Presidents’ Day weekend of 2017, just celebrated, had certain bitter aspects this year. The Sunday of the weekend marked the 75th anniversary of the February 19, 1942, issuance by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of what now assuredly must be considered the “infamous” Presidential Executive Order 9066.
That presidential Executive Order — “Instructions to All Persons of JAPANESE Ancestry…” — led to virtually all of the Japanese Americans (emphasis on “Americans”) living on the West Coast of the United States being evacuated from their homes, ultimately to reside for years in barracks in camps surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns in guard towers.
“Allegiance,” a musical
Also on that anniversary Sunday this year, across the United States in movie theaters in hundreds of cities, Americans had the opportunity to attend a powerful, tears-inducing Broadway musical, “Allegiance,” that previously played on Broadway for 150 performances over four months to an audience of approximately 120,000 people. See: allegiancemusical.com.
That number of theater attendees — 120,000 — is, ironically, about the number of elderly, middle-aged and young men and women, plus children, who were ordered to take only what they could carry, essentially one suitcase, and stand on the street for buses and trucks to move them to “assembly centers.” In Southern California, those included the horse stalls at Santa Anita Racetrack. From there and sometimes after many months, these citizens were put in train cars and taken out to desert and swamp locations where the new American concentration camps (“relocation centers”) had been constructed.
“Concentration camp” is a hot-button word for many people, especially those who survived, or those who are descendants of people murdered during, the Nazi Holocaust in Europe.
But, as described in “Infamy,” the informative book — also a page-turner — by Richard Reeves, the term “was commonly used in government offices during those years to describe the officially named relocation centers around the country. Among those who called them concentration camps was the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
At least, in America, these were not extermination camps, unless you were interned there and decided to walk away, with all the machine guns in the guard towers facing inside. Such a walk could lead to loss of life and, in some cases, did.
This tragic episode of American life, started by the reaction to Imperial Japan’s murderous December 7, 1941, sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, described that very day by President Roosevelt as “a day which will live in infamy,” is depicted well in “Allegiance,” the musical.
This memorable theatrical experience has an important Larchmont-local aspect.
Working for nearly a decade to bring this story to the stage was a well-known Los Angeles leader, also a local resident, and also an amazing actor in the musical. That gentleman is our neighborhood’s George Takei.
Takei, at age 5, was evacuated with his family from Los Angeles and subsequently spent four years interned, first at Santa Anita Racetrack, then in a camp in Rowher, Arkansas (see: tinyurl.com/jg64aww), and finally — because his parents took a principled stand against a notorious loyalty questionnaire — in Northern California, just below the Oregon border, at Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest and most controversial of the sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. See: nps.gov/tule. Camps like these largely have been obliterated, but Southern Californians driving on Highway 395 can turn off that road and visit the desolate area of Manzanar National Historic Site. See: nps.gov/manz.
Americans are fortunate that “Allegiance,” the musical, has been filmed. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a future theatrical screening, do so. Change your plans and go.
Not only is “Allegiance” a tale based on history, it also is a wonderful theatrical presentation of talented Broadway singers, dancers and actors.
Lead actors are Lea Salonga (star of “Miss Saigon”), Telly Leung, Christópheren Nomura, Michael K. Lee, and, of course, Hancock Park’s George Takei. See allegiancemusical.com.
Historical Society at JANM
An even easier way to learn about this horrible misjudgment by elected American leaders, including elected officials in California state government, is to take a trip downtown, to Little Tokyo. This is what members of the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society did recently.
Their trip to the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo, at Central Avenue and First Street, was enjoyable even though some of the subject matter on display clearly is horrifying.
The Historical Society’s pleasant day included high tea in one of the city’s best-kept secrets, the welcoming and restful Chado Tea Room adjoining JANM’s garden.
Another way to learn about this difficult period of American history is by reading.
“Infamy,” a book
Just some months ago, on Larchmont Blvd., there was what may have been the largest turnout for a Chevalier’s Books author program. The evening featured a fascinating dialogue between Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge A. Wallace Tashima and author Richard Reeves. Judge Tashima is the third Asian American and first Japanese American ever to be appointed to a United States Court of Appeals. Reeves is the author of 2015’s “Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II.” The moderator / interviewer at Chevalier’s was O’Melveny & Myers lawyer Carolyn Kubota.
The program at Chevalier’s was fascinating, but the book — with its much greater detail — is even more so. Author Reeves thoroughly reviews the available literature on the internment, and his book gives a clear view of the personal tragedies inflicted upon American families of Japanese descent.
Many of those families are from Los Angeles. Not just the Takeis, but also others, such as merchants in Little Tokyo whose lives were uprooted and whose businesses were ruined.
While you may have to wait to see “Allegiance” again in theaters, you can go to Chevalier’s or another bookseller and buy and read Richard Reeves’ “Infamy.” I think you’ll be glad that you did.