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Thursday, May 5, 2022

May 5, 2022: Images of Internment: Allegiance and No No Boy

[May 3rd marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous broadside through which the Roosevelt administration ordered Japanese Americans to surrender themselves to the internment policy (or incarceration—I’m convinced of the need for that term change, but most folks still know it as internment so I’m using that in my series title). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy images of that horrific history, leading up to a special weekend post on scholars helping us remember it.]

On two cultural works that together help us remember a particularly complex side of the story.

As with any collective histories, those of Japanese internment and incarceration are multi-layered, featuring distinct experiences and issues that can at times seem contradictory but that ultimately reflect how the stories played out for the hundreds of thousands of individuals, families, and communities affected by them. Some of the most complex such experiences were those around the question of “loyalty,” and specifically the “loyalty questionnaire” that the War Relocation Authority (WRA) administered in 1943 to all Japanese American adults held in the camps. The questions therein were confusing, poorly worded, ambiguous, and frankly insulting, all of which led to a variety of answers that tell us far more about the questionnaire, the WRA, and white supremacist attitudes towards Japanese Americans than about that community. But they nonetheless created a hierarchy within the community and camps, one based at least in part on differing notions of whether and how Japanese Americans were “loyal” to the United States.

On this blog, in We the People, and elsewhere I’ve tended to focus on a community who more than demonstrated their loyalty, and really revealed these prejudices for the un-American garbage they are: the Japanese American soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces during WWII. But those who were deemed “disloyal” (whether due to their answers or non-answers to the questionnaire or for other equally discriminatory reasons) experienced something far different: the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the most aggressively prison-like of the internment camps. That was the case, for example, with George Takei’s parents, and so Takei and his family ended up at Tule Lake, an experience on which much of the musical Allegiance (2012) was directly based. As I wrote in that hyperlinked post, I find the somewhat stereotypically musical-theater-like songs and tone of Allegiance a complicated fit for the musical’s themes and contexts, but it certainly offers audiences a glimpse into this particular and under-remembered layer of internment settings and experiences (as, in its own way, does Takei’s co-authored and -illustrated graphic novel memoir They Called Us Enemy [2019]).

Bringing audiences into such complex histories through accessible pop culture texts is a good goal, but at some point it’s also important for us to engage more fully with the most fraught and painful layers to those histories. I don’t know of any cultural work that does so for these histories more powerfully than John Okada’s dense, demanding, and stunning 1957 novel No-No Boy (for a lot more on that book and all these questions, check out my friend Matthew Teutsch’s post on it in conversation with Takei’s memoir). The “No-No” in Okada’s title refers to those who answered “no” to the questionnaire’s two most fraught and significant questions: whether one was willing to serve in the armed forces; and whether one would swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience” to Japan. The novel is in no way autobiographical, as Okada himself served in the U.S. military during the war; which makes his careful, thoughtful, powerful examination of his no-no boy protagonist Ichiro Yamada that much more impressive and important. There’s far more to these histories and stories than this brief post can include, so I’ll just say that while all of these works are worth our time and attention, I believe No-No Boy in particular is on the short list of books that every American should read.

Last internment image tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d highlight?

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