INTO THE NEXT STAGE: The 100th/442nd Acknowledged in ‘Captain America’… Kinda


(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on July 28, 2011.)


In May, I wrote about being pleasantly surprised that a Japanese national was cast in “Thor” as one of the Norse God’s Mighty Three back-up team, especially when there hadn’t been an Asian character in the comic books upon which the film was based.

In the same way, I was also happy to see a Japanese American soldier included in this weekend’s No. 1 movie, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Chicagoan Kenneth Choi plays Jim Morita, a member of the 100th/442nd who’s rescued in Germany along with other prisoners of war by our superhero and goes on to become a part of Cap’s special unit.

Except that you’re not told he’s Japanese American, nor that he’s part of that battalion. This is what happens: When Cap rescues the prisoners, one of them looks at Morita and cracks, “What, we’re taking everybody?” Morita responds, “I’m from Fresno, Ace!”

Together, the team — which includes a black soldier, a French soldier, and Dum Dum Dugan (wearing his trademark bowler hat and handlebar mustache) — escapes from the villainous Red Skull to fight another day. When Cap and his troops triumphantly march back to their base after being presumed dead, Morita’s right up close behind him.

A lot is not spelled out in this movie. Unless I missed it, although Choi’s credited as “Jim Morita” in the credits, he’s not called by any name in the film. We’re not told he’s Japanese American nor part of the 100th/442nd. Heck, we’re not even told Dum Dum Dugan’s part of the team — only comic book fans like myself would know that. And the Cosmic Cube — which can conjure up anything you ask it to — is not given a name either.

According to an interview with the Pacific Citizen’s Christine Fukushima, however (“Kenneth Choi Brings Nisei Soldiers to the Big Screen in ‘Captain America’,” July 22), the writers knew what they were doing: “ ‘We thought it valuable to include [Jim Morita] as an important member of Cap’s team,’ said ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ screenplay writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, emailing from Comic Con in San Diego. ‘Few moviegoers are probably aware that a good many Japanese Americans fought during the war, so we felt there was value in showing that. Also, we really wanted the squad to be multicultural, emphasizing the inclusiveness of what Cap, and America, itself, represents.’

“And as the Nisei soldier, ‘Ken was great, a scene stealer. He brings a humor to each of his scenes that we desperately needed,’ they added.”

It would’ve been nice if the screenwriters spelled out Morita’s situation a little. How great would it have been if he told Cap his folks were locked up behind barbed wire because their own country didn’t trust them?!

But it’s a nice touch for us to be included as part of the American team, which, in the comic books, was called the Howling Commandos (I don’t think they’re given that name in the movie either, though it’s there in the credits) and was led by Sgt. Fury. The producers took Fury out of the equation because he’s supposed to be a relatively young guy in the present day as played by Samuel L. Jackson in the Marvel movies; they probably couldn’t come up with an excuse for him to not be in his 90s in 2011.

Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi) walks alongside Captain America (front) in the film “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

The good ol’ Hollywood Reporter missed the boat on this one (“How ‘Captain America’s’ Cast Stirred Up Its Own Melting Pot” by Sofia M. Hernandez, July 23), talking about the “diversity” of the cast only as it pertained to white people: Several of the other actors hail from countries like Australia, England, and Romania. Whoop de doo.

It’s not a perfect adaptation (in the comics, Bucky’s supposed to be Cap’s excitable 16-year old sidekick who’s shorter than him; in the film, he looks a very grounded 30), but it was very well done. Given his previous role as the womanizing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in two “Fantastic Four” films, I had my doubts that Chris Evans could pull off the more sensitive part of Steve Rogers/Captain America. But I was impressed.  I won’t ruin it for you, but several scenes really pulled at my heartstrings. And the romance between Rogers and agent Peggy Carter will haunt you.

Thanks to longtime supporter James Ito for tipping me off to the Japanese American character (so I could take notes in the theater) and Toshi Yang for showing me the article.

Making the Grade Department: Not many Asian Americans were nominated for Emmys last week. Last year’s winner for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series” (for “The Good Wife”), Archie Panjabi — a South Asian from England — will be in the running again this year. Veena Sud, also South Asian, is nominated for “Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series” for “The Killing.”

