AARP Presents: The Untold Story of Japanese Americans During WWII (Narrated by George Takei)
Washington DC USA
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We went to war and tore up the Bill of Rights. We swept the Pacific coast of more than 110,000 men, women and children and put them behind barbed wire in desolate areas across the West and as far east as Arkansas. We had our own American concentration camps
. The average detainee was 19 years old.
We said we had to have the camps because we couldn't trust those people. We didn't know whose side they'd be on if the Japanese staged an attack on the home soil. California's attorney general said his state was due for a hit "just like Pearl Harbor" and the fact that it hadn't happened meant that it was going to happen. The state attorney general was Earl Warren, and he went on to become Chief Justice of the United States.
Pearl Harbor had made us angry and fearful and we collectively punished people with Japanese names. Later in the war, when we came partially to our senses--but still had the camps--we opened the door to military service for Japanese Americans willing to volunteer. And there were volunteers. The Japanese American force that fought in Europe during World War Two remains to this day, for its size, the most decorated unit in the history of American arms.
Some--a very few--fought in the courts. They resisted the government. Their lawyers stood in the Supreme Court and called upon the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton. They lost. And then they won.
What a story. I was asked to write and direct a piece on it by David Pepper in the broadcast department at AARP. At the time, I knew a little about the camps, less about the soldiers, and nothing about the resisters. So I did the only thing you can do when you're ignorant. You hurry up and learn.
If you're going to tell a story, you've got to know where to start. This one starts at Pearl Harbor. But how do you do Pearl Harbor in a way that hasn't been done before?
Maybe you don't even try. You just look back and see how it's been done best.
I took my inspiration from James Jones' novel From Here to Eternity
--the source for the movie with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and that passionate sea foam. Jones was an Army private in an outlying barracks on the morning of December 7th. His account of the attack, starting with the first tremor underfoot in the mess hall, is confined to one little corner of the chaos--just what he himself could see and hear. There's nothing Tolstoyan or panoramic in the telling. All the writer gives us is one wrinkle on the skin of the elephant. (The movie's sequence is fairly true to Jones' vision. Apart from some actual footage and exploding miniatures--which feel like a betrayal--the cameras stay inside the quad and on the roof of the barracks while Lancaster leads his riflemen as if it's all great fun. "Here they come, boys!" The war was young.)
I felt that the way Jones told the story was a good way to do it again. It gave me a guideline, an ethic. And I was lucky to have something very much like it in the tale told by Navy Lieutenant Janelle Kuroda, whose grandmother was working in a shop in Honolulu that Sunday morning when the world changed.
Lieutenant Janelle Kuroda, U.S. Navy. Click image for larger view.
I interviewed Lieutenant Kuroda to have her tell the story as her grandmother told it to her. And I kept the visuals simple. It's like that line in a thousand screenplays: WHAT SHE SEES. She didn't see Pearl Harbor under attack. She saw planes zooming by and smoke in the distance. I used period photographs of the same kind of carrier-based Japanese aircraft--the famous Zeros--flown by the Imperial Navy at the start of the war. (I used audio of the Mitsubishi engines. Aircraft have voices.) I used an extraordinary shot of two women, one with a dog in her arms, rushing to take shelter in Army housing. And a shot by a Navy photographer who trained his lens on a Zero coming right at him. I tried to tell the story from the point of view of one person one morning when the air was filled with planes flying so low, she could see the pilots' eyes.
A Japanese bomber [Zero] was photographed by a U.S. Navy photographer as the plane approached Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Click image for larger view.
And I let the audience think, for a full minute, that the woman on the ground might have been transplanted from Indiana and had hair the color of cornsilk. She looks up and sees a face from the other side of the planet. We see the pilot Fusata Iida, whose Zero was knocked down by American gunners as he strafed Kanoehe Bay naval air station on the other side of Oahu.
Sometimes you have to conceal first and reveal later. Tell the truth, but wait. I wanted to hold off before letting it be known that our Pearl Harbor eyewitness was herself of Japanese descent, that the attack was frightening to her in a very special way, and that her granddaughter serves today in the United States Navy.
