Category Archives: JACL

Revisiting “Farewell to Manzanar” and the revolt against the JACL

The screening and discussion of Farewell to Manzanar this Friday night at the Japanese American National Museum annual conference in Seattle provides an opportunity to share these newly-rediscovered photographs taken by photographer Nancy Wong.

rioters in truck
Mako, Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, and extras recruited from the Bay Area Asian community prepare to recreate the Manzanar Riot for the 1976 NBC/Universal film, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR. Photo by Nancy Wong.

Nancy shot these on location on the grounds of the former Santa Rita state prison in the summer of 1975 while we were assembled to recreate the Manzanar Riot of December 6, 1942. Mako played “Sam Fukimoto,” the character based on Harry Ueno, the fiery leader of the Kitchen Workers Union whose arrest for the beating of Los Angeles JACL leader Fred Tayama, played in the film by myself as “Frank Nishi,” sparked the Manzanar Riot.

The AIIIEEEEE boys with one actor
Three of the editors of the groundbreaking literary anthology AIIIEEEEE! with the brother of the fourth, posing on location for FAREWELL TO MANZANAR: (from left) Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, and Michael Paul Chan, who went on to perform in the cast of The Closer. Photo by Nancy Wong.

In my youthful enthusiasm I did not know that first-time film actors should not try rewriting their own lines, but that’s what I did the night before we shot the big mess hall confrontation with Mako/Sam Fukimoto/Harry Ueno — much to the dismay of scene partner Seth Sakai, whom I’d failed to notify and who cursed me after our scene and hurled his gloves in my direction, to the applause of the hundreds of extras in the scene. I have to thank director John Korty for allowing me to make the change. Among the extras were writers Toshio Mori and Shawn Wong.

But I felt compelled to make the scene more specific reading this seminal essay by Art Hansen and David Hacker that reconstructs the actual events in “The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective” [4MB], which had recently appeared in the fall 1974 issue of Amerasia Journal.

The piece reveals that one of the fundamental causes of the Manzanar Riot was not, as simplified in the film by Korty, simply a grumbling over sugar stolen from the mess hall. It was more, as mentioned in Conscience and told more fully in Jeanne Houston’s book,  a revolt against the power conferred by the government and the camp administration to the Japanese American Citizens League. As documented in Art and David’s essay, Fred Tayama and internee security chief Kiyoshi Higashi had returned the day before from an emergency meeting of the JACL in Salt Lake City attended by two delegates from each of the ten camps. In that meeting National JACL, enacting its own policies without any ratification or popular vote of the people, resolved to urge the U.S. government to reinstate Selective Service for the Nisei as a means of asserting their U.S. citizenship and proving their loyalty. As Hansen and Hacker wrote: “For the internees — Issei, Kibei, and Nisei — the time had come when something had to be done to prevent the corrosive effects of the JACLers … The events of December 6 were but a logical culmination of developments originating with the administration’s decision to bypass the community’s natural Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL hierarchy and to embark on a program of Americanization at the expense of Japanese ethnicity.”

Watch that scene in the film in this light. The revolt against the JACL prefigured the resistance at Heart Mountain and other camps that occurred a year later, when the JACL plea for a Nisei draft was finally granted.

In a somewhat related aside, Frank Chin now claims that Bay Area radical activist and early Black Panther Richard Aoki — recently named as an FBI informant, a charge that’s also been disputed — was there with us on location. I never knew Aoki, but in an email Frank writes, “Remember the first day at Santa Rita? There was a fattish fella in a mustache and tee shirt passing out lemonade. That was Richard Aoki.” He later speculates, “Why was Richard Aoki at the Santa Rita FAREWELL TO MANZANAR shoot? … Aoki might have been getting acquainted with Yellow actors in the parts of camp activists and victims.” Or, maybe he was just there to ladle out refreshments. We may never know.

“Allegiance” developmental lab concludes

Best wishes to actor George Takei and the cast, creatives, and crew of the musical Allegiance, on the private performance today near Times Square to present the results of their three-week developmental lab to industry reps and investors. A successful production, they hope next year, holds the promise of drawing thousands of new eyes to the story of the draft resistance at Heart Mountain and the clash of ideas between cooperation and resistance.

New 42nd Street StudiosFor Japanese Americans the thing to watch will be the “book,” or the script of the show that connects the songs. Rewrites are reported through Twitter to be part of the lab. The final book will be scrutinized by those whose history would be appropriated for the stage: the Heart Mountain resisters, the Nisei war veterans, and the Japanese American Citizens League as embodied in the show by the real-life Mike Masaoka. They are among those who look for rewrites to cure some of the fundamental script issues that have been identified here and elsewhere. But for now, break a leg.

