Yesterday I saw Allegiance, a musical about the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
It was a powerful, moving production. Spearheaded by George Takei, who was interred along with his family, it tells a tale that is so often kept silent, both by the victims of this atrocity and a nation embarrassed by its past actions.
As wonderful as the performance was, I think I was most taken by a family I observed during intermission. The parents were about my age, and their children were about 8 and 10, maybe slightly older. The dad was telling them his grandfather’s story of being in the camps. Evidently he was about the girls age when they were interred, and he wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. Coming from a farm, he actually found himself with a lot more free time since there were no crops for him to tend. The girls seemed much more fascinated that their grandpa was doing heavy work on a farm at their age than what happened later! But seeing them so interested in the past, and that the message was getting across, was heartening.
The first time I ever heard of this tragedy was when I read Salted Lemons in junior high. I was sure this was complete fiction, our government would not deprive its citizens of their rights, but when I read up about it at the library, I was horrified to find out it was true.
The internment was well discussed in my AP US History class my junior year of high school. I remember the next year how excited I was that at our graduation ceremony we were giving an honorary diploma to a former student from our high school who was forced to stop her studies and be removed to the camps.
In the weeks leading up to seeing the Allegiance performance, I quite unintentionally read two books about living in Japan during the war. While the war played a large role in both books, they were completely different.
First was Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. This novel was published in 1949, and it is a story about a closeted young man coming of age during World War II and the mask he must wear to keep his secret. His honor and that of his family depended upon it.
Well, it was a wonderful book for me, just nothing I expected. It takes its name from a fictional guide written for Japanese women who became wives to American servicemen right after the war. The story traces both mom and daughter, revealing the hidden hurt and causes for friction between these two women.
While the books and the play were different, what I was left with from all of them is how fragile our rights can be, and how discrimination can be used to strip them away.
Would I let fear keep me from standing up for someone or even myself if the government suddenly turned on some aspect of my demographic? I would hope not, but I’m uncertain, which scares me. How do those who fight these battles find the inner strength? Did they know they had that strength before being faced with their situation?