The show is called "Honorable Journey." I think the journey is contained in that one transition.
There's an advantage to knowing next to nothing about your subject. It gives you a feel for your audience. You are the audience. So you take your cues from that.
Sifting through the history of the 1940s, I cast myself as the man on the street, early 21st century. And I couldn't get over the fact that so many people were so passive about what was being done to them. They were ordered to leave their homes, get rid of their belongings and settle their affairs in a matter of days, and they did it. They reported to so-called "assembly centers" like good citizens lining up at the polls to vote--nearly two-thirds of them were citizens. They wore their Sunday best. They smiled and went quietly behind barbed wire. Then, even more remarkably, thousands of them fought for the same flag that waved over windblown camps in the deserts of California and Utah and New Mexico and Wyoming.
Japanese American woman reporting to assembly center, dignified, confident and wearing her Sunday best. Click image for larger view.
It's astonishing. How could they have shown such faithfulness, such loyalty to a country that had so violated their rights? But when I asked that question to veterans and others of the Nisei generation--the Nisei were the generation that came of age during World War Two--I began to understand that the question itself is an anachronism. It's today talking.
If you're as lucky as I was, and you're given a chance to listen to people of that generation, I expect you'll be asked to look at the 1940s through the lens of the time, when the Japanese Americans were caught as unprepared as the Navy on December 7th. You'll be asked to consider that, far from being fools, they were realists, pragmatists, politically weak but tough-minded, playing the hand they were dealt.
You may also hear some Japanese expressions. Shikata ga nai
, meaning, It can't be helped. Make the best of it.
A philosophy born on a set of islands in the western Pacific where centuries of natural disasters--tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions--have yielded almost a template for dealing with adversity of all kinds. Amid the ruins, carry on. No grudges.
. Endurance. No whining. Keep your dignity.
And of course, samurai
. The samurai dedicates his life to service. When I asked Terry Shima, a veteran of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team (442nd RCT), how he could account for the extraordinary spirit of sacrifice among Japanese American soldiers, he reflected and said: "It might be something in the national heritage. The way of life. The samurai."
Listening to Terry Shima
(and others), I couldn't help but be struck by the way the Nisei, in a time of crisis, found strength and guidance in traditional Japanese values. So you say the government's herding us into camps? Shikata ga nai.
Yes, it's injust, it's wrong, it's unAmerican--but you must show gaman
. The nation's asking for warriors? Young men, sharpen your swords.
WWII Veteran Terry Shima, 442nd RCT, was one of 18 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, as he "ensured returning heroes received a welcome befitting their service and sacrifice." Click image for larger view.
To ask about the how and the why of the Nisei fighters of World War Two is to be shown the way to a distinctly American paradox. The paradox of a nation whose lifeblood is transfused from other nations. The Nisei fighters proved their loyalty to America not simply by fighting, but by becoming more Japanese.
World War Two veteran Senator Daniel Inouye. Click image for larger view.
Daniel Inouye was the most famous of the fighters. In northern Italy in 1945, as a second lieutenant in the 442nd RCT, Inouye was shot in the stomach as he led his squad uphill against a heavily defended German line. The bullet came out his back but he kept going. He'd just pulled the pin on a grenade when a German gunner shattered his arm. The grenade was still in Inouye's hand. He used his other hand to grab and throw the grenade and fire his machine gun until another bullet hit him in the leg and brought him down. He lost the arm and spent most of the next two years in Army hospitals. He served 50 years in the Senate and died last December. I feel very fortunate to have met him.
We talked last year on April 15--I remember it was tax day--fittingly, in the Senate Appropriations Committee room in the U.S. Capitol, where the wise men and women gather to decide how to spend the People's money.
The things we talked about were seven decades old. The Senator's face darkened and lit up and darkened again as if it were all very fresh and needed telling. His aide interrupted. They were calling a vote on the floor and the Senator should go. Inouye turned and said in a way that was deadly soft and quite intimidating:
"No. Not now."
