By Pat Launer
You might think the Germans cornered the market on camps. It may surprise you to know the U.S. had a few of its own.
This is one of the uglier pages ripped from the American history book.
Three months after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, early in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced evacuation and incarceration of all west coast residents with Japanese ancestry. Two thirds of the nearly 120,000 sent to hastily built “war relocation camps” were American citizens.
Two years later, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the order.
It wasn’t until 1988, in recognition of the injustice, that President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government, admitting its actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The government eventually paid more than $1.6 billion in reparations to survivors and their heirs. It’s noteworthy that, during the war, U.S. citizens of Italian and German ancestry were never interned or incarcerated.
In 1994, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles mounted a record-breaking exhibition called “America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering the Japanese American Experience,” which has traveled to various locations, including Ellis Island and the Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. The exhibition was designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Inc., the designers of the permanent exhibition for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The title of the show was not arrived at lightly. (Presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman also referred to the internment facilities as “concentration camps”). The terminology was arrived at, as the text for the exhibit reports, “after extensive discussion with scholars and leaders in both the Japanese American and American Jewish communities.”
A ‘concentration camp,’ the museum asserts, is “a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they committed, but simply because of who they are. The term ‘concentration camp’ was first used at the turn of the 20th century in the Spanish American and Boer wars. In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia. Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population, and the rest of society let it happen.”
Oaths, the 442nd and Dachau
Japanese–American men were initially categorized as “enemy aliens,” and were therefore not subject to the draft. But in 1943, the U.S. government reversed its decision and approved the formation of a Japanese–American combat unit. All internees were required to respond to a loyalty questionnaire, which was used to register the Nisei (second generation American-born Japanese Americans) for the draft.
There were two controversial parts of the form. Question 27 asked, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Question 28 asked, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America … and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor?”
Nearly a quarter of the Nisei males answered both questions with a No (they would come to be known as No-Nos, and they would be subject to increased hardship in the U.S.). But more than 75 percent answered both questions in the affirmative.
Some 14,000 men eventually served in the ranks of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated unit in the entire history of the U.S. Military.
The 442nd also helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. In one of the great ironies of our history, these Japanese American soldiers were liberating a camp abroad while their family members were interned in camps at home.
George Takei and “Allegiance”
All this forms the backdrop of “Allegiance: A New American Musical,” premiering at the Old Globe Sept. 7-Oct. 21.
The plot of the play is inspired by the life-story of George Takei, acclaimed and beloved actor, author and activist known worldwide for his performance as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the “Star Trek” Starship Enterprise. In his five-decade career, he recreated that role over three TV seasons and in six “Star Trek” movies, and he appeared in other films, commercials, video games and TV shows (currently, “Supah Ninjahs!”). He co-wrote a sci-fi novel, “Mirror Friend” (with Robert Asprin) and an autobiography, “To the Stars.”
In “Allegiance,” the 75-year-old Takei plays two roles (a cynical father and a free-spirited Japanese-speaking grandfather), joining renowned Broadway actors Lea Salonga (the original “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miz”) and Telly Leung (“Flower Drum Song,” “Godspell,” “Glee”).
“The whole project began in a theater — prophetically,” Takei says, in that glorious, resonant, signature voice of his. “My husband, Brad, and I are avid theatergoers. We go almost every night when we’re in New York,” the L.A.-based icon continues. “We were seeing ‘In the Heights,’ and near the intermission, the father has a song, ‘Inútil,’ Useless. He wants to do so much for his family, but he feels ineffectual. That triggered a memory of mine, the anguish my father went through in the Arkansas internment camp where I spent four years, from age 5 to 9.
“I started bawling. At the intermission, a man sitting in front of us, who turned out to be Jay Kuo, noticed the tears cascading down my cheeks. I told him about my father and the internment camp experience, and he became very interested, and said, ‘It sounds like there’s a drama in that.’”
Kuo convinced Takei that a musical can be forceful in telling even somber stories, and he wound up writing the music, lyrics and book (the latter along with Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione) of “Allegiance.”
Another potent memory was triggered in a theater when Takei was in Tokyo about 10 years ago, where he attended an all-Japanese production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“It’s amazing how universal the story is,” he says. “The values of Jewish and Japanese families are so similar.
“As a Japanese-American, watching the Czar’s soldiers coming down to rout the townspeople of Anatevka reminded me of when I was 5 years old, and two soldiers stomped up and banged on the door and ordered my family out. I’ll never forget it.
“That show was a profoundly moving and powerful experience for me, an amazing experience. That’s how we hope ‘Allegiance’ will be received — and will have that long a life.”
“Allegiance: A New American Musical”
The play begins in December 2001, on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (three months after Sept. 11). The Japanese American Citizens League is honoring one representative of the 442nd Regiment: Col. Sam Kimura, age 77, winner of a Purple Heart. This triggers Sam’s memories of the war and his internment, a time that would “live in infamy” for many Japanese Americans.
