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Joseph Smigelski

Joseph Smigelski

Posted: May 13, 2010 10:56 AM

Out of Infamy: An Important Film at a Crucial Time

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While I was at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, I was privileged to speak at some length with filmmaker Sharon Yamato, an elegant, soft-spoken woman from Southern California who, together with her co-director Nancy Kapitanoff, has produced a documentary short narrated by Sandra Oh called Out of Infamy: Michi Nishiura Weglyn. The 17-minute film reveals a dark and shocking chapter of American history: the detention in concentration camps of over 110,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. The movie was honored at the festival with a "Special Jury Mention," which essentially means second prize in its category.

Sharon's parents and seven of her brothers and sisters were interned at the Poston War Relocation Center, a concentration camp in Arizona. One brother and one sister were born there. Sharon and another sister were born after the war was over. They were all American citizens. Sharon is a very humble lady, and she worries that people might not like her film. After all, we Americans tend to sweep such incidents from our past under big and heavy rugs. I was shocked when Sharon told me that I was the first person she had talked to at Tribeca who knew anything about the camps and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066. When I mentioned Manzanar, the name of the most notorious of the camps, her face lit up as though she had recognized a friend.

We shared our concern about most Americans being ignorant of such an important and revelatory period of our history. We had heard many say, "there have never been concentration camps here in the United States." To make things worse, no less than 62% of the men, women, and children who were herded like animals and placed behind barbed wire had been American citizens. And FDR -- and just about everybody else -- didn't care.

Adding even more to the ignominy of the situation, no documented evidence has shown that anyone of Japanese descent living in California during the war years conducted any treasonous activity or in any way gave "aid and comfort to the enemy." Yet these loyal Americans lost their homes and businesses, and still FDR didn't care. What the evidence does show is that the government's internment policy was racially motivated. According to Wikipedia,

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to study the matter. On February 24, 1983, the commission issued a report entitled Personal Justice Denied, condemning the internment as "unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity."

In Out of Infamy, Sharon and Nancy, using archival film footage and stills, tell the story of the camps by focusing on one particular detainee, Michi Nishiura Weglyn, who spent an impressionable part of her youth during World War II in the Gila River War Relocation Center near Phoenix, Arizona. Her story is especially interesting because she later became a successful fashion designer, probably best known for doing the costumes for The Perry Como Show on network TV during the 1960s. Several years after leaving the Como show, Weglyn took a bold turn in life and did extensive research on the concentration camps and wrote a definitive history called Years of Infamy that exposed this shameful stain on America's recent past. The book's road to publication was fraught with resistance from American publishers who didn't want to touch the story. Weglyn should be known as a hero to all Americans for her tireless struggle to reveal such an unpopular truth.

So why is this film important now?

In a New York Times article, "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change," dated 12 March 2010, James C. McKinley wrote,

After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light....

[David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate,] won approval for an amendment stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism...

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term "separation between church and state.")

There are worse historical revisionists out there, one of them being Michelle Malkin, who wrote the following in the introduction to her 2004 book, In Defense of Internment

This book defends both the evacuation and relocation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast (the so-called "Japanese American internment"), as well as the internment of enemy aliens, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, during World War II. My work is by no means all-encompassing; my aim is to provoke a debate on a sacrosanct subject that has remained undebatable for far too long.

What's to debate? Is it possible that thousands of American citizens were NOT interned in concentration camps? And what's with her "so-called" Japanese American internment? Is she trying to imply that this whole chapter of American history is fiction? And as for her "internment of ... non-Japanese," did imprisoning about 14,000 Germans and Italians magically make it okay to intern the Japanese? Since when, Ms. Malkin, do two wrongs make a right? This other facet of America's shame is explored briefly in the Wikipedia article on Executive Order 9066:

Americans of Italian and German ancestry were also targeted by these restrictions, including internment. 11,000 people of German ancestry were interned, as were 3,000 people of Italian ancestry, along with some Jewish refugees. The Jewish refugees who were interned came from Germany, and the U.S. government didn't differentiate between ethnic Jews and ethnic Germans. Some of the internees of European descent were interned only briefly, and others were held for several years beyond the end of the war. Like the Japanese internees, these smaller groups had American-born citizens in their numbers, especially among the children. A few members of ethnicities of other Axis countries were interned, but exact numbers are unknown.

I hope you noticed this in the above quote: Our country interned Jews!

While the state of Texas is rewriting history, the state of Arizona is up to something equally dastardly. It has passed an immigration law that promotes racial and ethnic profiling and encourages racial and ethnic prejudice. Even though the law focuses on illegal immigrants, the regulation will also negatively affect Hispanic American citizens. In a New York Times piece of 23 April 2010 titled "Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration," Randal C. Archibold wrote,

[Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070], which proponents and critics alike said was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status....

It requires police officers, "when practicable," to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials, unless doing so would hinder an investigation or emergency medical treatment.

It also makes it a state crime -- a misdemeanor -- to not carry immigration papers. In addition, it allows people to sue local government or agencies if they believe federal or state immigration law is not being enforced.

When historical revisionism becomes popular with some school districts, and the state of Arizona enacts a draconian immigration law, such a shameful part of our history as the Japanese American internment is not one that should be forgotten. I hope that Out of Infamy will be shown on PBS or Cable TV sometime soon. Americans must see movies like this and learn about what happened to fellow Americans who didn't look like the typical WASP family. Our nation seems to be going down a bad road, and we need to change direction.

Sharon Yamato and Nancy Kapitanoff should be commended for putting together such a valuable short documentary. They are presently considering the option of making a longer film on this important subject.