He took me back to the world and the culture he came from. "It was a culture where if papa says, 'Do this,' you don't argue. If papa says, 'Do your best, fight, and if you must, die with honor,' he meant it."
It was a culture that didn't produce many resisters--and those few who did emerge faced long and lonely struggles.
The very idea of resistance--of resisting the government in any way--ran counter to the almost reflexive respect for authority, the fatalism and the realism of the majority of Japanese Americans. They knew what forces were arrayed against them and they felt that to attract negative attention was to play into the hands of the racists. Add to this the general truth that combat veterans rarely have sympathy for the able-bodied who refuse to go to war. The refusal may have all the principle in the world behind it. But it doesn't sit well with the man who's been to the battlefield.
Imagine then that you're young and idealistic and refuse to go to a camp or get drafted and you make a federal case out of it. As hard as it is to be a soldier, at least you've got your battle buddies. If you're a resister, you may not even have your family behind you.
Gordon Hirabayashi, a Seattle resident, was one young man determined to make his point and willing to pay the price. He was 23 years old in March 1942, when all Japanese Americans within 100 miles of the Pacific had to be off the streets from dusk to dawn. He kept a journal of his curfew violations and turned himself in to the FBI. In May, when the choice was either camp or jail, he chose jail. Later in the war, he served a year in federal prison as a draft resister.
Gordon Hirabayashi and his wife, Esther. Click image for larger view.
His mother "begged him not to do it," said his nephew, Lane Hirabayashi, whom I interviewed at UCLA, where he teaches Asian American studies. Lane got to know his uncle best through his letters and prison diary. Gordon's mother "didn't want the family split up, because for that generation of Japanese Americans the family was the key thing," Lane told me. "And she was crying." Seeing her cry was "harder than the FBI agents, harder than the marshals, harder than the warden." But the son said to her, "You got to understand. I have to do this."
Fred Korematsu, from Oakland, was arrested and sent to a camp for refusing to go voluntarily. His fellow detainees were afraid to be seen talking to him. When he decided to take Uncle Sam to court, his brothers were "dead set" against it, said Dale Minami, an attorney who represented Korematsu in the 1980s. Korematsu had "virtually no friends to support him," Minami told me in his offices in San Francisco. They said, "Fred, don't rock the boat. You're just going to lose and it's going to cause more problems for us."
Fred Korematsu in his later years. Click image for larger view.
The case names say it all. Hirabayashi v. United States
(1943). Korematsu v. United States
(1944). Might as well have been David v. Goliath. This being the 1940s, not the Bible, the little guy got hammered. He didn't talk about it for years. Karen Korematsu, Fred's daughter, never heard of her father's case until high school, when another girl gave a book report and the family name came up in class. Some things, you don't talk about. For decades, Hirabayashi and Korematsu were names you did not bring up in polite company--and never among veterans.
Daniel Inouye changed that. Long after the war, the warrior distinguished himself once again. He spoke out in defense of the resisters. And when Inouye spoke, the community listened.
"I've always felt that physical courage is a bit easier than moral courage." Inouye told me. "Thank God for Fred Korematsu."
If something like the camps were ever to happen again--would we see another unit like the 442nd? Volunteers from behind the barbed wire, fighting for their country despite the injustice? We would not, the Senator said. Fewer volunteers. Fewer soldiers. Fewer like Inouye. More like Korematsu. "Not just one. Hundreds of them."
And the way the Senator's father told him to go to war--that's an order, son--it wouldn't work today.
"I don't think I could say that to my son," Inouye said.
"Well, we got a bit more Westernized."
They were a generation born in this country of parents born in Japan. They grew up to be soldiers or they grew up to be resisters but they sat together in the same American classrooms. They sat in those old maplewood two-seaters with the cast iron legs and the inkwells and the pencil-carved veins in the wood and they heard memorable words and phrases. Democracy. Due process. Created equal. We hold these truths to be self-evident.
