Sunday, February 19, 2017

Remembering Japanese internment camps.

Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain
Today is the 75th anniversary of the start of a dark chapter in US history. On this day in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the United States to be rounded up and relocated to internment camps. We had been at war with Japan since just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and it was feared that people of Japanese heritage living in the US would betray our country. About 120,000 people were affected by the executive order. They lost their homes and their savings, and were uprooted for as long as four years.

I had no idea about any of this until George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on the original Star Trek TV show, started talking about it. He and some Broadway producers and writers were developing a musical called Allegiance. Takei himself was interred in one of the camps; his family was held in a camp in Arkansas when he was a child. Allegiance opened on Broadway in September 2012 and closed last February -- but not before one of the live performances was filmed. The resulting movie was shown in a limited engagement this past December, and sold out nationwide. Today, it was shown again.

I missed the screening in December, but I'd heard good things about it, so I made it my business to go today. It was well worth it. The story follows the Kimura family, farmers in Salinas, California. Tatsuo Kimura's wife died while giving birth to their son Sam, and it was up to the widower and the couple's daughter, Kei, to raise the boy. Sam is a college kid, applying to law school to make his father happy, when the executive order goes out. All three of them, plus Tatsuo's father, are sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming.

I won't say much more about the plot -- the movie will be released on DVD someday and I don't want to be accused of spoiling it (although if you want more info, there's a plot summary on Wikipedia). Suffice it to say that the experience takes its toll on the Kimuras, finally causing a rift that separates Sam from his family for decades.

The show is both wonderful and heart-wrenching; I blubbered at multiple moments. I was so wrapped up in the family's story that I was shocked when the US military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's not that I didn't know it was coming. It's that I realized the characters in the show might well have had family and friends in those cities. How awful to find out, in such a callous way, that your relatives and friends are likely dead.

The topics dramatized in Allegiance have a special resonance in the United States today. We're seeing the same sort of mistrust of Muslims -- and Hispanics and blacks -- that caused Roosevelt to go to the extreme of ordering the incarceration of Japanese Americans without due process. It's a sad, shameful chapter in our history, and not enough people know about it.

It's easy -- too easy -- to categorize people of another color or religion as "other," and it's a short step from there to treating them as less than human. But the cost of such behavior is always too high.  Allegiance is a reminder of that cost. See it if you get the chance.

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These moments of bloggy remembering have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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