This is why Donald Trump is winning: Paranoia brings out the worst in us — and minorities always suffer

The day after the Paris terror attacks, I watched the story of the WWII Japanese-American internment with new eyes

Published November 24, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

It would be trite to say that George Takei’s passion project "Allegiance," a Broadway musical telling the story of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, can be read as being “about” the War on Terror. 2015 is not 1941. The terrorist organization we know as ISIS or Daesh, as frightening and brutal as their rampage through Iraq and Syria has been, only wishes they were as great a threat as the Axis Powers, an alliance of nations with serious, credible plans to conquer the world.

And as callous and vile as Islamophobia in the wake of the Paris attacks has been, as was Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11, no one’s yet rounded up Middle Eastern Americans or Europeans en masse to put them in camps, even though at least one retired general wishes we could.

Still. I’d thought, after Bill Clinton effusively apologized for internment and paid reparations in 1993, that we’d come to a consensus that mass internment of a whole ethnic group was one of the sorriest chapters in our nation’s history. It turns out that at least one elected official tried to spin the Japanese-American internment as a positive thing to justify prejudicial treatment of refugees from Syria. George Takei gave a blistering rejoinder to this sentiment on Facebook, one that makes it clear how much "Allegiance" resonates with present-day concerns.

I didn’t manage to get tickets for "Allegiance" until the weekend after it opened, and found myself watching a matinee performance of the play on Saturday, Nov. 14--almost exactly 24 hours after the Nov. 13 attacks began with the bombing of the Stade de France. I can’t imagine I was alone among the audience in having trouble keeping my mind slipping from 1941 to 2015, from Imperial Japan to ISIS, from Heart Mountain to Guantánamo Bay. I can’t imagine I was the only one thinking about the missing piece of the story filled in by our own recent experience with vicarious terror as the news from Paris came in.

The show focuses on the Kimura family, representing the 120,000 Japanese-Americans sent to relocation camps in the war, and the divisions that arise among them and their friends as they deal with a hostile, untrusting culture. The choice between compliance and resistance, assimilation and separatism, loyalty and defiance--all of those familiar tropes play out onstage, with an almost all Asian-American main cast telling the story from a Japanese-American perspective.

That much is, indeed, revolutionary for Broadway, even if it seemed familiar for me after many years of reading books like "Farewell to Manzanar" and "No-No Boy" and watching films like "Come See the Paradise."

But the missing piece that the news of Nov. 13 filled in for me was the one "Allegiance" alludes to only in its opening moments, with a scratchy recording of FDR’s speech about the “Date Which Will Live in Infamy.” The missing piece was the 140 million other Americans in 1941, the ones who perpetrated internment and the ones who sat back and let it happen.

The missing piece was all of us.

Dec. 7, 1941, like Nov. 13, 2015, was a date that lived in infamy--a day when 2,403 American servicemen died, along with 68 civilians. People sitting next to the radio hearing reports and, gradually, seeing images come out in the paper of ships on fire, Americans who’d hoped that the war consuming the rest of the world could be safely ignored while they went on with their lives were rudely shocked with a reminder that just because you’re not interested in the outside world doesn’t mean it’s not interested in you.

Americans were terrified. A weather balloon drifting over Los Angeles set off air raid sirens and a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. In 1942 Japanese air raids in Oregon set off forest fires, leading to paranoia through the remainder of the war that wildfires might have been intentionally set; Smokey Bear was created as a mascot to encourage cooperation with Forest Service firefighting forces as part of the war effort. Paranoia spread in the wake of Pearl Harbor after a suspicious incident in which a downed Japanese pilot finding shelter with Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, not unlike the uproar in 2013 over just how many people helped the Tsarnaev brothers with the Boston Marathon bombing, or the hunt going on right now for anyone who might be harboring one of the Paris attackers.

My own ancestors, living in China, had lived through the first half of the Second Sino-Japanese War--in our part of the world, what Americans think of as the “Pacific Theatre of World War II” is just the second half of that eight-year-long conflict--a conflict that, by itself, was already one of the bloodiest wars in history. Stories from the Imperial-Japanese-occupied territory of Manchukuo (Manchuria) were atrocity after atrocity--slave labor, human experimentation, widespread use of chemical and biological weapons.

My grandmother survived the Rape of Nanjing in 1937. She died a few years later, in her 30s, of an aneurysm, that my grandfather always said was brought on by the trauma of what she’d seen and heard.

My father’s side of the family never forgave Japan. As a piously liberal teenager I’d get in epic dinner-table fights with my dad every year on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing over whether dropping the nukes was a crime against humanity or a necessity of war.

I do, in fact, believe that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes. I also believe that, contrary to the opinion of many Chinese and Koreans, saying that Japanese-Americans in the camps “got off easy” compared to residents of Nanjing or Sakhalin is an unconscionably callous game of justifying evil with evil, acting like war crimes only matter as points on a scoreboard between two “sides” rather than as  acts of injustice done to individual human beings.

But, as they say, it was always easy for me to say.

