NEW YORK - Last month I saw the Broadway musical “Allegiance” with my 91-year-old Nisei actress friend, Michi Kobi. Its subject is the uprooting and internment of 115,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast following Executive Order 9066 in February 1942.
In signing the order, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that a war required “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage.” In his dissent in a 6-3 decision on Korematsu v. the United States (1944), Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy called the action “the ugly abyss of racism.”
The masses of people so uprooted were dispersed in 10 “detention camps” where hastily built shacks in isolated desert or swamp areas that ranged from Heart Mountain, Wyoming, to Jerome, Arkansas. Michi, who was born and grew up in Sacramento, spent four years in the Topaz Detention Camp in Utah, 200 km southwest of Salt Lake City, from 1942 to 1945. Located in arid desert, the area had no real name until after the camp was set up.
By October 1942 some of the administrators of this “preventive detention” were beginning to feel uneasy. In fact, Milton Eisenhower (Dwight’s brother), the first director of the War Relocation Authority, was opposed to the idea of mass incarceration from the outset and resigned after just nine days; so was Dillon Myer, who succeeded him, though he stayed until the dissolution of the WRA in 1946.
One result was the “loyalty questionnaire” for the purpose of releasing the qualified detainees. The title of the musical comes from the last on the list of 28 questions that asked:
“Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?”
“Personal Justice Denied,” the report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians set up by Congress in 1980, called this question a “Hobson’s choice.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 proscribed accepting Japanese as immigrants. That meant that, saying yes, the issei, like Michi’s parents, would renounce their Japanese nationality, “men without a country.” But if you said no, it might well mean “separation from one’s family and attract suspicion to oneself as a security risk.”
The penultimate question, No. 27, asked if the respondent was willing to serve in the military. For many nisei, this question was like rubbing salt in the wound. They were American citizens and yet “detained.” Uproars ensued. The musical “Allegiance” pivots on the responses to these loyalty questions.
The protagonist Sam Kimura eagerly enlists, whereas his sister Kei and her sweetheart Frankie Suzuki say no to questions 27 and 28. After the war they become estranged.
George Takei (of Star Trek), who sowed the seeds for “Allegiance” and plays Sam in his old age in it, was 5 years old when his family became part of the mass internment. As he tells it, some years after the war he was arguing over the internment with his father, when he said, “Daddy, you led us like sheep to the slaughter, taking us into the internment camps.”
“Well, maybe you are right,” his father said, got up, went to his bedroom, and closed the door. Takei says that what became “Allegiance” is in some way his apology to his father for the unjust accusation.
One man behind the loyalty questionnaire, especially the idea of the detained nisei enlisting and fighting, was Mike Masaoka (1915-1991). He plays a loud role as an exhorter in “Allegiance” — not in the narrative background, but as a character on stage.
I knew Masaoka because he was a lobbyist for the Japanese trade agency where I worked. I met him once and wrote about his autobiography with Bill Hosokawa, “They Call Me Moses Masaoka: An American Saga” (William Morrow, 1987).
Masaoka was born in Fresno, California, where anti-Japanese agitation ran so high that President Theodore Roosevelt had to make Japan accept a “gentlemen’s agreement” for the U.S. to restrict Japanese immigrants in 1907, soon after he had declared Japan victor as the arbiter of the stalemated Russo-Japanese War. That led to part of the 1924 Immigration Act, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act.
While a student at the University of Utah, he won the top ratings in a national debate and oratorical contest, but the Salt Lake Tribune recognized him only as “an alien of Asiatic heritage.” In the end Masaoka developed “100 percent Americanism” as his credo.
Just before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he had become the Washington representative of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). His strong push for able-bodied nisei in the detention camps to enlist and “shed blood,” even form “a suicide battalion,” to prove loyalty to America came from his credo. The result was the 442nd regimental combat team. Nicknamed “Go for Broke,” it would become the most highly decorated army unit in American military history. That is, its casualty rate was disproportionate.
Sam Kimura in “Allegiance” represents Masaoka’s ideal and embodies the 442nd unit’s spirit. He enlists and returns bemedaled though wounded. He becomes alienated from Kei and Frankie. But the play ends with Sam, now old, discovering that Kei, now dead, had kept the Life magazine showing his heroic actions during the war. A Broadway musical must end uplifting.
In reality, Masaoka’s advocacy of unquestioning cooperation with the U.S. policy created considerable resentment, at the time and later, as Masaoka himself noted in his autobiography and as my friend Michi knows.
Nine years after his death, in 2000, a “seething” protest surfaced when the proposal arose to include Masaoka’s words unstintingly praising America in the inscriptions on the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II in Washington.
To say, “America has always been hostile to immigrants,” as the Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell did not long ago, may be going too far. But the scar that the civil rights leader Mike Masaoka carried shows that the road to immigration and assimilation in America has been at times tortuous.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.