Cinema Asian America interview – ‘Conscience and the Constitution:’ Talking with Frank Abe

In support of our film being featured on Comcast XFINITY video-on-demand this month, Cinema Asian America curator Chi-hui Yang conducted this online interview for their TV Blog. I told him his questions were among the most thoughtful I’d ever been posed.  See what you think:

Interview: ‘Conscience and the Constitution’: Talking with Frank Abe

by Chi-hui Yang | May 2, 2013 at 2:44 AM

Cinema Asian America May lineupThe history of Japanese American internment is a complex one and reveals many deep contradiction and divisions both within America, and more specifically, the Japanese American community. You chose to focus on the latter in “Conscience and the Constitution” noting that in 1944, the draft resisters at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming “served two years in prison, and for the next fifty were written out of the popular history of Japanese America.” What were the stakes for you as a journalist, and a Japanese American when you decided to dig deep into this contested history?

FA: I never bought into the idea that Japanese America’s only response to this massive violation of constitutional rights was passive resignation – shikatagai, Japanese for “it can’t be helped” – or patriotic self-sacrifice as embodied by the Nisei soldiers and go for broke! But as a baby boomer born after the camps, if you asked, “gee, why didn’t you guys contest this?” you’d get a pat on the head and told that “you weren’t there, times were different, you can’t judge us with your Berkeley civil-rights activism of the Sixties.”

So when I first learned of the organized resistance at Heart Mountain, which incidentally was my father’s camp, I felt like I’d found a missing link. And the more we scripted out the story, the more we could see that it would shift the paradigm of Japanese American history and show that besides cooperation and collaboration, there was protest and resistance.

Here was a classic example of civil disobedience in the American 20th century, but it threatened the party line and the popular narrative of victimization. That made it critical to me as a journalist that we get the story right and tell it fairly, to document an unassailable case, and to get it into the marketplace with the legitimacy conferred by a presenter like PBS. It must have worked because none of the dismissive “old guard” really pushed back – well, maybe one, and he can be seen near the end of the film.

Most meaningful to me was that the film provided the historical context and framework through which the children of the resisters could finally understand what their fathers and mothers did. Many of these people my age had gone through life feeling vaguely uneasy about their fathers’ time in a federal penitentiary. When they saw that there was no community backlash to the film, and instead a large audience for the recovery of this untold story, they could see that their fathers were in fact principled people who acted in the best American tradition.

You’ve said that this film in many ways, would have been very difficult to make before the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the US government gave reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII. Why?

FA: Because without an accepted foundation of verified fact, anything we put out there would have been too easily dismissed as opinion or hearsay. I was jolted into action to help kick-start the redress campaign when writer Frank Chin literally came to my door and said, “If you lose Japanese American history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” At that time in 1978 every attempt to raise the issue of injustice in the newspaper or on the radio was greeted with letters to the editor and callers on the air who would snarl, “yeah, but don’t forget these guys bombed Pearl Harbor,” or “don’t forget they were put in camp for their own protection.” Whenever Frank Emi spoke in classrooms he had to bring armloads of books and court cases to first prove the case against the camps before he could begin to talk about the Fair Play Committee. Frank Chin showed us that by staging events like the first Days of Remembrance in Seattle and Portland, we could use the media to get across the simple message that the camps were wrong, and that paved the way for the first redress bills in Congress.

While pursuing redress over the next ten years, we had to show a united front with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and others. We couldn’t muddy the argument by bringing up the cooperation of JACL leaders in the eviction from the West Coast and administration of the camps, or the resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain and other camps. Once we held the government accountable for redress in 1988, we were freed to turn to holding our own leaders accountable, a movement that climaxed with the events seen at the end of Conscience.

And are there still lingering histories of the internment which have not been told which future generations of filmmakers should uncover?

FA: It’s harder now with each passing year, but there needs to be an authoritative study of the false distinctions between loyalty and disloyalty that were forced upon us by the wartime government and internalized by our own community – the no-no’s, the renunciants and the expatriates. Whether by intent or incompetence, these expressions of dissent were driven by administrators who effectively created disloyalty, anger and alienation through the implementation of loyalty oaths and segregation of families based upon their answers.

“Conscience and the Constitution” was made more than a decade ago and you’ve remained very active in screening it and making it available in classrooms. How can we connect up the history you examine in the film, with current conversations and politics in the US?

FA: The unjust eviction and incarceration of Japanese Americans based solely on their race is the single largest precedent that inhibits the power of the federal executive to profile populations on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. We saw that in play right after 9/11, when the knee-jerk hostility and calls for roundup of Arab Americans were tempered by the acknowledgment that America made this mistake after Pearl Harbor. As historian Eric Muller put it, our memory is a precious resource in the fight against racism and scapegoating, and it’s one to which we bear special witness.

On the cultural scene, the specific story we frame of the wartime JACL’s promotion of military service and its suppression of the Heart Mountain draft resistance has found unexpected life in actor George Takei’s legacy project, a musical called Allegiance. The show premiered last fall in San Diego with aspirations for a Broadway run, and while there are certain issues with the script, which is still in development, it has certainly kept this story in front of a national audience.

