At the state capitol in Olympia and others across the nation, the president’s brownshirts grieve lockdowns as egregious violations of their individual liberties, and equate them to Japanese American wartime incarceration, Jim Crow laws, and even slavery. “No,” said Nina Wallace of Densho in Seattle, “We can’t believe this actually needs to be said, but no, quarantine is not the same thing as incarceration.” And she said the obvious out loud: “Your living room is not a concentration camp, and exposing service providers to hazardous working conditions so you can get a haircut is not an inalienable right.”
Documenting the history of Japanese American incarceration, and the resistance to incarceration, was always important, but it remained just that — history, something good to know about, to make sure that mass exclusion on the basis of race “never happens again in America.” But when rangers in the National Park Service have to go undergound, and Smokey the Bear is raising a fist in flames, you know something has gone terribly wrong.
We have just passed the tipping point and now live with an authoritarian American government. #Resistance is a trending hashtag. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich posts a daily “Resistance Report” on YouTube. Former sportscaster Keith Olberman rebrands his show on GQ as “The Resistance.” Reuters is instructing its reporters how to cover the new Administration as if it were a banana republic. And the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is getting renewed attention.
Thanks to host Bill Radke and producer Shane Mehling for having me on Seattle’s NPR affiliate today, on KUOW’s “The Record,” to connect the Japanese American resistance to the current actions in the streets. Here’s a link to the full 11-minute conversation, which has been well-received. As I said to Bill, I feel both validated that the Fair Play Committee is getting recognized, and appalled that we are now talking about a very real threat to Muslim Americans and Mexican Americans for the purpose of fulfilling a campaign promise to a resurgent white nationalism. Continue reading What #Resistance Means Now→
None of the 24,000 Japanese Americans sent to live in the shallow volcanic lakebed of Tule Lake for the duration of World War II wanted to be there, but their presence makes this a National Historic Landmark.
In hindsight, an airstrip operating on a site of this historic significance is not an appropriate or compatible use, but before anyone could know that, the government after the war granted homestead rights to farmers, and in 1951 granted two-thirds of the main detention and barracks site to the city of Tulelake for an airstrip, which today hosts just one business, a crop-dusting service. It’s not easy to see without an aerial view, but the airstrip runs left to right in the photo below.
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.
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!”
SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.
The implied pact the musical Allegiance makes with its audience is that you will see an honest retelling of the Japanese American incarceration, and come away feeling comfortably uplifted. The show does entertain, through derivative songs and animated production. It achieves its effect, however, by sacrificing truth for theatricality, revising history, and offering a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters.
As producer/director of the 2000 PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution – which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and suppression of that resistance by the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka – I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.
After seeing the first public preview October 6 at New York’s Longacre Theater, it is apparent the makers of Allegiance found the fact of civilian administration of America’s concentration camps so ordinary and banal – which it was – that they needed to heighten the obstacles to their themes of love and hope by conflating Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake, near the California-Oregon border. They invent military rule at Heart Mountain.
Allegiance is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience of its star George Takei,” who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But the only events validated by his personal experience are those of every camp story – fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, dust and dances in camp, yes-yes/no-no, and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimura’s, is evicted from home and reaches the War Relocation Authority center in Wyoming, the makers of Allegiance selectively and progressively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp.
In Act I for example, upon their arrival at faux Heart Mountain, a campwide PA system broadcasts directives to evacuees, while Military Police order “women to the right, men to the left.” Hannah, a white nurse, asks the women to “please remove your clothes down to your underwear” for medical exams. When an Issei woman protests, a young man explodes, “It’s not right!” and is forcibly shoved to the ground by an MP. The PA announces a curfew at sundown. When the Kimura patriarch later angrily answers no-no on his loyalty questionnaire, MP’s march to his barrack to clap him into handcuffs and haul him away: “No touching,” they bark to his family.
Camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing. But this heavy-handed treatment inflames emotion at the expense of fact:
Henry Miyatake did not appear in our film, but we could not have told the story of the Heart Mountain resisters without first establishing a common foundation of understanding about the underlying facts of the incarceration. And we could never have those facts acknowledged without Henry’s vision of winning an apology and compensation for constitutional violations from the U.S. government.
It’s no exaggeration to call Henry the father of Japanese American redress. In the 70s he railed against Mike Masaoka’s “Japanese American Creed” when its words were used against him by a Boeing Company manager to levy a 25 percent pay cut. He researched and wrote the “American Promise,” apologizing for and rescinding FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which was signed by President Ford in 1976. Henry oversaw production of the very first Day of Remembrance in the nation. And he conceived the innovative “Seattle Plan” for redress and reparations, the essence of which was signed a decade later by President Reagan.
Henry passed away quietly in Federal Way, WA, on September 16. But the Seattle community would not let him go without some closure, as Bob Shimabukuro expressed so well in the International Examiner, “Remembering Henry Miyatake: A man with the plan.” So we held a community memorial service for Henry on Saturday, Dec. 6, at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall in Seattle. I said a few words, which were preceded by clips from Henry’s video interview for the Densho Project, which you can watch with a free registration.
