Okada.
Continue reading John Okada’s MIS service shared in new PBS film