Wednesday, February 26, 2014

One of the more rewarding experiences I recently had was to participate in a special reading at the annual Day of Remembrance event in Chicago this past February 16.

In case you are not familiar with it, Day of Remembrance commemorates the Japanese American internment during World War II.  Japanese American communities across the country hold events on or near February 19, which in 1942 was the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry (including those born here).

In Chicago, the Day of Remembrance event is co-hosted by the Chicago Japanese American Service Committee (JASC), Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and Japanese American Historical Society.

This year, the program featured a staged reading of Heart Mountain: Conscience, Loyalty and the Constitution (The Trial).  This piece was put together by the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY), and tells the story of the Heart Mountain Resisters: 63 nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who were imprisoned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming for draft evasion.  When the U.S. government gave authorization that Japanese Americans could serve in the U.S. armed forces (eventually leading to the formation of the 442nd) and men in the internment camps found themselves subject to the draft, these 63 refused to serve unless their rights as citizens were fully restored.

The internment has always struck a chord deep within me, being half Japanese American, though it does not have the same directness for me as for some of my fellow Japanese Americans.  My Japanese family were living in Hawaii during WWII, and the majority of Japanese Americans there were not interned during the war (it would have been logistically impossible to do so).  However, I do feel kinship and sympathy for those whose families had to endure this national tragedy.

I have to admit that I did not know of the Heart Mountain Resisters prior to working on this piece.  I did know that there were those who refused to acknowledge loyalty to the U.S. in questionnaires given to internees, leading to their labeling as "No No Boys," and even some who chose to be sent to live in Japan.  I was to learn that this group has long had a controversial position within the Japanese American community, especially to those who elected to serve in the 442nd.  In a classic case of the Confucian belief that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," the fact that the 63 were attempting to take a patriotic stand against the interment was not appreciated by many.  It was seen as making unnecessary waves for some, and even an insult to those who chose military service.

The director of the reading was an old colleague and friend of mine, Keith Uchima, who graciously gave me the chance to participate in small role.  My wife and I were and still are in the midst of preparing for our first child; in addition I was scrambling for work due to some problems with clients (I freelance as a Japanese-English document translator to make ends meet).  Thus, I couldn't be as involved as I would have liked.  So, I'm grateful that he was able to find a part for me.

I joined a mix of old friends and new, including Cheryl Hamada, Gary Houston, Jin Kim, Ed Kuffert, Paul Moy, Gene Mui, Stephanie Park, Cary Shoda, Jason Williams and Joe Yau.  I had seen Cheryl over the years on stage, as well as on film (way before I ever was an actor, she appeared in Steven Seagal's first movie Above the Law).  I had worked with Joe a couple of times before.  Paul is Joe's cousin, and both of them have been friends of one of my cousins since high school.  Jin, Cary and Stephanie I all knew from the local theater seen and some small projects.

The audience on the day of the reading turned out to be huge.  I think there was some 200 or more in the room, filling up the space at the Chicago History Museum where the event took place.  The response was very gratifying, as many of my and my family's friends and acquaintances in the community thanked all of us afterward.

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