“Day of Remembrance and Henry’s Impact on Redress” Saturday, December 6, 2014
We just saw the great value of The Densho Project. Thanks to Densho we will always have Henry’s image and words to remember him by. And seeing him again, I am reminded how that man could talk. Once you got him started, look out. Like Tom said, he had to interview Henry six different times to get his whole life story.
That was part of Henry’s charm. He could talk, and this was a time when we needed people who could talk. But he was also about action.
You have to remember that in the late 70s, the very subject of the camps was open to argument in the newspaper and radio. For every one of us who just mentioned incarceration, there was a war veteran quick to remind people that we attacked Pearl Harbor, or we were put in camp for our protection.
But Henry had a vision. He created a set of flip charts, as you saw in that photo. If we’d had PowerPoint back then, Henry would have made a PowerPoint presentation. But this was the 70s, all he had was paper, and he was a brilliant engineer, so he created flip charts. And he shopped his flip charts all over town. He’d talk to any group that would listen.
I was a young kid fresh from California, and Henry was unlike any Nisei I had ever met. He was unafraid. He thought nothing of going to a Congressman like Brock Adams to get his support, or of working his connections with Governor Dan Evans, or with State Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith, who we are honored to have with us today.
I met Henry through Frank Chin. Frank was writing a piece for the Seattle Weekly about Henry’s flipchart plan. Frank thought the move for redress was bold, and he wanted to help publicize it.
Now Frank was big on ideas. He said let’s call it a Day of Remembrance. His first idea was for us to recreate the eviction and form a car caravan down to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, to go down on Thanksgiving Day, and once we got there, we’d get out and all chain ourselves to the fence. He thought that would be great television.
Henry screamed that Frank was nuts. No one’s gonna go out on Thanksgiving. It had to be a family event, he said, and people want to be with their families on Thanksgiving. So between the two of them we arrived at the program you see on the poster, framed as a formal invitation for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And not a protest, but a family potluck.
We nailed those posters to telephone poles, just like in 1942. Just using the words “Remember the camps / Stand for redress with your family” was touchy with a lot of people. We took the poster to Imperial Lanes, and the manager refused to let us put it up. “I have a lot of white customers here. I don’t want any trouble.”
The signs invited people to assemble in a vacant lot next to the old Seattle Pilots baseball park, where Lowe’s is now. And on the morning of Nov. 25, we were stunned when we arrived at Sick’s Stadium and found a thousand people waiting in line with cars. People were ready for this to happen.
Ben Nakagawa arranged for the use of some National Guard trucks and buses. The driver didn’t know how to get to the Puyallup Fairground, so Henry had to sit in the first vehicle as a guide. And Diana, you may not remember this but you wanted to ride up front with him. But Henry saw another friend of mine from San Francisco,. Benjamin Tong, sitting in the cargo bed of a big 6-wheel-drive Army truck. And Henry says, “How come you’re riding in this truck?” And Ben says, “I want to know how it felt to be taken to camp in a truck, I want to go through the same experience that you guys did.”
So Henry says, “Well, Diana, you ride with Dr. Tong so you can experience what we went through.” And that’s what Diana did, riding in the back of Army truck in the cold November wind, at the head of a 2-and-a-half mile-long car caravan snaking down southbound I-5. And like he said in the video, inside the cars, parents opened up to their kids for the first time. Yasuko Takezawa calls it, “the event that burst open the tomb of Japanese American history.
And every newspaper and TV station was there to see the largest gathering of Japanese Americans in one place in Seattle since, well, since World War 2. We showed we could get the media on our side. And what people had feared most, never happened. There was no white backlash. No angry mob. No “rekindling of old resentments and racism.”
Day of Remembrance made it safe for people across the country to step out of the shadow. We sparked the popular movement for redress and reparations that led ten years later to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act for an apology and individual compensation. Today Days of Remembrance are an invented tradition, observed wherever Japanese Americans live.
But taking credit, being in the limelight, was never for Henry.
For one of our newsletters Karen Seriguchi interviewed Henry and asked him, “Do you see yourself as a leader?” “No, I do not,” said Henry. “I ‘m one of the ditch-diggers. Hopefully, all the others will be digging the same way.”
Henry was not there when President Ford signed his American Promise. He was not in the photo when President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. But neither of those turning points that fundamentally changed our history would have been imaginable without the dogged persistence, the selfless commitment, and the unassuming courage of Henry Miyatake.
And that’s why we’re all here today, to remember Henry and to let his family know that as long as our voices are heard, we will never let Henry’s life and achievements be forgotten. Henry taught us to look our history in the eye, with the passion of a professor and the inescapable logic of an engineer.
Henry was a great ditch-digger. He was the conscience of our community. He was my hero, my mentor, and my friend, and I, like you, will deeply miss him.
Update: December 23, 2014
See more stories about Henry in this new obit that was requested by the Nichi Bei Weekly out of San Francisco,