Wednesday, November 8, 2000


Film uncovers Japanese protests against internment
Documentary on Wyoming protest to be prescreened in Spokane

Rob McDonald
Staff writer

Photo courtesy of the Northwest Coalition of Human Dignity
Sixty-three Heart Mountain resisters sit on trial in a Cheyenne, Wyo., courtroom. Their story is told in a new documentary movie, ``Conscience and the Constitution,'' which is being prescreened in Spokane this month.

Spokane _ Some history can't be found in textbooks.

"Conscience and the Constitution" is a new documentary that may change how people perceive the Japanese American community.

The film explores a group of Japanese Americans who protested the forced internment of all Japanese people during World War II. The interned protesters were treated as criminals and shunned by their own community.

They were part of the 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt into 10 camps.

The film is being prescreened around Spokane before its national debut on public television later this month.

"Two generations of Americans have come to adulthood believing Japanese Americans endured three years in camp, and lost all their belongings without protest," said film producer Frank Abe, whose parents were interned. "I wanted to show how that wasn't so."

In 1944, 85 young Japanese Americans refused to be drafted in
to the U.S. Army unless their constitutional rights were restored and their families released from the internment camps.

The protests at a camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo., led to the largest trial for draft resistance in U.S. history, Abe said.

"I hope with this broadcast enough educators see it so these resisters can take their place in the pantheon of American civil disobedience."

Abe, a Seattle-based filmmaker who also works for King County Department of Transportation, said he never knew of the protests. It was something that was never talked about by the Japanese American community, he said.

"Not only did the protesters go to jail, they were also shunned by their own community," Abe said.

His film debuted in May at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film and Video Festival.

The Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity felt the film's content was so important that it began offering copies of the film to 16 community groups in Washington and Idaho.

The Spokane Task Force on Race Relations has organized several viewings at high schools and institutions Nov. 16-28. Those hosting showings include: District 81's equity office, Professor James Waller at Whitworth University, the Department of Social and Health Services and the Spokane Human Rights Commission.

"We thought it would be a great idea to present this film to the community," said Khalil Islam, chair of the Spokane Human Rights Commission.

"There are a lot of folks who don't even know we have an Asian American community (in Spokane). They don't understand the contributions or struggles of Asian Americans in this country," Islam said.

Each of the showings will be followed by an audience discussion facilitated by the host group agency.

Since the film's debut, Abe said the sharpest critics have been Japanese Americans.

"I've been told, `You're revising history.' `You're making things up.' 'You weren't there, how can you know?' "

The general public tends to embrace the story, Abe said.

The internment camps were attempts to "Americanize" the U.S. Japanese community, Abe said. The culture and language were stomped out.

"A lot of our own people collaborated and aided in that process," Abe said.

Although controversial, Abe said he tried to be fair to everyone in the film. He's also posted many of the historical documents on his Web page so others can see the reports firsthand. It was a complicated time.

"I don't see villains here," Abe said. "Everyone did what they thought was right."

In the end, the Japanese protesters were forgotten by their own and the mainstream, Abe said.

"They wrote them out of the history," Abe said.

Ed Tsutakawa, vice president of administration at Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute, spent time in an internment camp near Twin Falls, Idaho.

"I hope this picture is not altogether negative," Tsutakawa said. He plans on seeing it at a private showing for the Japanese American community.

"Our second generation didn't speak up too much. We just kind of let it go and let's forget this bad dream. Our son's and daughter's generation think it's just not right to keep quiet."

Whether the camps were good or bad depend on how you look at it, Tsutakawa said.

"Not everything was bad, because I met my wife in camp," he said. "We've been together for 51 years."

Abe hopes his film makes a national impact. Already it's been reviewed nationally by Mother Jones and George magazines.

"We're hoping for a shift in paradigm," Abe said. "A shift in opening the story of Japanese American history as being more than of passive resignation and patriotic loyalty."

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