By FLOYD MORI
Having heard about the somewhat negative portrayal of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and one of its early leaders, Mike Masaoka, in the musical “Allegiance,” I was a bit skeptical about seeing the show. However, I bought tickets and went to see it in New York City.
Mike Masaoka was a personal friend who had lived in Utah, where I was born and raised. He and his family were living in Utah during the war, which is why he never went to “camp.” He did volunteer for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army.
I have been a member and leader in the JACL for many years. I had heard that these two very personal connections to my life were not treated well in the play, although some changes were made from the original version. Because of my involvement in the JACL and my friendship with Mike, I can make the claim of one with a personal stake in the musical.
While I watched this fictional play of a true part of history, I realized that it was a fictional play with all the elements you would want to find in a play — love, laughter, sympathy, sadness, and a villain (the JACL and Mike). I must admit that I did cringe at some of the depictions of a few parts of that history that were not factually correct and did not portray Mike as the Mike I knew and admired.
I was the national president of the JACL in 2002 when the organization held a public ceremony at which I made an apology to the Resisters of Conscience on behalf of the JACL. The JACL National Board had voted to make an apology to the resisters for the actions of the JACL during those difficult times when our government pitted family members against family members and people of conscience against other people of a different conviction through a so-called loyalty questionnaire.
“Allegiance” portrays how the Japanese American community was disrupted from a life that had improved and had hopes for better things. The bombing of Pearl Harbor put those dreams on hold and postponed a life of emerging greatness and equality for all. The play shows that there were differing views within the Japanese American community on how they should go about realizing the future of their dreams and goals. It was the same Japanese value of “gaman” (perseverance and enduring with patience) that drove each of the factions.
Patriotism has many manifestations, and several were portrayed vividly in song and the spoken word. The songs carried important messages, and the actors portrayed the characters well. The fact that Japanese Americans were incarcerated in prison camps simply for being of a particular ethnicity was effectively portrayed. Although there are some inaccuracies in the fictional play, “Allegiance” is doing a good job in helping to tell the Japanese American story.
The situation and conditions of that period created decades of conflict between generations, between siblings, between Japanese Americans and the majority population, and among the Japanese American community. The heartache and mental anguish were realities of life and of the musical production.
We should applaud the writers and actors for telling a story that shows that our government can and did do wrong when prompted by bigotry and war hysteria. I recommend all to see this glimpse into the lives of people who had been violated and stripped of their constitutional rights during World War II.
Lea Salonga’s voice resonated throughout the play, and Telly Leung was perfect in the role of Sammy. George Takei proves that he can still act (and sing, for that matter). George is a personal friend, and I want to support and commend him.
We who have been so close to the issue may desire to fine-tune the notes of the melody for exactness in structure. We then miss the impact of the song and its total message. “Allegiance” has its flaws in telling the exact history, but the messages of the play are important for all to hear and to benefit from its lessons of betrayal by our own government.
It was a great evening on Broadway watching “Allegiance” with my granddaughter, Maiya Larsen, a college freshman, who also enjoyed the show. I came away from the play entertained and recommitted to doing what I can do to make sure that all aspects of the World War II unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans are told.
For anyone interested in learning more about the Japanese American story, check out the book “The Japanese American Story as Told Through a Collection of Speeches and Articles.” Information about the JACL, Mike Masaoka, the Resisters of Conscience, the 442nd, the camps (including Heart Mountain and Tule Lake), and other aspects of the Japanese American story are covered. The speech to the Resisters of Conscience in 2002 is included in the book, which is featured at this website where all Amazon products are available, www.travelthroughhistory.info. The book’s website is www.thejapaneseamericanstory.tateauthor.com.
Floyd Mori is president and CEO of APAICS (Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies), based in Washington, D.C., and former national president and national executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.