Am I overstating it? I liken Janice Tanaka’s documentary “Right of Passage” to Oliver Stone’s “JFK” — it’s packed with so much information. I would have to see it about seven times before I could really comprehend all that was going on towards the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 aka HR 442.
With rare documentary footage of Edison Uno we are given witness to the man who made the first public calls in the early 1970s to fight for reparations. We are taken through the 20-year evolution of what finally entitled Japanese Americans an apology and $20,000 from the U.S. government for putting them into concentration camps without due process.
Co-Producers Janice D. Tanaka and Nancy K. Araki were wading in troubled waters making this film. As the director of “Right of Passage,” Tanaka explains: “When Nitto Tire USA approached me with the idea of creating a documentary film on this subject, my immediate thought was, ‘This is a complicated story to tell.’ … The battle for redress was divisive; so we knew every participant firmly believed in his/her version of how it was won. We adopted Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” approach — asking each person to tell the story from his/her perspective — which took us from San Francisco to Seattle, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Worland and Cody, Wyoming.”
Newly declassified documents, never-before-seen archival films, and interviews with players speaking for the first time — “Right of Passage” features a wide array of evidence that no single entity can claim credit for the passage of HR (House Resolution) 442. The huge cast of players includes: Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford; Senators Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga and Alan Simpson; Congressmen Barney Frank, Norm Mineta and Bob Matsui; Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan; and the multitude from the Japanese American community, including JACL, NCJAR (National Council for Japanese American Redress) and NCRR (National Coalition for Redress and Reparations). Standouts from the Los Angeles community are Alan Nishio and Miya (Linda) Iwataki.
As a complicated story with many divergent actors and strategies, the documentary only presented information that could be factually verified through other supporting documents. The graphic format of the screen gives you easy-to-read names, positions, their role, and partial views of some document(s) related to the person talking. There is a timeline that spans across the bottom of the screen giving you chronological context of when statements or issues took place. As an outsider to the Japanese American redress and reparations movement, these graphic effects really helped me get a better grasp of the march of events and people involved.
I asked Janice what the main thing she wants her audience to come away with is, given the super abundance of information in the documentary. Her email reply was: “Fundamentally this is a film about how a bill is passed into law. On one level, we were lucky to have many people fall into place at the right time — think of Grant Ujifusa’s quote about ‘a set of miracles.’ If it weren’t for people like Barney Frank and John Glenn taking leadership when they did, it would not have been possible to pass the bill. On another level, many Japanese Americans who watch the film did not realize how complex a process it was and how it took many people in many places across the country and on both sides of the aisle to accomplish passage of HR 442.”
As the film shows, it was no accident that the bill is numbered 442. In fact, it took careful planning. And it was a strategic move to present the bill for vote on the particular day that Congress was celebrating the Constitution. A brilliant stroke by Norman Mineta was to pick Sept. 17, 1987 as the auspicious day to debate and vote on HR 442. This was the 200th anniversary of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. How can you celebrate the Constitution and vote against the resolution that was going to redress the denial of Japanese Americans’ constitutional rights during World War II? The bill got passed in an unusual bipartisan moment where Democrats and Republicans joined to support HR 442.
I give two thumbs up to Janice Tanaka for tackling this complex milestone event for the JA community. She states: “In making this film I wanted to present a neutral but comprehensive and honest picture of the when and where the movement began, the forgotten players and factions and fractures within a community labeled the ‘model minority.’”
I can agree with NCRR’s implicit criticism that the film does not give enough weight to the role of the grassroots (and grassroots organizers) to get people to speak out at the hearings since it is the grassroots pressure that motivates legislators to make their moves. One could get the impression that the success of the bill is due to the highest-profile players since the bulk of the documentary presents the behind-the-scenes legislative machinations by a (very large) handful of players in the Senate and Congress in concert with determined grassroots lobbyists.
Tanaka centered the narrative on the eight years of Reagan’s presidency that led up to Reagan eventually signing — instead of the expected vetoing — of HR 442. And for big-name attraction, Brooke Shields, who felt passionately for this story to be told, narrates the documentary.
Incidentally, an exciting spin-off of this film is “Rebel With a Cause: The Life of Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga,”which will be screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Herzig Yoshinaga is arguably another very crucial piece of the success of HR 442.
Keep your eyes out for Janice Tanaka’s films. She has a great track record as an educator and documentarian of difficult issues in our community, such as her earlier work “When You’re Smiling: The Deadly Legacy of Internment” (1999), which explored the Sansei youth drug epidemic in the 1970s. She also volunteered to film the Los Angeles reparations hearings in 1981.
One of the haunting questions voiced by one congressional member in the film was “Who’s next, American Indians?” The question that remains is: How do Japanese Americans share our experience in a way that does not elevate us once again as the “model minority” since it could appear that we got reparations because we are the model minority? “Right of Passage” argues that model minority or not, it was an uphill battle all the way.
For further reading about Right of Passage: Chris Komai’s “The Unseen Price of Redress,” (Rafu Shimpo, Feb. 19, 2016) will give you a more in-depth look at the film along with discussion from the film showing at the Skirball Cultural Center.
For a critical review of Right of Passage: George H. Yamada film review (Pacific Citizen, Nov. 23, 2015) and “Right of Passage” researcher/writer Sreescanda’s rebuttal (Pacific Citizen, Feb. 1, 2016).
Mary Uyematsu Kao is publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.