(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 19, 2010.)
As someone born well after the federal government’s mass incarceration of Americans with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry during WWII, I can only imagine what the experience was really like.
It is now universally acknowledged—well, almost, but for a few knuckleheads represented by the Michelle Malkins of the world—that the forced removal and incarceration, a.k.a. Evacuation and Internment, was a colossal mistake, miscarriage of justice and abrogation of our nation’s Constitution. It’s probably safe to say, though, that “being sent to camp” affected people differently, depending upon factors like age, gender and lot in life.
For an Issei in the prime of his or her life, with a business, farm, household or career in full-swing, it may have been devastating; for a young child, it might have been kind of an adventure; and for a college-bound Nisei, it might have been disheartening and disappointing.
The experience undoubtedly tested the “gaman” of many because of the uncertainty of the situation, even though in retrospect, the entire camp experience was about the amount of time someone might spend attending high school or college. Holding your breath underwater for 60 seconds is not so bad if you know in advance that’s how long you have to do it. Having someone force your head underwater for that same amount of time could induce panic!
At the same time, many friendships, marriages and other relationships grew out of the camp experience, and some of those relationships endure to this day.
Still, one thing I wonder about: Among all the documentation, books, studies and research on the Japanese American experience during WWII, is there any room for humor?
It’s not a frivolous question. Surely there were some laughs, even if the basis was a form of gallows humor, amid the misery, uncertainty and bad food found in the 10 WRA camps, right?
Well, that question will be officially answered on Monday, Sept. 20. That’s when a new, Web-based video series titled “Hogoz” will debut.
Pronounced “hoe-goes,” it is described as “South Park” meets Manzanar and it is a satire that is the brainchild of J-Powers (a.k.a. John Powers, who is not, incidentally, the film critic of the same name), the series’ writer, producer and director.
Powers background as a creative artist includes serving as the producer since 1995 of TorranceLive! for the Cultural Services Division of the Torrance Community Services Department. He has a background in theater, film and video, and through the years he became friends with people like George Nakano, Donald Hata and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga.
I had a chance to chat over the phone with the affable Powers to find out more about “Hogoz.” According to Powers, he began working with many Japanese American artists back in 2007 in his capacity as a producer for the city of Torrance’s cultural program, specifically the Works in Progress series.
Thus inspired, he began to research the Japanese American experience. “Hogoz” — which, incidentally, Powers says is a made up word that is inspired by the word “Topaz” — is the result of this inspiration and, for the record, comes out of his own pocket.
Produced on a very small budget, against a green-screen backdrop that features hand-drawings of camp images like barbed-wire fences fronted by live actors, each episode of “Hogoz” will last about a minute, with new installments appearing daily, Powers says. He said he has about six months worth of shows and new episodes will appear on the site and on YouTube.
Powers said he wanted the show to be as simple and inexpensive as possible to produce. So, he shoots it on a Canon DSLR; he imports video directly into a MacBook and edits in iMovie. “I’ve been developing this concept for about two years, and I knew that once I got into it that I needed to find a way that it could be sustainable without breaking the bank or injuring my marriage,” he said. So, production time is short and it can be uploaded in bite-size chunks.
The conceit behind the show is that Hogoz is a mythical government-run camp in Arizona during WWII where the Japanese American teens who were viewed as troublemakers got sent. Powers noted that “Hogoz” boasts the largest Asian American cast in current entertainment. (Visit hogoz.com to view the cast list and a sample episode.)
The often-profane dialogue of the characters toward each other and the inanities of camp life is what drives the humor and storyline. (While aimed at youthful audiences, the language is best suited for those college-aged and up.)
I think there is an audience for a show like “Hogoz,” despite the irreverence displayed regarding a subject many might not find to be a laughing matter. While war itself is no laughing matter, some of the greatest comedies ever made use it as a backdrop: “Dr. Strangelove,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “M*A*S*H” and “Stripes” are a few examples.
Ultimately, though, whether “Hogoz” finds the audience for its method of using humor to educate young people about something that actually happened in U.S. history remains to be seen. I briefly brought up the topic with Powers that “Hogoz” might be seen by someone in Hollywood who could be inspired to turn it into a bigger-budgeted TV sitcom or movie. If humor is the vehicle by which more people learn about the uniquely American story of what happened to a segment of the population during a time of crisis, I see nothing wrong with that.
While it debuts Sept. 20, you can view a sample episode now. So, if you’re curious, go to hogoz.com and see for yourself.
AAJA Convention Dept.: As mentioned last column, I did get over to the Asian American Journalists Convention, held here in Los Angeles during the first week of August, and I did get the chance to reconnect with some people I haven’t seen in years: Ed Iwata, Sindy Saito, Gil Asakawa, Ti-hua Chang, Angela Oh, K.W. Lee, Stewart Kwoh, Bill Sing, Jennifer Quong Chung and many more.
Connie Chung, who I probably spent way too many words on last time out, was actually there for the Pioneer reception held Wednesday night of the event. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t attend that evening!
The Saturday night dinner featured two journalists who were in the news a year ago when they were released by North Korea, namely Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Lee’s speech was short; Ling spoke at greater length. (She released in the spring a book written with sister Lisa Ling titled “Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other Sister’s Fight to Bring Her Home” about her travails.)
The one detail that stood out from Ling’s speech I didn’t know about was Kim Jong Il’s reasoning behind having former President Bill Clinton serve as the emissary to bring Lee and Ling home. It turns out that when Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung died in 1994 during Clinton’s tenure as president, he was the first world leader to make a condolence call.
Ling said Clinton’s call was made even before calls could come in from the North Korean friends and colleagues of the late leader. The younger Kim wanted to meet Clinton because of that. So, that one simple, kind gesture made years ago may have made all the difference in the world at getting Ling and Lee their freedom.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written “Into the Next Stage” since 1992 . 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. Past columns can be viewed at IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright © 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.