Revisiting “Farewell to Manzanar” and the revolt against the JACL

The screening and discussion of Farewell to Manzanar this Friday night at the Japanese American National Museum annual conference in Seattle provides an opportunity to share these newly-rediscovered photographs taken by photographer Nancy Wong.

rioters in truck
Mako, Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, and extras recruited from the Bay Area Asian community prepare to recreate the Manzanar Riot for the 1976 NBC/Universal film, FAREWELL TO MANZANAR. Photo by Nancy Wong.

Nancy shot these on location on the grounds of the former Santa Rita state prison in the summer of 1975 while we were assembled to recreate the Manzanar Riot of December 6, 1942. Mako played “Sam Fukimoto,” the character based on Harry Ueno, the fiery leader of the Kitchen Workers Union whose arrest for the beating of Los Angeles JACL leader Fred Tayama, played in the film by myself as “Frank Nishi,” sparked the Manzanar Riot.

The AIIIEEEEE boys with one actor
Three of the editors of the groundbreaking literary anthology AIIIEEEEE! with the brother of the fourth, posing on location for FAREWELL TO MANZANAR: (from left) Lawson Inada, Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, and Michael Paul Chan, who went on to perform in the cast of The Closer. Photo by Nancy Wong.

In my youthful enthusiasm I did not know that first-time film actors should not try rewriting their own lines, but that’s what I did the night before we shot the big mess hall confrontation with Mako/Sam Fukimoto/Harry Ueno — much to the dismay of scene partner Seth Sakai, whom I’d failed to notify and who cursed me after our scene and hurled his gloves in my direction, to the applause of the hundreds of extras in the scene. I have to thank director John Korty for allowing me to make the change. Among the extras were writers Toshio Mori and Shawn Wong.

But I felt compelled to make the scene more specific reading this seminal essay by Art Hansen and David Hacker that reconstructs the actual events in “The Manzanar Riot: An Ethnic Perspective” [4MB], which had recently appeared in the fall 1974 issue of Amerasia Journal.

The piece reveals that one of the fundamental causes of the Manzanar Riot was not, as simplified in the film by Korty, simply a grumbling over sugar stolen from the mess hall. It was more, as mentioned in Conscience and told more fully in Jeanne Houston’s book,  a revolt against the power conferred by the government and the camp administration to the Japanese American Citizens League. As documented in Art and David’s essay, Fred Tayama and internee security chief Kiyoshi Higashi had returned the day before from an emergency meeting of the JACL in Salt Lake City attended by two delegates from each of the ten camps. In that meeting National JACL, enacting its own policies without any ratification or popular vote of the people, resolved to urge the U.S. government to reinstate Selective Service for the Nisei as a means of asserting their U.S. citizenship and proving their loyalty. As Hansen and Hacker wrote: “For the internees — Issei, Kibei, and Nisei — the time had come when something had to be done to prevent the corrosive effects of the JACLers … The events of December 6 were but a logical culmination of developments originating with the administration’s decision to bypass the community’s natural Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL hierarchy and to embark on a program of Americanization at the expense of Japanese ethnicity.”

Watch that scene in the film in this light. The revolt against the JACL prefigured the resistance at Heart Mountain and other camps that occurred a year later, when the JACL plea for a Nisei draft was finally granted.

In a somewhat related aside, Frank Chin now claims that Bay Area radical activist and early Black Panther Richard Aoki — recently named as an FBI informant, a charge that’s also been disputed — was there with us on location. I never knew Aoki, but in an email Frank writes, “Remember the first day at Santa Rita? There was a fattish fella in a mustache and tee shirt passing out lemonade. That was Richard Aoki.” He later speculates, “Why was Richard Aoki at the Santa Rita FAREWELL TO MANZANAR shoot? … Aoki might have been getting acquainted with Yellow actors in the parts of camp activists and victims.” Or, maybe he was just there to ladle out refreshments. We may never know.

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