By MARTHA NAKAGAWA
There seem to be emails circulating that are criticizing “Right of Passage,” a documentary on the redress movement.
First of all, distilling the complex history of the redress movement into an hour-and-a-half-long documentary is no small feat.
There were so many individuals, organizations and political maneuvers involved that it would be impossible to cover every angle and satisfy everyone.
But “Right of Passage” does a pretty good job, and the ending is no mystery.
Contrary to what critics are saying, “Right of Passage” has solid documentation to back up what is said in the documentary and has cross-checked oral history interviews.
For example, let’s take the criticism over the depiction of Mike Masaoka, the controversial wartime Japanese American Citizens League leader.
“Right of Passage” gives a balanced view of Masaoka, but critics appear to want to censor the negative aspects of Masaoka’s actions such as his advocacy of using the Issei as hostages during the war while the Nisei go out on suicide missions. Masaoka even suggested a branding program, similar to the way the Nazis branded Jews.
And no, Masaoka is not the man who formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as his supporters would like the public to think. He had no such powers. The government was already thinking about forming a segregated unit long before Masaoka brought up the idea.
These and other Masaoka “recommendations” to the government are compiled in the Deborah Lim Report, which the JACL has attempted to suppress for decades. The Lim Report consists of primary documents such as JACL and government letters and memos.
During the postwar era, Masaoka is most known for lobbying for the passage of the Walter-McCarran Act, which Masaoka supporters emphasize, in sound bites, as the law that gave the Issei U.S. citizenship.
In reality, the Walter-McCarran Act was much more controversial. It included a national origins quota system that restricted the number of Asians allowed to immigrate to the U.S.
Moreover, it allowed the federal government the power to imprison and deport those whom it suspected of being subversives, similar to the way people of Japanese ancestry had been incarcerated during World War II.
A number of civil rights organizations opposed the passage of this act, including the Nisei Progressives.
That Masaoka’s surviving friends and relatives see a continued need to censor Masaoka’s more controversial actions is indicative of the fact that Masaoka’s legacy does not stand the test of time. With the passage of the years, it will become more obvious that submitting to and even encouraging civil rights violations is not acceptable, especially from a leader of an organization that touts itself as a civil rights organization.
Another point that is criticized about the documentary is how and who is given credit for the passage of the redress bill. This battle over credit has been going on since the redress movement. The public would get the impression that only a handful of people were responsible for getting redress passed because they were able to influence President Reagan.
What’s been missing in all this jockeying around for glory is that thousands of ordinary people sent in letters to their legislatures, made phone calls, signed petitions and made personal lobbying trips. Without the voices of the people, elected officials would see no need to listen to any select people, some of whom have gotten so arrogant they act as if they just made a phone call and changed President Reagan’s mind.
This was also the time before social media. There were no emails or texting or Twitter. To this end, the Japanese American press — even The Pacific Citizen, the JACL newspaper — played an enormous role in helping to get redress passed, something that is often forgotten.
So let’s stop trying to censor portions of our own Nikkei history. It’s time we appreciate documentaries like “Right of Passage,” that attempt to give a fuller picture of the redress movement.
Martha Nakagawa is a freelance researcher and writer. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.
Bravo, Martha Nakagawa.