In traditional Japanese culture, there is the built-in notion of “uchi” and “soto,” or “inside” and “outside.” It applies to social groups and relationships, but I thought about it after talking with Frank Abe and watching the new DVD of his 2001 documentary “Conscience and the Constitution.”
A key part of the story is the relationship between those Japanese Americans imprisoned inside the Heart Mountain concentration camp and those on the outside. As related in “Conscience,” those on the inside in this instance were the members of the Fair Play Committee and the resisters of conscience, who banded together to resist being drafted to serve in the U.S. military during WWII until their freedom and that of their kin were returned.
But, paradoxically, even though the FPC was inside Heart Mountain, they were, socially speaking, marginalized outsiders with regard to the influence they wielded. The insiders, as far as the government was concerned, were with the Japanese American Citizens League. Even though the FPC had a little something in its corner called the U.S. Constitution, in a matchup between it and the JACL, there was no contest — JACL was an 800-pound gorilla, and one of its weapons was its newspaper, Pacific Citizen. The resisters ended up going to prison. (If you don’t know what would later happen to them, you’ll just have to buy the DVD to find out.)
If the FPC was one point of a triangle and the JACL the other, the third point was another newspaper, Denver-based Rocky Shimpo. Its editorials supported and intellectually nourished the FPC.
Each point of the triangle was personified by three impassioned individuals who were steadfast in their beliefs: Heart Mountain resister Frank Emi, Rocky Shimpo journalist James Omura and JACL leader Mike Masaoka. While there were many, many others who played major parts in what happened, those three men, as depicted in “Conscience,” are the key players. All three are now deceased, but the story continues to live on in fascinating detail, thanks to Abe’s documentary.
Omura, a Denver-based journalist who lived free since he wasn’t forcibly relocated from the West Coast, encouraged the actions of the FPC via his words in the Rocky Shimpo. Emi, on the inside in Heart Mountain, became the focal point and a leader of the FPC. Masaoka, also on the outside but simultaneously the ultimate Nisei insider in terms of influence with the federal government, was the third point of the triangle and the one most identified as being in opposition to the FPC.
What is great about this DVD, which was more than 10 years in the making, compared with the version that screened in film festivals and on public television so many years ago, is the supplemental material expertly added by Abe in the intervening years. This valuable supplemental audio and video had no place until the DVD format made it possible to include.
As described in “Conscience,” the story of what happened is almost like a great play or movie, full of drama and high stakes. A nation at war. A group of people related ancestrally to the enemy, singled out by their nation for reasons that go against everything for which it stood, like liberty and justice for all.
Thanks to the DVD format, Abe has now included additional interviews that help to add layers of understanding, elaborating upon the story. On Disc 1 is the original movie. On Disc 2 is the supplemental material, including a six-page Viewers Guide PDF. There is also a featurette titled “The JACL Apologizes.” There are also extended interviews with Frank Emi, James Omura, Sam Horino, Dave Kawamoto, Gloria Kubota, Grace Kubota Ybarra, Art Emi, Ben Kuroki, Michi Weglyn, Paul Tsuneishi, professors Art Hansen and Roger Daniels, and Mike Masaoka.
Abe is also using the multimedia capabilities of the Web; on his website, Resisters.com, there will soon be a written transcript of the interview he conducted with Masaoka, when Abe was a reporter for radio station KIRO.
Speaking of Resisters.com, that’s where to go to buy a copy of the DVD of “Conscience and the Constitution.” The price of the two-DVD set is $29.95, plus $3 for shipping and handling. Here in Los Angeles, it’s also available at the JANM gift shop.
One thing that occurred to me watching the movie is that it might be easy to conclude that the “bad guy” in “Conscience and the Constitution” is Mike Masaoka. I have to disagree. I have to believe that he did the best he could under the circumstances, with no evil in his heart. If there is blame to be laid, it would have to go to politicians who didn’t do the right things, the racism of the time and the circumstances that would put American citizens in such an untenable situation in the first place, whether it was President Roosevelt for signing E.O. 9066 or the unknown individual who wrote the poorly worded Loyalty Oath questions No. 27 and 28 that caused so much angst and turmoil.
Another thing that occurred to me is that thanks to Abe’s efforts, saved for the ages are interviews with people who are now gone or will be soon. Someday, if the story of the Japanese American experience gets the proper recognition it deserves, then the people in “Conscience and the Constitution” will be remembered the way we remember giants like Gandhi or King. And if that happens, we can thank Frank Abe for saving a vital part of American history in “Conscience and the Constitution.”
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.)