It was easy for a teenager growing up in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, to believe in nonsense like the “end of history,” to feel comfortably, smugly above the fear and rage that led to racist backlashes against American citizens, as though that was all consigned to a past we’d moved beyond.

It’s harder after remembering the 9/11 attacks, having classmates desperately searching for news to see if their friends or relatives were among the dead, having a spike of fear go up your spine every time you got on a commercial flight.

It’s harder after watching social media go wild after the Paris attacks, watching some people call out other people’s expressions of fury after the bloodshed as knee-jerk reactionary racism--which it often was--and then watching the first set of people be called out for preening virtue-signaling in the wake of other people’s raw grief--which they often were.

When I watched "Allegiance," this time around I watched it with a perspective I didn’t have when I watched "Come See the Paradise" in middle school in 1997. Back then I’d typically imagined myself as one of the “good guys,” as one of the Nisei internees, screwed over by the system and fighting the power, invoking the solidarity between Chinese- and Japanese-Americans as “Asians” that was invented in the 1960s and nonexistent during the war.

This time I saw it differently. I watched the story of the internment play out imagining myself as one of the nameless, faceless offstage American civilians whose voices and whose votes created the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. I watched with the awareness that I might think of myself as a good liberal who’s spoken out against Islamophobia but that I haven’t done much about it, that non-Japanese-Americans who made significant sacrifices to fight the internment--characters like Katie Rose Clarke’s Hannah Campbell in "Allegiance"--were thin on the ground in real life.

I watched thinking about the little loyalty tests the Kimuras are put through, their American-ness questioned every time one of them speaks Japanese or shows any affection for Japan as a homeland or indulges in an element of Japanese culture. I watched thinking about how insulting and ridiculous it was that the camps had “Americanization classes” and how the very idea of “Americanization classes” seems un-American.

And I watched thinking about the little jabs my Muslim friends and acquaintances go through on a daily basis. Watching in real time as friends of mine who are Muslims or have Arabic names or just look brown get challenged with offensive cartoons, blasphemous jokes, nasty slurs of all kinds and told if they don’t cheerfully laugh along with them they’re showing loyalty to the enemy.

I watched the Kimuras argue over whether putting up an American flag is expected of them post-Pearl Harbor or would be seen as protesting too much, a tacit admission of guilt. I watched thinking about all the American flags going up after 9/11 and the French tricolors going up now. I watched Sam Kimura, our protagonist who becomes a war hero in the 442nd Regiment, pressured into denouncing his own friends and family who are protesting the internment and resisting the draft back home as traitors. I watched thinking about how easy it is for my white friends, for me, for most of my college friends to preach radical anti-establishment politics, how casually we can flirt with being “un-” or “anti-American”--compared to how terrifying it is for my brown-skinned friends to be thought of that way, how many times per day they have to expressly state “I don’t sympathize with the terrorists.”

Most of all, I watched the character of Mike Masaoka (played by Greg Watanabe), a real historical figure, whose inclusion in the play has been controversial.

I wasn’t a Mike Masaoka fan coming in either, and when I’d heard the San Diego version of "Allegiance" made Masaoka into a “villain” I didn’t particularly weep for him--he was the Japanese-American spokesperson who publicly praised the camps as a wartime necessity, who came up with the idea for the loyalty oath forced on the internees to sort out “troublemakers” that drives "Allegiance"’s central conflict, who was burned in effigy in the camps as a symbol of Uncle-Tom collaborationism.

But Watanabe’s portrayal--primarily using Masaoka’s own words--didn’t show a villain or a sell-out. His voice strong but always seemingly on the verge of cracking under the strain of the words he has to say, Masaoka as portrayed on Broadway is a man backed into a corner, without any good choices.

Does he collaborate with the Army to forcibly relocate his countrymen into concentration camps? Only in order to head off worse plans of forced sterilization or deportation to Japan. Does he allow the 442nd Regiment--a segregated unit of only Japanese-American soldiers--to be used as a “suicide battalion,” sent into hopeless missions? Yes, at the cost of his own brother’s life, and with the conscious understanding that only by creating a legacy of Japanese-American war heroes will America’s mind be changed about their loyalty.

Masaoka’s Japanese-American Citizens League is placed in the same situation as today’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, constantly forced to denounce the crimes of other Japanese or other Muslims in ever-more intense rhetoric and yet never being able to denounce them loudly enough for their opponents’ satisfaction.

"Allegiance’s" ultimate message is that there are no good choices in wartime. Human nature in the wake of calamity turns ugly with the predictability of a chemical reaction. War brings out the worst in all of us--the fearful, the vengeful, the xenophobic--and minorities suffer. Everyone does what they have to to survive, and those tough choices tear apart communities and families.

Yes, it’s a story we’ve all heard before. But it’s a story that’s playing itself out all over again in the news right now--and one that won’t stop playing out any time soon.

By Arthur Chu

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Allegiance Donald Trump George Takei Paris Attacks Refugee Crisis Syria