I wish Ian Anthony Dale had gotten a nod for his supporting role in NBC’s “The Event.” Oh well. We’ll find out who wins on Sept. 8.

Emotional vs. Clear Thinking Department: After turning in my last column (“Is It OK for Asian Women to Be Sluts on TV?,” July 14), I was surprised to get an email from Editor Gwen Muranaka, who told me she was personally offended that I used “slut” in its title and that it was a slur. Oh please. Calling a woman a slut is insulting, but it’s hardly a slur. Jap, chink, nigger, spic, faggot — those are slurs. As far as the highest insult you can call a woman, it’s the four-letter word beginning with “c.” Below that, I’d say, is “whore.” “Slut” would be less demeaning than that (the former involves money and is against the law; it’s not against the law to be a slut).

If that wasn’t bad enough, a female staffer I’d not previously known of unwisely took that opportunity to “introduce” herself by jumping into the email discussion and attacking me and my sanity. Kids these days. No respect.

I was surprised to see Muranaka take me to task for it in her Ochazuke column (“Calling a Slut a Slut,” July 16) and that her reasoning was so weak. She started off by saying, “Asian women do not want to, nor should they be called sluts,” and ended on the same point. That wasn’t the point of my column (nor should what people in general want to be called determine the words used in headlines: If someone’s found guilty of being a murderer and he insists he’s not and doesn’t want to be labeled that, should newspapers respect his wishes?).

I was raising an important question: If we see yet another Asian woman (and a married one at that) throwing herself at a white guy on a TV show for the umpteenth time, doesn’t that just hammer in the decades-long impression that Asian women are easy prey for white men?

“Slut” was not used to insult women, but to describe the situation. Heck, in the past, I’ve used slurs like “Jap” in the title of my column and that never raised a fuss because, likewise, I was discussing a serious issue (e.g., last year, I questioned a Parade article where a World War II vet repeatedly called Japanese things and people “Jap” or “Japs” and the writer didn’t clarify they’re considered racial slurs). Why do you think, if “slut” is such a terrible word to use in a headline, Muranaka used it not once but twice in the title of hers? To make a point.

Muranaka wrote: “It is hard enough for Asian American actors to find work in Hollywood, but to be characterized as ‘sluts’ within our own community must be disheartening.” It probably would be if I’d said it. I didn’t. I was referring to the character Tia Carrere played and never blamed the actress herself for taking the role, just as I usually don’t blame any Asian American actor — male or female — for accepting the parts offered them.

Unlike others, I’m not one to quote from my past columns. But I think it’s instructive in this case. In “Ken Jeong: Good Or Bad for Asian Americans?” (June 16), I noted that we’re “so used to being made fun of that almost any humorous role is inevitably labeled ‘racist’ by someone in the community even though there may be a well-meaning attempt to address matters of race and culture.”

I warned: “Of course, we have to be careful to break down what exactly is supposedly offensive about a portrayal or we risk the conclusion that Asian Americans should never be seen in any comedies ever and, by our absence, the general public might conclude we’re just not funny.”

This is what I did in our email discussion — broke down my reasoning for using the word I chose — and I’ve just expanded upon it here. I don’t believe Muranaka successfully defended her assertion either through email or in her column.

In her piece, she talked about the sexual double standards between men and women. I agree. And it must be frustrating for women to have to deal with that. What’s more, I’ll add that there are more offensive words that men can call women than vice versa. Much like there are more racial slurs whites can call minorities than the other way around. (And does “whitey” or “honky” really hurt? Of course not.) It comes down to who has the power and social standing to promote words of hate that really hurt. Because men and whites in general still rule American society, those slurs stick.

But the sexual double standard has nothing to do with the context of the way I used “slut” in my headline and article. Except that — as the class that continues to dominate our society — white men and white characters continue to get their way in the media.

It was entertaining to read some of the comments left by readers under Muranaka’s article on including a man who said that, back in high school, he would’ve punched me in the mouth and broken all my teeth for using that word. Wow. Real impressive way to bolster a point. What a Neanderthal.

Oops! That’s something that men don’t like being called. Hmm … good thing I didn’t use it in the title of my column!

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.


Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.




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