Periodically, something comes along to remind us of the fact that there is still a great deal of ignorance surrounding this part in our history, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. It almost seems like being willfully ignorant since, it seems to me that there has been so much study, so much investigation and writing about that period.
The latest reminder of this fact involves a review in the New York Times on December 9, 2011, by critic Edward Rothstein about the new museum at Powell, Wyoming, called the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center. Rothstein, in looking for reasons why this mass incarceration took place, implies that it was in part, a response to a problem of prewar affinities between Japan and these immigrants who lived on the West Coast, that these affinities were so strong that Japanese Americans were a security threat. It was badly researched and another rationalization of why this had taken place. It is saddening that after all these years, we Japanese Americans are still the suspicious parties.
One remedy for these distorted and false views of that history is to get to more honest and truthful depictions of the camps, and this year, we have the DVD version of Frank Abe’s strong and authoritative film, “Conscience and the Constitution.” First released in 2000, this documentary which focused on the story of the Heart Mountain Resisters who challenged the government’s drafting of Japanese American young men into the army, gave us a good overview of the situation, and was widely praised as an important film about the incarceration itself and the divisions within the Japanese American community at the time. Narrated by poet Lawson Inada and filmed by Phil Sturholm, this award-winning documentary gave us a deep look at the mass incarceration and has been widely shown throughout the country and garnered high praise for bringing to the forefront episodes which have been ignored and marginalized in the dominant narrative of the concentration camps.
Now, “Conscience and the Constitution” has been released as a two-disc collector’s edition with two extra hours of bonus features. As Abe notes, he has added some fascinating asides, previously unseen photos, expanded interviews like one with Ben Kuroki, a war hero who expresses his regret at the vehemence with which he denounced the resisters. In including an original featurette, “The JACL Apologizes,” the story is brought up to date. In 2002, there was a ceremony held in San Francisco by the JACL to formally extend an apology to the resisters for its role in harassing them during the war and afterward. This was a major public acknowledgement of one of the great divisions within our community as it struggles to come to an understanding of the past.
For those of us who have been deeply interested in understanding our history, the extras on this DVD expand and illuminate pieces that we didn’t know. For instance, it is riveting to see Mike Masaoka’s rebuttal to critics in a 9:06 minute-long clip at one of the JACL’s conventions. Another Masaoka audio interview by Frank Abe (at 19:07 minutes) amplifies this man’s complicated, troubled role as the JACL leader during the war. He played a major role as a spokesperson for the community and also for quite a lengthy period after the war. These are invaluable pieces to fit into the puzzle of the incarceration and how it turned out.
As Abe put it, “The film shows the price one pays for taking a principled stand. It’s also about two responses to injustice: collaboration or resistance.” As such it should be seen by every Asian American and also in all American classrooms.
Frank Abe’s new DVD of “Conscience and the Constitution” can be ordered direct by visiting: www.resisters.com or by calling (800) 343-5540. It is also for sale at Kinokuniya Bookstore at 525 S. Weller, Seattle.