You’ve been deeply involved in Asian American culture and politics for more than three decades, as a journalist covering the community, as a founding member of the Asian American Theater Company, and as a filmmaker. What was the starting point for you and what excites you about Asian America today?

FA: Coming out of college my imagination was captured by the AIIIEEEEE! Boys: the band of young writers who first proclaimed there was such a thing as an Asian American sensibility and who proved it by recovering and republishing the works of John Okada, Louis Chu and others. It was an imaginative home I never knew I had, and the works of fiction, poetry, and theater that were created were rooted in our shared history and the excitement of rediscovering a buried past.

Today I can get annoyed by the fashionable notion in some places that we’ve moved past history, past the camps, that it’s all been said and done and we’ve moved on. Then I can get excited by the emergence of former editor Naomi Hirahara as a celebrated mystery writer who can slip in references to the Fair Play Committee; or more recently the Kaya Press translation of Lament in the Night, a gritty 1925 novella written in Japanese by an Issei who authentically captures the back alleys and bathhouses of LA’s Little Tokyo before the war in a way we’ve never seen before.

What are you working on now?

FA: We’re marketing a two-disc special edition DVD of Conscience with outtakes, extensions of the interviews and new featurettes, because there was so much great material we couldn’t fit into the hour-long film. It’s a useful resource for students to enable research of the primary interviews along with the rich database of documents we put online at PBS.org/Conscience . Next is an anthology of essays that examines the postwar resettlement of Japanese America and the world into which the resisters were thrust after serving their two years in prison. That’s another lingering history that’s not been well examined, and we’ll investigate it through the lens of writer John Okada and his foundational novel, “No-No Boy.”

Watch our film on Comcast video-on-demand through month of May

Comcast XFINITY logoWe’ve just learned that our film has been selected for national distribution through Comcast XFINITY’s video-on-demand service. Thanks to Chi-hui Yang, curator of the “Cinema Asian America” series, Comcast digital cable subscribers with On-Demand in select TV markets can watch Conscience and the Constitution for just $1.99 per view.

If you haven’t already seen Conscience, this is a limited opportunity, from today through May 31, to see it at home for a nominal fee. Please share the news with friends. Read more in the news release, with a list below of the TV markets where you can “demand” our film:

Conscience and the Constitution carried nationwide in May on Comcast video-on-demand

Award-winning documentary featured in “Cinema Asian America” series on Comcast XFINITY

To mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, XFINITY On Demand ‘s Cinema Asian America presents Frank Abe’s landmark documentary, Conscience and the Constitution.

Originally released in 2000, the film has become a vital part of the nation’s on-going conversation about race, citizenship and civil liberties – complex and fraught dynamics that have become even more urgent since September 11, 2001.

“With video-on-demand and Comcast’s national presence we can reach more viewers and give them a chance to learn more about the incarceration, at a nominal cost,” said Abe. “Thanks to series curator Chi-hui Yang for including our film among so many other outstanding offerings.”

From May 1 through May 31, Conscience and the Constitution is available to all Comcast digital cable subscribers with On-Demand for $1.99 per view.

Conscience and the Constitution examines the history of mass incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during WWII, the majority of them US citizens. The film focuses on a group of 85 internees, who refused to be drafted to fight for the US military – an act of protest that resulted, not only in the largest trial for draft resistance in U.S. history, but also in ideological rifts within the Japanese American community that persist even today.

At a time when community leaders advocated for Japanese Americans to sign up for the armed forces to prove their loyalty to the U.S., the resisters refused to do so, knowing that they and their families had been stripped of their civil rights and incarcerated, solely on the basis of their race. The film examines the deep schisms that opened in the Japanese American community during the incarceration and which persist today.

That story also informs the plot of the new musical, Allegiance, which premiered last fall in San Diego and is currently back in development in a workshop lab in New York. “This cablecast of Conscience is timely, as audiences who’ve seen or heard about the musical can now check out the source material for themselves,” said Abe.

“Cinema Asian America” is the groundbreaking video-on-demand offering on Comcast featuring Asian American and Asian films and videos in a monthly, thematically-programmed format. The curated series brings together award-winning films fresh from the film festival circuit and classics which beg to be revisited.

To find Conscience and the Constitution through the Comcast digital cable menu, viewers should click on the “On Demand” button, then look under the “Movies” folder and select the “Movie Collections” subfolder to find “Cinema Asian America.”

Conscience and the Constitution is also available as a Two-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD, which can be ordered online for home use for $29.95 plus shipping by visiting Resisters.com/orders. For institutional rates, schools and libraries should contact Transit Media at www.transitmedia.net or (800) 343-5540.

Learn more about the film at Resisters.com, and see sample clips from the film at YouTube.com/ConscienceDVD.

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Day of Remembrance 2013: “25 Years Since the Civil Liberties Act of 1988”

First Issei presented with government apology and redress check
RIGHTING A WRONG — On Oct. 9, 1990, Hisano Fujimoto, 101, of Lombard, Ill., receives her redress check from Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in Washington, D.C.  Photo by Takeshi Nakayama/Rafu Shimpo

On this Day of Remembrance 2013, everyone is marking the 25th anniversary of winning redress for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. And rightfully so:  it was a community-wide, decade-long campaign that united us around our common experience of mass exclusion and detention.