Justice Department lawyers knowingly withheld evidence in a Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of the internment camps. Click image for larger view.
Surely they studied Lincoln too. They read the Gettysburg Address
. Its structure is perfect. It's in three parts. The first part runs about 100 words. Lincoln sets the stage. We're here to dedicate a cemetery. The second part's about 60 words long. My words may be forgotten, Lincoln says, but the dead will live forever in memory. The third part takes us home. It's all so clear, you can take each part and boil it down to a sentence:
- We are here today to honor those who died here.
- We are not worthy.
- But we will do everything in our power to see that they did not die in vain.
Classic dialectic--yes, no, yes. And the second yes is so very different from the first. Lincoln tells a story. Designing my tale of the Nisei, I tried to build an argument from parts I could boil down to a sentence each:
- Pearl Harbor was a tragedy for Japanese Americans (00:00 to 03:39).
- But when given a chance to prove their loyalty to America, they answered the call (03:40 to 04:20).
- At first, boys from the mainland and boys from Hawaii didn't get along (04:21 to 06:12).
- The turning point came when the Hawaiians learned about the concentration camps on the mainland (06:13
And so on. In good storytelling there's a healthy push-pull that lends itself to simple formulations like these. First this idea, then that idea, then this other idea. One follows another. You can't switch them around any more than you can reshuffle events in a drama. First this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened. All leading to a conclusion.
It's the tyranny of narrative--the cruel fact that every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. There's an arc, a narrative arc. The arc can be dangerous. Left to the suits, it can kill an otherwise decent story. Steven Soderbergh
said in a recent interview that he's so fed up with the tyranny of narrative, he's quitting the movies.
For better or for worse, I felt the need to find and tease out the arc and eliminate just about everything else. And to capture the Nisei story in a single sentence. Tragedy and belated triumph. Strength of course--plenty of strength to go around--but an "Honorable Journey" lasting 70 years.
The journey was step by step. Eventually, the government wrote every camp survivor a check for $20,000 (it's the thought that counts). Two Presidents--Reagan in 1988 and the first Bush in '92--extended a formal apology to Japanese Americans. Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, and California and Utah now have a Fred Korematsu Day
. In 2011, the surviving Nisei veterans received the Congressional Gold Medal. (Hundreds of them came to Washington for the event--a gathering of old fighters, some bent over, some in wheelchairs, caps on heads, carrying themselves with a colossal dignity.) And in 2012, Gordon Hirabayashi, though no longer alive to accept it, got his own Presidential Medal of Freedom.
From jail cell and concentration camp to the highest honors in the land--that's an arc. You can't fight it. So I had an interesting problem on my hands when the time came to make an editorial decision about a woman named Mitsuye Endo
. She's not famous--though she ought to be. I've seen pictures of this petite, shy-looking young woman who wore bobby pins in her hair, and each time I've thought, That lady had guts
Mitsuye Endo's is a David and Goliath story with the traditional ending, but it's David's sister whirling the sling. She was 22 when Pearl Harbor happened and she had a job as a key punch operator with the Department of Employment in Sacramento. Within weeks, she was fired for being Japanese American. (She wasn't alone--if you were employed by the state of California and had a Japanese surname, you were fired.) Then, like many thousands of others, she and her family were sent into internal exile.
Late in '42, the War Relocation Authority--the federal agency in charge of the camps--started letting people out. It was as close as the government came in wartime to admitting that the camps just might have been an overreaction. (By the end of '44, some 35,000 had already been released.) If you could prove you were a good American (which appears to have consisted, partly, in not knowing Japanese) and had a job lined up east of the Rockies (where presumably you couldn't radio to Japanese submarines), you could leave. Mitsuye Endo met those requirements. She passed the loyalty test. She had the government's own Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and that's exactly why she elected to stay inside the barbed wire. She agreed to have her name attached to a test case brought by James Purcell, a civil rights lawyer from San Francisco, challenging the detention without trial of Japanese Americans. Mitsuye Endo could have walked out of the camp in 1942. But she was willing, in the name of justice for all, to remain incarcerated for another two years.
