Kyodo News Feature by Justin Maki
NEW YORK – In a breathless sequence that starts with the Pearl Harbor address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Kimura family loses everything. They are removed from a life of peace and prosperity on a California artichoke farm and herded by U.S. troops into the stark, militarized environs of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, in overcrowded conditions and with nothing but a few bags and the clothes on their backs.
This early number from “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical starring George Takei and inspired by the actor’s childhood experiences in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II, dramatizes the tumult that led to the 1942-1945 incarceration of some 120,000 civilians of Japanese ancestry in ten remote locations across seven U.S. states.
Posed as a national security measure during the war with Japan, the so-called “relocation” of Japanese Americans was deemed by a federal commission in 1983 to have been driven chiefly by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” — the type of convergence Takei warns is possible in today’s U.S. political climate and that he hopes to help inoculate his viewers against with “Allegiance.”
“This is a musical that I’m so proud of, but it’s also something that I consider to be an important contribution to America now, when a presidential campaign is going on which is using the same broad brush that put us in those barbed wire prison camps,” Takei said at a December press event, referencing 2016 Republican aspirant Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the country following the mass shooting by two Muslim extremists in San Bernardino, California that claimed 14 lives.
Takei continues to speak out against racial and religious discrimination in his many media appearances and to his online following of over 9 million Facebook users and approximately 1.75 million followers on Twitter.
“There are lots of right-wing Republicans who support (Trump’s) position, which is an ignorant position and full of fear of the unknown,” Takei told Kyodo News at the Dec. 10 unveiling of a New York City tourist bus bearing the “Star Trek” actor’s image. “If they knew our history, they would not be victimized by politicians who would exploit their ignorance.”
Two recent attendees of the musical who, like Takei, spent some of their early childhood years in an internment camp, lifelong friends Meiko Mills and Victor Kato agreed that not enough Americans understand the issue and praised the show’s dramatization of it for a wider audience. “Even to this day, if we talk about (the camps), a lot of people don’t know what we’re talking about,” said Kato, 73, a retired dentist who was born in Arizona’s Gila River camp exactly one year to the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“We’re always amazed at how many people do not know the camps existed,” added Mills, 73, a former registered nurse who lives in Florida. Her father, a Buddhist priest, had been sent ahead to the Tule Lake center in northern California and the rest of the family joined him there in 1942, before Meiko’s first birthday.
Compounding the lack of awareness is the fact that for people like Mills and Kato, both too young to have any first-hand memories of the camps, older relatives rarely spoke of the experience.
“All I remember is that when there was a group of older Japanese sitting around the table talking and the tone changed — it became a softer tone, kind of hushed — (my sisters and I) knew right away they were talking about camp and we were not allowed to listen,” Mills said.
Kato appreciated the historical perspective of the musical, which both he and Mills found emotionally overwhelming at times.
“It summarized what my relatives went through and kind of put everything in perspective. It’s kind of incredible that something like internment would happen in the United States. And I think (the other audience members) all felt it. There’s no doubt in my mind. They were crying too.”
“Allegiance,” Takei’s debut on Broadway at age 78, combines the drama of unjust imprisonment with spirited song and dance numbers as the Japanese American characters make the best of harsh circumstances. When the U.S. government introduces a politically manipulative loyalty questionnaire, the Kimura family suffers a rift with Sammy deciding to enlist in the U.S. army while his sister Kei falls in love with a resister in camp.
Following the show’s Nov. 8 opening at Longacre Theatre, U.S. critics praised Telly Leung and Tony award winner Lea Salonga as the Kimura siblings and complimented Takei’s winning performance in the dual roles of Ojii-chan and an aged Sammy Kimura, while giving mixed reviews to the overall storytelling. USA Today deemed it a “flawed but defiantly moving” production.
Notwithstanding criticism from Frank Abe, the producer and director of a documentary film about Heart Mountain who in a November editorial for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly accused the show of “doctoring Japanese American history” for dramatic effect, the musical has garnered support for its intention to raise awareness about the internment.
If “Allegiance” uses a broad brush of its own in the name of tolerance and democracy, it apparently hopes to touch as many people as possible — both those who have lived its reality and those who, knowing little to nothing on such issues, may be susceptible to fear-mongering by the likes of Trump.
“The best way to humanize the story is to make it a musical drama,” Takei told Kyodo News. Most famous for playing Hikaru Sulu on the original “Star Trek” TV series and movies, Takei starred in several plays in New York and Los Angeles and musical productions in England prior to appearing on Broadway. “Music has that power to touch the emotions of the people.”
The Los Angeles native was 5 years old when he was moved with his parents and two siblings first to Rohwer camp in Arkansas, and later to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California over a term lasting nearly four years.
Following decades of activism by people like the late Minoru Yasui, whose memory was honored with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in November, the U.S. Congress passed a bill in 1988 that provided $20,000 to each surviving internee and apologized for the executive order that forced people of Japanese ancestry into the wartime camps.