A big thanks to Takeshi Nakayama for talking to us and capturing the big picture on how redress went down in his “25 Years Since the Civil Liberties Act of 1988: A look back at the historic Japanese American Redress Movement. ” It’s part of a complete Day of Remembrance issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly edited by Kenji Taguma.

The redress legislation was key to the creation of Conscience and the Constitution.  To win redress it was strategically important to show a united front as a community. Once redress was secured, we could dig deeper into an examination of our community’s dual response to that mass injustice: collaboration or resistance. And the Civil Liberties Act included the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which provided the major grant that leveraged our project into one eligible for completion funding by the Independent Television Service and PBS.

We’ll be talking more about the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee and the creation of Days of Remembrance at a panel on July 5, when the Japanese American National Museum comes to Seattle for its 2013 national conference. For now, here’s our section of Takeshi’s feature story:

What’s Not to Hate?
In the Northwest, the Seattle JACL chapter’s Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee (SERC) wanted Congress to enact redress legislation without having to wait for a commission to study what was obvious to them.

Frank Abe, whose father was incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., while his Kibei Nisei mother spent the war years as a schoolgirl in Japan, said of the Nikkei incarceration, “The false imprisonment stole the life and vitality of the Issei. The loss of civil rights crushed the optimism and spirit of the Nisei. The business and property losses disinherited an entire generation of Sansei. What’s not to hate about it?”

The Seattle activists had “the ability to bring the issue out of our inner circles and out into the public arena,” he noted. “The SERC had the ideas created by Boeing engineers like Henry Miyatake, Chuck Kato, Ken Nakano, and the Issei stock analyst, Shosuke Sasaki. Frank Chin had the knowledge of how to work the news media.”

The SERC staged the first two Day of Remembrance events in 1978 and 1979, noted Abe, producer of “Conscience and the Constitution,” a documentary about the largest organized resistance to the Japanese American incarceration. “SERC provided the framework through which the Issei and Nisei could finally step out in public en masse, out of the closet so to speak, and simply speak to the anger they’d bottled up for 40 years … So we arrived at the idea of re-creating the eviction from Seattle.”

The first Days of Remembrance “were designed as a visual piece of public education for the news media; and something about the staging struck a nerve,” Abe commented. “We got sympathetic coverage. The story got picked up nationwide by the Associated Press and the Nikkei vernaculars.”

Miyatake and Kato said their congressmen, Mike Lowry and Brock Adams, owed Japanese Americans “a chance to make their case,” Abe related. “Mike Lowry was so moved by seeing the crowd assembled in the Sicks Stadium parking lot for the caravan to Puyallup that he, on the spot, vowed to introduce a redress bill in the House, and he did (on Nov. 28, 1979).”

The Lowry bill called for an official apology and individual payments of $15,000 plus $15 for each day served in camp, but it never advanced out of committee.

NCJAR Files Lawsuit
SERC members believed they could get an individual payments bill passed in 1979, Abe said. “But we didn’t have the kind of national organization and the lobbyist in D.C. like the JACL had. So we figured we’d just start our own national organization.”

After meeting with William Hohri, who came from Chicago, the group decided to create an organization with the single purpose of passing a direct redress bill, said Abe, who came up with the name, National Council for Japanese American Redress, with Hohri as national spokesperson.

NCJAR’s position was that the Japanese American community suffered great injury, and pursued a class-action lawsuit to seek remedies for the damages caused by the government’s violation of their constitutional rights.

Once the Lowry bill got co-opted by the Commission bill, Hohri advocated launching a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, funded by supporters contributing $1,000 each for the legal fund, Abe recalled. “I remember thinking he was nuts, but the lawsuit may have been what finally convinced some Congress members it would be cheaper to pass a redress bill with a $20,000 award, than risk an adverse court judgment for many times that amount.”

“Films of Remembrance” to feature DVD featurette

Floyd Mori at JACL apology ceremony
Floyd Mori at JACL apology ceremony

One of the featurettes on our new DVD, “The JACL Apologizes,” will screen in San Francisco Japantown on Monday, Feb. 18 as part of this year’s, “Films of Remembrance.”

It’s a one-day film series held in conjunction with the Bay Area Day of Remembrance, commemorating the 71st anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which set the wheels in motion to forcibly relocate some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry into American concentration camps during World War II.  Our piece caps off the day’s program, which ends with this description:

5:30 p.m. “A Divided Community: Three Personal Stories of Resistance” (2012, 73 min.) This documentary by Momo Yashima highlights the struggles of three Japanese American World War II resisters — Yosh Kuromiya, Frank Emi and Mits Koshiyama — who challenged the U.S. government’s decision to draft Japanese Americans while they and their families were being held in America’s concentration camps.

