By CHRIS KOMAI
The West Coast premiere of the documentary “Right of Passage,” which takes an extensive look at the quixotic decades-long struggle for redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, was screened on Oct. 15 at the Skirball Magnin Auditorium at the Skirball Cultural Center to a capacity audience of 350.
Organized by the adult education Plato Society of Los Angeles as part the group’s Colloquium Afternoon at the Skirball, the screening was followed by a short panel discussion featuring the film’s producer/director, Janice D. Tanaka, and individuals knowledgeable on the subject of the redress campaign.
The fight for redress was the Nikkei community’s response to the U.S. government’s unconstitutional forced removal and mass incarceration of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Over 120,000 individuals, two-thirds of them American-born citizens, were falsely imprisoned in government-run domestic concentration camps. Eventually, Japanese Americans were released and set about rebuilding their lives. Many former inmates, mostly Issei and Nisei, often refused to discuss their painful experiences, even with their own families. In the 1970s, the stories began to emerge and the subject of restitution was first proposed with the advocacy of the Sansei generation.
“Right of Passage” takes on the broad landscape of Japanese American redress, which grew out of several grassroots community initiatives from around the nation. Tanaka, co-producer Nancy Araki and screenwriter/editor Sreescanda researched the story by examining recently declassified documents from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley and accessing the archives of Densho in Seattle, which provided video interviews with key figures who have passed away.
The team interviewed dozens of individuals directly involved in the legislative process, including former U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta; former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson; former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank; Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff to President Reagan; Jodie Bernstein, former chair of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC); and Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, researcher for CWRIC.
Many community members also contributed, including Alan Nishio and Miya Iwataki of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) and Cherry Kinoshita, Grace Uyehara, John Tateishi, Ron Wakabayashi and Ron Ikejiri of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Other key figures like Rose Matsui Ochi, Grant Ujifusa, Rudy Tokiwa, Glenn Roberts and Stuart Ishimaru provided insight to what is a complicated storyline, which required the filmmakers to be judicious in what went into the documentary.
“We decided we would include only those statements in the film that could be substantiated with a paper trail or came from a source with first-hand knowledge,” Tanaka explained in the film’s production notes.
The documentary utilizes Reagan as the tent pole for the entire film, beginning with his participation as an Army captain at the funeral of 442nd Regimental Combat Team soldier Kazuo Masuda, who was refused burial in his hometown of Santa Ana during the war.
Since the major legislative effort for redress occurred during Reagan’s presidency (1981-1989), it provided the backdrop for the different initiatives and events such as the National Council for Japanese American Redress (NCJAR) lawsuit, the rulings on the coram nobis cases of Fred Korematsu, Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi and the behind-the-scenes lobbying of various congressional members by community activists that proved so crucial in winning final approval.
The film also makes clear that the attitude of the Reagan Administration for most of this period was to veto any redress bill from Congress. “Right of Passage” clarifies how Reagan ultimately decided to sign the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, relying on the interviews with Duberstein and Simpson and the papers from the Reagan Library.
Following the screening, the program featured a brief panel discussion with Tanaka, Wakabayashi, former JACL national director, Iwataki and professor emeritus Art Hansen with Professor Mitch Maki as moderator.
Maki asked the panel to describe their personal remembrances after redress became law. Wakabayashi recalled taking his mother to Sumitomo Bank in Little Tokyo to deposit her redress check of $20,000. He was surprised to see a number of Issei women doing the same thing and that the bank manager made an impromptu announcement of what the checks signified.
Hansen remembered having dinner in Rhode Island with a scholar, James Sakoda, who expressed “great elation” at the bill’s passage.
Iwataki observed that “no one person” enabled redress, but thought the campaign “broke a 40-year silence” on the unfair treatment of Nikkei. She added that fighting for redress won her parents’ approval that she was “doing something important.”
Tanaka explained that she volunteered to film some of the CWRIC hearings in Los Angeles back in 1981 and how valuable that proved, since other venues like San Francisco “erased their tapes.”
Maki asked Tanaka about how the film decided to present Mike Masaoka, the long-time head of JACL, whose role during the war is the subject of much controversy. Tanaka said that she learned at film school at USC that “the best movies have well-rounded characters,” so her team was determined “to find out as much as possible” about Masaoka, including researching his papers at the University of Utah.
She compared him to Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and innovator, in that Masaoka was “a brilliant public-relations person” but also “abrasive and egotistical” and some of his ideas polarized the Nikkei community. The documentary revealed that Masaoka provided strategic advice to the JACL behind the scenes.
With a largely non-Nikkei audience in attendance, the question was raised about the use of the term “concentration camp” in the film, given the disparity of experiences between the Holocaust and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. Herzig Yoshinaga, who was in the audience, explained the desire of Japanese Americans to avoid the government’s euphemistic terminology for the camps.
Maki added that a discussion between docents from Skirball (which currently has exhibits featuring Ansel Adams’ photographs of Manzanar and the artwork of Mine Okubo about life in camp) and the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) touched on this subject. Maki noted that while the two communities disagree on the use of certain terms, they also agreed “we are not one another’s enemies in this. The true enemy is the inhumanity that both our communities faced.”
“Right of Passage” is a production of Nitto Films, part of Nitto Tire U.S.A.’s corporate social responsibility initiatives, which are the creation of Tomo Mizutani, former president of Nitto Tire and current president of Toyo Tire Holdings of the Americas and Toyo Tire U.S.A.
Ai Tokuno, who with Mizutani are the executive producers of the documentary, oversees Nitto Films, which has produced a number of documentaries on the Japanese American experience. Tanaka, who has 30 years of experience as a producer, educator and television executive, was approached by Nitto Films to develop the documentary.
Araki, the first employee of JANM and long-time community relations director, had previously worked on the redress story with Tanaka and Sreescanda for JANM’s 2008 annual dinner, which marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of redress. The film was narrated by actress Brooke Shields and was first screened in Washington, D.C.
For more information on “Right of Passage,” go to https://www.facebook.com/CivilLibertiesAct1988.