When the Sansei transitioned from innocent and acquiescent adolescence into questioning and indignant young adulthood some 40 years ago, many had a question for their Nisei parents who more or less obediently went to American concentration camps for Japanese Americans, and the question was: “Why didn’t you resist?”
That’s my extrapolation of the dynamic, based upon a conversation I had the other night with Seattle-based journalist and documentary filmmaker Frank Abe, who has spent the last several years as the communications director for the King County executive’s office in Washington state.
That question was understandable coming from an American generation that came of age in the time of fighting the draft, fighting for civil rights, rebellious rock ’n’ roll music and expanding consciousness.
With time came wisdom and understanding, however, as the offspring of the Nisei realized that when Executive Order 9066 happened, many of their parents were themselves unemancipated adolescents at the time, still living with Issei parents and not in any position to do much other than cooperate.
Fighting back against an overwhelmingly powerful government simply was not an option for most members of a minority population that wasn’t well-liked before Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. To resist after that event was, pragmatically speaking, foolhardy.
Still, the fact that their parents and grandparents were denied due process of law and protections guaranteed by the Constitution rankled many in that then-young demographic upon learning of the racial injustice foisted upon their forebears, Frank Abe included.
While second-generation Japanese Americans can proudly tout that they did cooperate against their will with the federal government and prove their loyalty to the U.S. by serving in the U.S. military, there were in fact some among them who did resist the premise of E.O. 9066.
For example, the trio of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui are among the most famous. They are lauded in the present day for the courage of their convictions from yesteryear; we in the state of California recently had the inaugural Fred Korematsu Day, while Denver, Colo., has had a community volunteer award named after Minoru Yasui since the mid-1970s. It’s hard to believe now, though that the JACL at the time didn’t support attorney Min Yasui’s legal challenge, or that Korematsu felt ostracized by other Japanese Americans for his actions.
What changed between then and now? Abe, one of those questioning Sansei, said: “The children of the Nisei went to law school and learned the law, and could see Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui were acting in a great American tradition of contesting injustice by using the law.”
For Abe, there was another part of Japanese American history of resistance and civil disobedience that got his journalistic juices going, and that was the mostly untold and misunderstood story of the Heart Mountain draft resisters. That’s why he produced the award-winning documentary “Conscience and the Constitution,” which I wrote about in this column on June 8, 2000.
It was Abe who helped push the Asian American Journalists Association to recognize Denver-based journalist Jimmy Omura for his editorials in the Rocky Shimpo that challenged the constitutionality of the mass incarceration of his fellow Americans of Japanese ancestry. (Colorado and Wyoming are geographically close, so I have to speculate that somehow copies of Omura’s paper made it to Heart Mountain, Wyo.)
By 1992, he began working on what would become “Conscience and the Constitution,” raising funds and conducting interviews on what was then state-of-the-art video technology, BetaCam. By 2000, with his team he completed the documentary. But there was so much more compelling material that never saw the light of day, stuff that couldn’t make it into an hour-long movie.
Making a movie is a time-consuming, difficult proposition, but Abe nevertheless endeavored to get that unused material incorporated into the DVD release of “Conscience.” He first, however, had to learn the new state of the art in video production: nonlinear digital editing with Avid Express, Adobe After Effects and more. Not only that, he needed to purchase the computer hardware powerful enough to do the job.
Now after more than a decade, Abe has remastered his movie for the medium of DVD for the first time. Along the way he was able to get some funding, including a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program.
Included in the DVD are supplemental materials that will be of interest to the layperson as well as those in academia. For those unfamiliar with this documentary, it focuses on two individuals: Omura, whose wrote editorials on the injustice that was occurring to Japanese Americans, and Frank Emi, the leader of the Heart Mountain draft resistance, who drew inspiration from Omura’s writings in the Rocky Shimpo. Both have since died, Emi just recently.
Abe expressed his dismay that Emi passed before being able to see the remastered movie and new content that was heretofore unavailable. I’m really looking forward to seeing this new DVD because included is an interview with WWII war hero Ben Kuroki, who has since apparently reconsidered his stance against the resisters, and an audio interview conducted by Frank when he was a radio reporter for Seattle’s KIRO with Mike Masaoka, who was the JACL’s leader during WWII.
I asked Frank what sort of interest there has been so far among academics, especially with regard to the interview with Masaoka. He laughingly said, “You’re the first!” But I’m hardly an academic, so it will be interesting to see how the supplemental materials in “Conscience” are received by the professionals who teach Asian American studies.
So, in between now and my next column, I’ll be receiving a copy of the DVD incarnation of “Conscience and the Constitution” and will no doubt again pick up my conversation with Frank. More on that in a couple of weeks.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)