Followed by “The JACL Apologizes” by Frank Abe, from the DVD “Conscience and the Constitution.”

The screenings are at Nihonmachi Little Friends, 1830 Sutter St. (near Buchanan) in San Francisco Japantown. The event is sponsored by the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium, the Nichi Bei Weekly and the National Japanese American Historical Society.  Free admission, though they’d welcome donations. Thanks to Kenji Taguma for including our piece in the series.

The James Omura centenary: 1912-2012

James Omura - Broadway High School photo
James Omura at Broadway High School, Seattle

One hundred years ago today, November 27, 1912, Utaka Matsumoto was born to a sawmill worker and his wife on Bainbridge Island, Washington. At age 6 his mother returned ill to Japan and he never saw her again. At age 13 he would take the name James Omura and leave home to work in the Alaskan salmon canneries. In this centenary year we recognize Omura as the Japanese American journalist most willing to take a stand — demanding of the Tolan Committee “Has the Gestapo come to America?,” editorializing against the draft resistance at Heart Mountain in “Let Us Not Be Rash,” and testifying decades later to the Bernstein Commission for redress.

Jimmie would always tell me that he didn’t expect to be remembered or recognized for his accomplishments until 50 years after his death. Then he would go on to complain about the lack of guts among the third-generation Sansei journalists, including, one had to assume, myself. But he seemed genuinely pleased to be awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the then-fledgling Asian American Journalists Association, and we were fortunate to have recovered and told his story in our PBS film Conscience and the Constitution.

In this centenary year we may get word of publication of Jimmie’s memoirs, a work left incomplete by his passing in 1994 and painstakingly edited ever since by Professor Art Hansen under the working title, Nisei Naysayer: The Memoir of Militant Japanese American Journalist Jimmie Omura.

We were saddened to recently hear from Art of the passing of Jimmie’s second wife, Haruko Karen Omura, on September 4th at the age of 85, but we have been in touch with the two sons of Karen and Jimmie. The younger son Wayne is a writer, author of the book Movies and The Meaning of Life: The Most Profound Films in Cinematic History, available on Amazon. We asked Wayne for his reflections on this date:

On the Hundredth Anniversary of My Father’s Birth

Many fathers tell stories about their lives, and it is hard to know how much is true and how much is tall-tales.  It was only after my father retired that he became involved, once again, in politics, history, and journalism.  It was then that I began to suspect that those “tall-tales” might be true.

After his death, after seeing all that was written about him, all the many books in which his name appeared, I realized that those tall-tales were really “true-tales.”  I should have listened better and taken more interest as I was growing up.  But like all kids, we had our own lives to live, our own problems in the here and now. The past was history.  The words went in one ear and out the other.

A personal anecdote may be in order which displays my Dad’s character, as well as the most important principle he taught me.

While working after college as night-manager in a small grocery store, I had numerous physical confrontations with shoplifters.  My Mom (being a mother) thought it was reckless and stupid.  “Why risk your life and physical injury for a candy bar?” On a practical level she was right, but on an ethical level she was wrong.  My Dad’s response was an unusual outburst of anger. (He had mellowed a lot in his later years.)

“He should do what he thinks is right!” he shouted.

Whether an action is dangerous, unpopular, destroys your career and reputation, makes you an outcast in your own community and to your own people: You should always do what you think is right!  (Not just when the world is at peace and you are relatively safe.)

Wayne Omura
written on Thanksgiving Day 2012

If you knew Jimmie, or just share our admiration of him, consider this an open thread and please leave a comment below.

For this occasion here is a part of the extended interview with James Omura in which he describes his trial for conspiracy, as featured on Disc Two of our new DVD. Happy birthday, Jimmie. Your fighting spirit is deeply missed.

A Heart Mountain resister reacts to “Allegiance”

The following was written at the request of the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, and appears in today’s Oct. 24 edition:

Kirk and Spock in 1920s guise
“A Piece of the Action?” – parallel universe only looks like the real thing
© 1968 Paramount Pictures

There is an episode of Star Trek in which aliens build an entire culture around a book about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s. The aliens recreate the guns, the clothes and the lingo, but it’s just a guess based on what they see in the book. The new musical Allegiance, now playing at The Old Globe in San Diego, feels a little like that, with its creators studying books, photos and websites to come up with an alternate reality for the Japanese American incarceration – one that looks like the real thing but is governed by different rules.

In the parallel world of Allegiance, the sound of bullhorns herds inmates around, female arrivals are forced to strip to their underwear at gunpoint, and military guards bearing rifles fixed with bayonets roam inside the confines of camp on an apparently daily basis – shoving unruly inmates to the ground, firing warning shots into the air to restore order, and taking more deadly aim at, of all people, the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of our film.

An Issei is slapped into handcuffs the instant he answers no-no to the Leave Clearance questionnaire. When his son surges forward, a private turns his rifle on him (“Back up, Jap!”). When an outraged crowd rushes the gate, a guard fires a warning shot.

