Category Archives: “Conscience and the Constitution”

“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.

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

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

“Okada” and “Conscience” at the 2019 AAAS conference

AAAS Okada panelAt the Association for Asian American Studies conference in Madison, Wisconsin, our new volume on John Okada was given an academic analysis in a panel titled “John Okada’s Unknown Works: Reassessing the (Un)governability of Japanese Americans in Mid-century America.”

We missed Vince Schleitwiler’s presence  on the panel, but moderator Floyd Cheung of Smith College did a great job presenting Vince’s paper on Okada’s satirical essays, “A Larger Capacity for Normalcy: Apparitions of the Non-Alien in Midcentury Empire” (download a PDF, also revised and published online as “The Bright Future  and Long Shadow of John Okada’s No-No Boy).

John Streamas of Washington State University impressed with his own paper, “Street Lit: John Okada Ventures into the Proletarian” (download a PDF), a close reading of the Okada short story, “What Can I Do?”

And in the notes for his own presentation, “I Must Be Strong’: Awareness and Resistance in John Okada’s December 7th Poem” (download a PDF) Floyd Cheung investigates Okada’s prescience about dominant American racism and the need to self-govern Japanese American identity.

AAAS book signingAt the New Books Reception it was great to get the gang back together with the physical book available to share. Thanks to our editors at the University of Washington Press, Larin McLaughlin and Mike Baccam, for helping bring our book to life.

AAAS film panelThanks to Greg Robinson for organizing a panel revisiting the legacy of Conscience and the Constitution and Rabbit in the Moon on their 20th anniversary. Great to see Emiko and Chizu Omori again and to meet discussants Elena Creef, Chris Suh, Robert Hayashi, and Jonathan van Harmelen.

AAAS Izumi presentationFinally, Professor Masumi Izumi of Doshisa University in Kyoto presented her translation of the Tule Lake Stockade Diary of Tatsuo Inouye. It’s a rare insight into the thoughts of the Issei and Kibei Nisei held in the prison within a prison camp for standing up for better living conditions for their families and community. It was a crucial guide in assuring the accuracy of our forthcoming graphic novel on camp resistance, and will likely have a place in our anthology of camp literature, which is also forthcoming. #AAAS2019

John Okada featured in new MIS film, “The Registry”

It was a quintessentially Okada-esque rainy day in 2015 when Midwest filmmakers Bill Kubota and Steve Ozone came to Seattle to talk with me about John Okada.

I’d known Bill from our mutual support on his film on Ben Kuroki, Most Honorable Son, and my film, Conscience and the Constitution, which featured Kuroki. He and Steve were doing a new film on the Military Intelligence Service, and they wanted to know more about Okada’s service in Guam with “The Flying Eight-Ball.”  We talked in my basement office, then ventured out in the rain to see the clock tower at King Street Station where the novel opens.

You can see what a nice job they did in this clip from The Registry.

Continue reading John Okada featured in new MIS film, “The Registry”

Events coming up for the first half of 2019

Thanks to all who came to hear us speak in 2018. The schedule for the first half of 2019 is shaping up as an even busier one, with events for JOHN OKADA, CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, and a look back at the first Day of Remembrance.  For updates on this calendar, please always check the Upcoming Events page on the main menu. Continue reading Events coming up for the first half of 2019