Must-see: The heroic fight against Japanese internment camps

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Ryun Yu in "Hold These Truths."

I suspected I would like Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths at Seattle’s ACT Theatre. After all, I knew the story well, and Jeanne had mentioned that she was inspired to write her drama after seeing my 1992 documentary film, A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi v. the United States on PBS. But I was surprised by the emotional effect the play had on me—and on everyone in the audience it seems, if the number of handkerchiefs wiping wet eyes was any indication.

Hold These Truths is a one-person play that indelibly and forcefully captures a tragic moment in our history—the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans—and the inspiring story of one individual who chose to resist the fateful decision to send Japanese-Americans to what were euphemistically called “relocation centers.”

Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi was a senior at the University of Washington when his world turned upside down. He’d grown up the son of Japanese immigrants in the town of Auburn, 20 miles south of Seattle. He was a popular student and by all accounts, an all-American sort of fellow, even editing the sports section of his high school newspaper. He was doing well in college when, on February 19, 1942, months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It mandated that all Americans of Japanese ancestry would be rounded up and sent to the camps.

The West Coast was in a state of war hysteria, with suspicions of Japanese espionage running high. The relocation began with a curfew requiring Japanese-Americans to stay in their homes after 8 p.m. At the end of March, the first group of internees was marched at gunpoint from their homes on Bainbridge Island, Washington to a ferry to Seattle and a train that took them to Manzanar, a bleak, hastily-constructed camp in the California desert. Seattle’s Japanese-Americans were “relocated” six weeks later.

But Hirabayashi wasn’t with them. A Quaker with a powerful belief in civil liberties, he had refused to go and had violated the earlier curfew order. He was convinced that the relocation and curfew were violations of the due process clause in the U.S. Constitution. He believed strongly in American ideals and constitutional principles and, despite harsh criticisms from his family and other Japanese-Americans who felt it better to go along with the government, he decided to resist.

He had almost no legal support—even the ACLU was afraid to take on the case—and was convicted of violating the curfew. His conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943, and he spent two years in jails and prison camps for his courage.

After the war, Hirabayashi earned a PhD in sociology at the University of Washington and taught college in Lebanon, Egypt and Canada. For a time, it seemed his resistance had been futile. Then, in the early 1980s, researchers uncovered evidence that the U.S. government had deliberately withheld important military documents from the Supreme Court during his trial.

The evidence proved that the government knew that Japanese-Americans provided no threat to the security of the United States; they were overwhelmingly loyal. But economic interests, jealous of their well-run farms and businesses, wanted them removed from the West Coast, and wartime suspicion provided an excuse to get rid of them.

The documents were a smoking gun that allowed a team of young Japanese-American lawyers in Seattle to re-open Gordon’s case. When legal scholar Peter Irons called Gordon to ask if he’d like to try again in the courts, he said simply, “I’ve been waiting for your call for 40 years. Let’s go!”

In 1987, his wartime conviction was overturned in a Seattle courtroom.  Soon afterward, in the case of another resister (there were three), Fred Korematsu, the Supreme Court overturned its 1943 decision and declared the internment unconstitutional.

I first saw Hold These Truths a year ago during a very short experimental run at ACT. Popular demand brought Sakata and her play back for a longer run this year. The actors were different: last year the talented Joel de la Fuente played Gordon; this year it is the equally-brilliant Ryun Yu.

On the Monday before opening night, Seattle’s Town Hall was host to a thoughtful panel discussion titled “Being A Courageous Citizen,” which included  Sakata, members of Gordon’s 1980s legal team and Lorraine Bannai , one of Fred Korematsu’s lawyers. Bannai emphasized that other minorities, especially Muslims, still face the suspicion and potential mass violation of civil liberties that Japanese-Americans experienced during the Second World War.

The next morning, I met with Sakata at Seattle’s historic Panama Hotel, where residents of Nihonmachi (or Japan Town, in Seattle’s International District) had left many of their belongings before being put in the camps. In 1991, I had taken Gordon to see what remained of those belongings in the basement of the hotel. His reaction proved to be the most emotional moment of my film. Jan Johnson, who owns the hotel, has turned it into a museum of sorts and it has been honored as a National Historic Site and now, a Historic Treasure by the National Park Service.

Jeanne and I went to the tea/coffee house of the hotel, where photos documenting Asian immigration to Seattle line the walls, and a glass plate on the floor allows a glimpse of goods left in the basement by internees in 1942. Jeanne is a lovely, warm and humble woman, quick to credit everyone else for the success of her play, which she spent a decade developing and writing. She regaled me with great stories of her experiences with Gordon and with the actors who played him.

What is most remarkable about the play and the ACT presentation is how simple everything appears to be. There’s just a single performer—Yu not only plays Hirabayashi, but many other people with whom Gordon had contact during his ordeal—and a set that consists of just a stage and three chairs, which Yu moves about during his acrobatic performance. But what power in that simple setting! The complexity of the story highlights Yu’s remarkable acting skills; he is talking non-stop for 95 minutes since the play has no intermission, and keeps his energy up throughout.

This is a serious play with a profound message about courage and our Constitution. But there are light moments too. Perhaps the funniest comes when Gordon is told he’s been convicted and will have to get to a prison camp in Tucson, Arizona at his own expense. He hitchhikes, wondering, as Yu channels him with maximum irony, how the government is willing to let so dangerous a character travel 1,600 miles over several days on his own, “committing espionage and sabotage every step of the road!” When Hirabayashi arrives at the camp, his jailer has never heard of him and sends him off to a theater while he tries to find out who he is. Yu captures the humor of the scene and the character of the prison camp warden perfectly.

Gordon Hirabayashi never planned to be a hero. It was, he said, just a matter of sticking by the principles he learned in government class. He never saw his fight against internment as a Japanese-American fight, but as an American fight to uphold the principles of the Constitution of his native land and his parents’ adopted country. He couldn’t imagine why every American wouldn’t do the same. “If you can suspend the Constitution every time there is an emergency,” he told me years ago, “then it’s not worth very much.”

Hirabayashi died in 2012 and was posthumously awarded the President Medal of Freedom by President Obama. A low-income housing project now being built in downtown Seattle has been named Hirabayashi Place in his memory.  But perhaps the honor that would have made him most proud is Jeanne Sakata’s wonderful play. When the play was over, one patron confirmed my impression of the audience reaction, commenting that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. If you have a chance to see it, don’t miss it. You’ll leave wanting to rush out and be a citizen.

And our country will be so much the better for that.

Hold These Truths continues at ACT through Aug. 16.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John de Graaf

John de Graaf is a TV documentarian, author and activist in Seattle.