Sound like the loyalty registration you or your parents remember? Of course not, because it’s a perfectly imperfect duplicate of camp, like the Bizarro World of Superman comics. It’s the incarceration as if it takes place in a German POW camp. But Heart Mountain was an American concentration camp, not Stalag 17.

Cast of "Allegiance" horsing around with props
Turnaround is fair play for the cast of Allegiance during a break in performance, enacting in reverse the rifle and bayonet action of the show itself.
(Allegiance Facebook page)

By design, the rifles and bayonets have a visceral impact on audiences. The theatrical devices can be argued to provide an emotional shorthand for the unrelenting physical and spiritual oppression of camp, but audiences do not share a sufficient base of common knowledge about the camps to recognize the difference between fantasy and fact.

Yes, the family at the center of Allegiance is fictional, but what’s wrapped around that fiction is billed as the true story of the Japanese American experience, and that story firmly anchors itself in the non-fiction world by invoking Heart Mountain, the Heart Mountain resisters, the 442, the Japanese American Citizens League and its wartime leader, Mike Masaoka. The show establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured.

And in the real world that many readers of the Rafu still remember, the armed guards at War Relocation Authority camps were restricted to the towers on the periphery of camp, a few hundred yards from the barracks. The internal security police were not trusted with guns, for fear they’d hurt someone in a quarrel. Yet in the internal logic of this mirror universe, the “Frankie” character who leads the draft resistance is seen running in the dark of night and hiding as guard dogs – guard dogs! – bark in the distance. A Quaker nurse offers him a place to hide. Frankie urges those around him to “Run!,” two guards arrive and order him to “Freeze!,” and one fires a shot into the dark.

It’s a key plot point that leads to a central tragedy. And it’s utter hokum. There is no artistic license expansive enough to justify the portrayal of guards on foot chasing a Heart Mountain draft resister through camp in order to detain him AND SHOOTING AT HIM. Even using the thinly-veiled fiction of “Frankie,” the notion violates the basic facts and circumstances of camp. And for those who have seen the show, think about this: the consequence that results from the shooting is an impossibility that could only exist in the annals of a galaxy far, far away.

“Frankie” of course is modeled on the late Frank Emi of the Fair Play Committee. There was only one draft resistance at the camp named Heart Mountain, and only one resistance leader named Frank. We sent the above to Frank’s fellow Heart Mountain resister, Yosh Kuromiya, who retorts:

“The portrayal of Frank Emi running away and hiding is absurd. Frank Emi was never one to hide or run away. There weren’t any guard dogs or firearms used in Heart Mountain. Our resistance was completely above board and open. All the FPC meetings were open to the public. Even our bulletins were publicized.

“The impressions that are given in this script are totally misleading. The whole situation wasn’t violent and it was an open forum for people to speak openly.

“The implications in the portrayal are an insult to the FPC and resisters. Even the rationale of artistic license becomes questionable in the critical accuracy of our personal history and that of Japanese American history.”

If Frank Emi had anything to fear physically, says Yosh, it was not from the guards, but from fellow incarcerees:

“I recall being concerned for their safety because they were speaking so candidly. There were inu’s (informers) in the meetings but still there was nothing covert or hidden.”

As we showed you in Conscience and the Constitution, the resisters posted fliers, held meetings, and collected dues. When the first 63 were arrested for draft evasion, the FBI needed only to look up their barrack numbers and knock on their doors at dawn. When the FBI later sought the arrest of the FPC leaders for conspiracy, Guntaro Kubota had his bag packed and was washing dishes while waiting for them. In our new DVD, Frank Emi tells how he challenged the FBI’s right to search his barrack without a warrant. He didn’t need to run, and he never had to hide.

Isolated shootings near the fences at other camps, or the two fatalities in the Manzanar Riot, cannot be claimed as the basis for this invention. It is a knowing or unknowing mash-up of events at Manzanar and Tule Lake, or another tired conflation of the Heart Mountain draft resisters with the segregees and unhappy renunciants at Tule. The military entered only two of the ten WRA camps to control unrest, and not as a permanent occupation – a matter of hours at Manzanar and two-and-a-half months at Tule Lake.

Yes, photographs can be found of incarcerees under direct armed guard, but these are mostly of inmates building their barracks, harvesting crops outside the fence, or pushing back at the imposition of martial law at Tule Lake. The presence of armed guards inside the living areas of Heart Mountain was not a commonplace fact of life. If the show wants to convey Tule Lake-like conditions, it should do that story.

The risk here is the dumbing down of camp history in American popular culture. Should the show enter the literature of the Broadway theater, it will be performed in perpetuity by countless amateur and high school groups. Friends say oh don’t take this so seriously, it’s only an entertainment, it’s not a book or documentary, no one’s going to take it as fact. But some already have, according to at least one Yonsei attendee:

“I myself may be a victim of the show as a 4th generation JA – I don’t know much about the camps, but had assumed there were armed guards walking around camp pushing people around!”