“It’s a fictionalized family in the play,” says Takei, “but there’s one historic character, Mike Masaoka,” the national secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
“Mike was a charismatic, eloquent orator,” Takei recalls, “who so endeared himself to the government, he’s the one who lobbied to get a segregated, all-Japanese unit in the U.S. Army. The 442nd was the single most decorated unit, but it also had the highest rate of combat casualty.” That’s because it was sent on the most dangerous missions.
“The internment fractured the Japanese American community,” Takei continues, “in terms of who was a hero and who was not. The resisters were heroes to me, just like the 442nd. But many No-Nos were ostracized from their community, and within their family.”
All this finds its way into the play.
“My parents were No-Nos,” Takei says proudly. “My mother was born in Sacramento. She had three young children; she wasn’t about to take that oath. My father, who was born in Japan, from age 9, was raised and educated in San Francisco.
“The loyalty questionnaire was outrageous, insulting and stupid. Everyone over age 17 was forced to sign, whether you were a kid or an 87- year-old immigrant lady. Asking people to forswear loyalty to the Emperor of Japan assumes that they have existing loyalty to the Emperor, which is offensive to Americans, or anyone who grew up in America.
“Thousands bit the bullet, swallowed their pride and said Yes, as suggested by the JACL. But those who said ‘No, I am an American,’ were sent from the internment camps to a high-security facility for disloyals.
“That was Tule Lake in Northern California, near the Oregon border. There were three layers of barbed wire fences and a half-dozen tanks patrolling. All this for innocent citizens!
“There were 10 internment camps altogether,” Takei explains, “all in the most godforsaken places: the blistering heat of Arizona, the swamps of Arkansas, the wind-blown, high plains of Wyoming and the most desolate parts of California.”
In the new musical, the Kimura family is sent to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. As old Sam (Takei) looks back, he watches young Sammy (Leung) and his sister Kei (Salonga), torn between loyalty to their family and allegiance to their country.
“Children adapt to the most grotesque abnormalities,” Takei admits. “We dealt with barbed wire, sentry towers, mass showers, lining up to eat in a noisy mess hall.
“When I returned to L.A. from the camps,” he recalls, “I felt like an immigrant in my own home. We had to live in skid row, filled with scary, ugly, smelly people, staggering and falling and barfing around us. It was a hell-hole. My teacher kept calling me “the Jap boy.” My parents were so wounded, I never told them. It’s hard to believe, but we actually missed the ‘normality’ and regimentation of the camps.”
Takei takes to the camps
Takei has made ‘pilgrimages’ to the camps where his family spent time: Tule Lake, Calif., and Rohwer, Ark.
“The most powerful and poignant thing that remains at Rohwer is the cemetery,” he says. “The old people and the babies didn’t survive the ordeal.
“My father was one of few who talked about it after the war. He also talked about the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy. ‘A people’s democracy,’ he said, ‘is only as great — and as fallible — as the people. So we have to be actively engaged in the democratic process.’”
Takei took those words to heart. He speaks at many organizations, corporations and universities about human rights, the Japanese American internment, gay rights and other issues. He even ran for city council in L.A. When, in the 1970s, a congressional commission was formed to examine the internment, he testified. And when he received his share of the reparation funds, he donated his money to the Japanese American National Museum, which he had helped to found and ehere he served as board president.
Takei wanted to see “the extreme form” of what he experienced in the camps. So he went to Dachau in Germany.
“It was a sobering experience. In my mind, I’ve always tried to draw a strong distinction between the internment camps and the extermination camps. And what had the Jews done to deserve death? The stereotype was that they were ‘shrewd.’ Just like we’re supposed to be ‘inscrutable.’ That was our crime.
“In America, we were singled out. We were the only ‘new Americans’ who couldn’t aspire to citizenship. And the Alien Land Law of 1913 further denied us the right to own land.
To boldly go…
“Every time we’ve presented one of ‘Allegiance’s’ many incarnations,” says Takei, “the intensity of the emotions has been profound. But it’s not all serious; it has many light moments. And glorious music.
“Each period of the American musical has been defined by individual composer/lyricists: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim. I truly think Jay Kuo’s name will define another period of American musical theater.”
The plan is to take “Allegiance” to Broadway next spring. New York and Tokyo producers will be attending the San Diego premiere.
“It’s a human story and an American story,” Takei says. “I see it as my passion project and my legacy project. So far, I’m inextricably identified with ‘Star Trek.’ I do think ‘Allegiance’ will be another dimension to my legacy. It’s the exteriors of the story of my life, though not exactly my story. But this story is part of what shaped me. It’s about the incredible heroism of the 442nd and the heroism of the resisters, who inspired me to be who I am. Being part of this new musical is thrilling, gratifying and soul-satisfying.”
• “Allegiance: A New American Musical” runs Sept. 7-Oct. 21 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. No performance Oct. 11. Previews run on a slightly different schedule, Sept. 7-18.
Tickets start at $39. Call (619) 234-5623 or visit www.theoldglobe.org to buy yours.
In conjunction with the premiere, the Old Globe will present “The Tag Project,” a large-scale sculptural installation created by San Diego artist Wendy Maruyama, memorializing the 120,000 internees with replicas of their historic ID tags, specifying their name, number and the camp to which they were relocated.
The Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles has a permanent exhibition on the Japanese American internment.