In December of '44 she ran to the next barracks block with a telegram in her hand. She showed it to a friend and they danced for joy. The Supreme Court had ruled in her favor. The ruling came out after--literally the day after--President Roosevelt rescinded the order that had created the camps in the first place.
I had two strong interviews. I had a script. Editor and co-producer Scott Newman created a three-minute account of Mitsuye Endo's sacrifice and victory, for insertion about three-quarters of the way through "Honorable Journey." Then we looked at it, and we could feel the loss of tension.
Hitchcock used to say that if you put the audience through the ringer--if you keep increasing the tension--and you fail to release it at the end, they'll hate you for it. You owe it to the audience to release the tension--but only at the end. If you do it too soon, they may not hate you but they'll be disappointed in you, and maybe that's just as bad. From a dramatic point of view, the Endo case was a triumph that came too soon. It lessened the impact of the whole, in other words, the end. So, with regret, we had to let Mitsuye Endo go. We never said we'd cover everything. Anyway, she deserves her own show. I'd love to do it.
I think the tyranny of narrative is in our DNA. It's the voice of the Cro-Magnon campfire. Listen, we had a devil of a time bagging that mammoth. Then the sabertoothed tiger pounced and I didn't think we were going to make it. But as you see, we triumphed in the end. Enjoy your steak.
WWII veteran Susumu "Sus" Ito and grandson. Sus received a Bronze Star for providing artillery fire in the rescue of the 'Lost Battalion' in Bruyeres, France. Click image for larger view.
Even if we built it, they wouldn't come. Even if we tried mass detentions again, the targeted population wouldn't go as quietly as the Nisei. The American concentration camps of the 1940s seem very much of their time--like Betty Grable, B-24s and carpet bombing. We don't carpet-bomb anymore. Our bombs have gotten smarter. We have laser-guided missiles. We have drones. We're surgical now. We target individuals. We still have indefinite detention without trial.
"In times of war, civil rights will suffer," Dale Minami told me. "The most recent example is the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act that President Obama signed. It allows for indefinite detention based on suspicion--which is pretty much the Korematsu case, the original Korematsu case. That's a civil rights disaster."
Forty years after the Supreme Court decided against Fred Korematsu, attorney Dale Minami challenged the decision in US District Court.
Minami wasn't born when the original Korematsu case was in play, but he led the team that reopened it in the 1980s. The story is told in "Honorable Journey." It's about top government lawyers who knowingly suppressed evidence. But it ended well for Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi, who'd had felony convictions attached to their names for 40 years.
And it speaks to our post-9/11 world. To the danger of overreacting to danger. The old decisions from World War Two--the Supreme Court decisions aimed at justifying the camps--are an embarrassment today. Citing them will get you nowhere in a court of law. Ruling on Guantanamo detainees, the Supreme Court "goes out of its way," Minami said, "to avoid discussing the Korematsu case." Or the Hirabayashi case. In 2011, the Justice Department issued a "confession of error
" for the way it handled those cases.
"We've got to be careful and we've got to fight for our rights every time," Minami said. "If we fail to remember the lessons of what happened to Japanese Americans, the lessons of the mistakes that were made--that you can't arrest and detain people indefinitely on just suspicion--then we're walking down that same road that led to one of the greatest civil rights disasters this country has seen."
We look back, and it wasn't all bad. Not if we look at the whole story. For if Presidential apologies, Presidential Medals of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medals are the stuff of vindication, then the Nisei were vindicated. It took too long and many never lived to see it, but they won. "That's one thing about democracy," Senator Inouye told me. "You must be patient." As the Senator spoke, I thought, America isn't the snapshot. It isn't the single frame. America is the movie.
Title graphic: American Concentration Camp in Manzanar, CA. The Japanese word gaman, which means Endurance, No whining, Keep your dignity, also appears on the graphic.
YouTube video link for the movie: http://youtu.be/p8ZvhUcHrQU