Let’s say a revisionist created her own work of art that made out conditions in camp to be better than they were, with let’s say suburban tract homes, white picket fences, and no guard towers; we’d jump down her throat. By the same token, it weakens the integrity of the factual record if a popular work makes out the civilian administration of Heart Mountain to be more brutal than it was.

Our knowledge of the camps is hard-won through four decades of work by trained scholars like Roger Daniels and Art Hansen, self-taught researchers like Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig, and dozens more. Several were consulted for this piece. After knocking down revisionism spanning two generations, from Lillian Baker to Michelle Malkin, it seems a shame to sell our history short for the fame, fortune and fiction of a Broadway-style musical, or even the lure of making the camps and camp resistance better known.

Playwright Frank Chin proposes a simple answer to the problem of historical accuracy – just make the whole thing a flight of fancy:

“Set the play in the present: One day in year 2012 a group of young people walk into an empty and abandoned barn. One kid turns to another and says, ‘Hey! Let’s do a show!’

‘Yeah!’

‘In camp.’

‘Yeah.’”

Yeah, that would work, but that is not the premise of this show – and that is the problem audiences should recognize, even as they are swept up in the melodrama of the moment.

Veterans have often knocked the resisters by claiming they refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. That was never true for Yosh Kuromiya and the Heart Mountain boys, but in this instance it can be said that Yosh is declining to pledge this particular Allegiance. “It is after all,” he writes, “a matter of conscience.”

Variety rips “Allegiance,” says what National JACL does not

Variety logoLike the Los Angeles Times before it, the trade newspaper Variety has just posted what can only be described as a thumbs-down review of the new musical inspired by the clash of ideas between the Heart Mountain draft resisters who are the subject of our film, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League:

“(W)hile the personal material lands, the political stuff lacks nuance and weight in “Allegiance.” Despite a handsome production and talent to spare, the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway’s harsh glare …

“The sloganeering libretto … portrays both points of view as more or less reasonable until a last-minute, cheaply manipulative flip-flop tells us, out of left field, exactly what to think. In so doing, “Allegiance” comes dangerously close to branding every member of the honored 442nd regiment as fools and dupes, though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal …

“(The songwriter) does seem to have played the “Les Miserables” cast album plenty …”

The Variety piece is important as it is the first objective industry review and will shape expectations among those in New York. And reviewer Bob Verini picks up on the same point raised in last month’s open letter from the Japanese American Veterans Association, in which President Gerald Yamada wrote:

“The play attempts to make the case that … those who volunteered were deceived by Masaoka and made the wrong choice.”

The JAVA letter and the Variety and Times reviews stand in sharp contrast to the Sept. 21st statement from the present-day Japanese American Citizens League. Given the show’s deriding of JACL’s wartime collaboration, its caricature of “Mike Masaoka” and its positioning of him as the antagonist of the piece, you would expect JACL to issue a ringing defense of itself and “they called me Moses” Masaoka.

Has JACL repudiated the legacy of Mike Masaoka?

Whether through lack of knowledge, a lack of interest, a desire not to offend, or a desire to distance itself from its past, National JACL issued a measured statement that labors to address a wide array of stakeholders and constituencies, and is calibrated to offend none of them.  (Download a printable PDF of the JACL statement.) As we’ve said, for some it will be enough that a musical brings the subject of the camps to a new audience, and it’s there that JACL finds a toehold on which to actually commend the production.

JACL officers with George Takei
National and local JACL officers with actor George Takei, on the Sept. 19 opening night of “Allegiance.” Photo: National JACL

But the statement goes on to neither confront its past or stick up for the legacy of its defining wartime leadership. Where the statement tip-toes towards criticism of the show, the repeated use of the passive voice allows the organization to avoid taking a clear and identifiable stand:

“As the confinement of the community lengthened with no access to due process, there was heated disagreement on the best response to the injustices perpetrated by the government …

“Although veterans and resisters are represented in the musical by fictional characters, it is unfortunate that writers have used Mike Masaoka’s name to represent those who promoted Americanism, and portray them in a negative light …

“Allegiance portrays the experiences of a single family at Heart Mountain, and focuses on one perspective of JACL and Mike Masaoka. Concerns remain that the musical pieces together different elements of Masaoka’s contributions during the period, and lacks the historical context to give audiences a broader sense of the external role of the government, press, politicians, military advisers, and others.”

Mike of course was the very face of the JACL’s brand of  Americanism, the author of the JACL Creed and the man who sang the praises of America, so it should come as no surprise that he is named to represent that. We named him in our film. But what is perhaps most significant in the statement is the absence of any rebuttal to the show’s climactic message that “Masaoka” somehow duped the protagonist, played by Mr. Takei, about the nature of the 442, “Go For Broke,” and the consequences of patriotic self-sacrifice — a disturbing message as pointed out by JAVA and Variety.

As Prof. Art Hansen pointed out over a gin martini on Friday, the JACL was unpopular before the war and in the first year of camp, as evidenced by the beating of JACLer Fred Tayama that led to the riot at Manzanar. On our DVD, Frank Emi recalls the pre-war JACL as”sort of an elite social club of lawyers and rich businessmen, things like that.”

But the group’s reputation turned around when Mike tied his star to the notion of restoring the draft for the Nisei as a first step toward the restoration of all their rights. That resonated with the thousands of young men who were itching for the chance to prove themselves, and JACL’s popularity was cemented as the dominant Japanese American political and social organization for the life of the Nisei generation, which sadly is fading into time.

The opening of the draft to the Nisei was as much a part of Mike’s legacy as his initial accommodations regarding the eviction, and for the modern-day JACL to fail to vigorously defend that is an omission that signals a sea change in the organization, whether intentional or not.

To be sure, it can’t be easy staffing a national organization that must bridge the gap between what we used to call the “old guard” and the younger members the group needs to attract and keep in order to survive — to try to function as a modern civil rights organization while lugging the history of a predecessor who waived Japanese American rights at the time when we needed them the most.

Next up: a review of the text (and subtext) of Allegiance, as frozen for the San Diego production, that expands upon the “lack of historical context” cited by JACL.

L.A. Times review critical of “Allegiance”

Opening night at The Old Globe Theater
First-nighters await the opening curtain for “Allegiance.” Nice set.

The first reviews have come in from the press opening for Allegiance. As expected, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the North County Times are carried off by the emotion of melodrama (“bring your Kleenex, you’re going to need it,” one says with glee). However, the review by Anne Marie Welsh in the Los Angeles Times, “‘Allegiance’ gives Japanese internment a soft focus,” is especially clear-eyed about the material itself:

The musical premieres at the Old Globe as a mild story of broken family ties, not a judgment of U.S. mistakes related to the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. … “Allegiance” presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, “Allegiance” retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom. For all its historical reach and welcome significance, the book (by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione) drifts into two generic romances and in the second act meanders into sentimental warblings that family is “what really matters.” … Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), head of the Japanese American Citizens League, the show’s sole historical figure, (is) here caricatured. … (T)heir show needs a sharper emotional focus and musical edge to match its bold subject.

There may be a reason for the fuzziness of the show’s focus. Whatever artistic aspirations they may have, Broadway shows are by their nature commercial ventures: they have to sell the tickets week to week to pay the cast and keep the doors open. Based on the show’s synopsis, video clips, and reports from preview audiences and first-nighter’s, the dramatic arc of this show appears calculated to shift the audience’s attention away from the actions of the U.S. government — the general who lied about military necessity, the army major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration — and onto a straw man: the show’s caricature of “Mike Masaoka.”

Make no mistake,  the real Mike and the real JACL bear plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and Mike in particular for acting as a confidential informant for the government (see the evidence on the DVD extended interview with Prof. Roger Daniels).

But by setting up Masaoka as the antagonist of the piece, the show gets to take the focus off wartime America’s responsibility for accepting the mass eviction and incarceration, lest the predominantly white New York theater audience for whom this work is intended squirm in their seats – especially in a city just 11 years removed from its own 21st century experience of a Pearl Harbor.

From all accounts the focus on Mike as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or unintended, of letting the government off the hook, as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit, not the generals or the bureaucrats.”

This portrayal was especially strong in early drafts of the musical’s script, and the alarms went up after community pre-screenings of a videotaped workshop performance. However, the creators brought in a new collaborator to rewrite the book, and a first-nighter who provided the two photos offers this contrary view:

“(A friend) who had not seen the pre-screenings came away a bit shocked at how he (Mike) was portrayed. This was her first time to see the show, so she had nothing to compare it to.  So I think she was surprised by the musical portraying Mike Masaoka in such a negative light. In the end, we see George yelling at the spirit of Masaoka “You son of a bitch!”… Wow…

“It is interesting -I have seen the pre-screenings so I came away thinking the representation of Mike Masaoka is much more balanced now. He is not the villain as originally scripted. In fact, at times he appears very uncertain, almost meek and indecisive. He is now a 26-year old thrust into all of this pressure and a bit unsure of what to do, trying to lead his people. We see him in uniform – grieving for his brother – trying to figure out what to do and sometimes struggling to remain strong.

“But at the end when the show suggests it was Mike that had the idea for a suicide battalion and George calls him an SOB, then I think it really leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths.  For me, since I had seen the earlier versions which were so bad, this current version is ironically very refreshing…”

DVD in gift shop
Shameless plug alert: The DVD that tells the real story of Frank Emi and the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee is available at The Old Globe gift shop.

More reaction is expected in the days ahead, so subscribe to new posts using the box in the column above and to the right, or leave your comment below. (Our DVD is now available in the Old Globe gift shop. Yes, next to the Lea Salonga CDs. Proving, as Brian Wilson sings on the Beach Boys reunion CD, that it’s a strange world after all.)