By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN
Imagine, if you will, that you are watching television.
The date is Jan. 2, 1957; Dwight Eisenhower has been re-elected to the presidency. McCarthyism is waning, but the Cold War is progressing. The McCarran-Walter Act has passed, allowing Japanese immigrants to become U.S. citizens, and Japanese American families are slowly (if at all) receiving checks from the Evacuation Claims Act of nearly a decade before.
You tune in to the show “This Is Your Life” on NBC. As always, host Ralph Edwards brings on a startled guest, unaware that for the next half hour Edwards has enlisted the guest’s childhood friends, relatives, and colleagues to walk the viewers down memory lane about their life. Boasting a viewership of roughly 30 million per week, the show ranks highly among NBC’s television programs. The guests are a combination of celebrities, politicians, and historical figures. Tonight’s guest: JACL lobbyist Mike Masaoka!
For the Japanese American Citizens League, Mike Masaoka was the ideal candidate to represent the Japanese American community on television. Often regarded as the “leader” of the JACL during the early war years by those who knew the organization, Masaoka played a crucial role in organizing the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which he then left the JACL to join. While Masaoka certainly had his critics at the time, his wartime actions would not come under scrutiny until much later. Celebrated for his success in pushing legislation such as the McCarran-Walter Act through Congress, Masaoka’s popularity was, in 1957, unassailable.
As with other episodes, it seems all the participants but the guest of honor are in on the scheme: as JACL leader George Inagaki, smiling broadly, leads him into NBC’s Burbank studio, Mike Masaoka looks stunned. (On the day following the show’s broadcast, the **Pacific Citizen** reveals that the hardest part of producing the show was keeping it a secret from Mike.) The show centers on Masaoka’s military accomplishments as a member and what the show (rather exaggeratedly) refers to as the creator of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
A full color guard composed of his former comrades awaits Masaoka as he walks on stage. His former commander, Colonel Charles W. Pence, and the onetime company sergeant, Hawaii territorial legislator Joe Itagaki, both regale viewers with mixed stories of Mike’s clumsiness as a soldier and dedication as a leader. It is those leadership skills, according to Edwards, that make Masaoka the successful lobbyist who pushed the McCarran-Walter Act through Congress. The show concludes with Edwards presenting several gifts to the Masaoka family, such as a piano and a Bell and Howell projector, along with scholarships for Masaoka’s children.
Recently, Densho historian and former Rafu columnist Brian Niiya found the Masaoka episode on YouTube and sent me a link to it. In viewing the show as a historical document, several aspects stood out to me. First, it was one of the first television programs to discuss the wartime removal of Japanese Americans (eight years before the CBS documentary “Nisei: The Pride and the Shame,” in which Masaoka also appeared). Unlike “Go for Broke!,” the 1951 Hollywood movie about the 442nd, the Masaoka show presented a brief discussion of the camps, including a stilted conversation about its effects on the Masaoka family (though not on Mike directly, as he never went to camp).
At one point, Mike’s brother Tad described life in Manzanar and mentioned being assaulted by “troublemakers.” Mike’s sister Kiyoko acknowledged having to sell the family’s farm stand for “25% of the value” and living behind “barbed wire and watch towers.” Another compelling element of the program is the presence of Mike’s mother, Haruye Masaoka. While Mrs. Masaoka is the named plaintiff in the landmark California Supreme Court case Masaoka v. California, which put the final nail in the coffin of California’s notorious Alien Land Law. Neither the case nor Mrs. Masaoka’s role in it was mentioned during the program.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the program in contemporary eyes is the appearance of Edward J. Ennis, the former director of the FBI’s Enemy Alien Control Unit (and later, for a time, JACL national counsel), who was then serving as the ACLU’s legal counsel. As a former representative of the Justice Department, Ennis explained the official designation of “military necessity” and the harsh effect that forced removal had on Japanese Americans. Although his appearance was brief, Ennis’s descriptions of forced removal and the “suffering” it caused were poignant and revealing.
To be sure, “This Is Your Life” had previously entertained several guests that witnessed historical tragedies, some less successful than others. Two years before, Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima and subject of John Hersey’s book “Hiroshima,” was brought on the show as a guest along with his family. To Tanimoto’s shock, Edwards had invited one of the pilots of the Enola Gay, Capt. Robert A. Lewis, to speak to Tanimoto and his family. Although intended as a gesture of reconciliation, the encounter resuted in an uncomfortable moment for the guests.
In another episode, Hanna Bloch Kohner, a Holocaust survivor, was honored as a guest on the show, and was asked to recount her experiences alongside her surviving family members.
Masaoka would also not be the last Japanese American to appear on the show. One year later, pharmacist Takeo Harry Momita appeared as a guest to tell the story of his wife’s death during a car accident and the help of his neighbors, who stepped up to support his family following the tragedy. In that episode, Momita, his family, and his neighbor Frank Kuwahara discussed their prewar experience facing prejudice and their wartime confinement at Poston.
Ralph Edwards deplored the wartime “hysteria” against Japanese Americans but stated that “national security had to be the watchword” and his guests agreed that all the sacrifices they made were their contribution to the war effort.
What Masaoka’s appearance on “This Is Your Life” illustrates most clearly is his reputation as an influential political lobbyist (a reputation originally sealed by a widely-reprinted article in Reader’s Digest) and how it helped the JACL market the “Japanese American” experience to a wider audience – in this case, through Hollywood. Six years after “Go For Broke!,” for which Masaoka had served as a consultant, hit movie screens across America, Masaoka’s episode of “This is Your Life” again symbolized the efforts of the JACL to market the success of Issei and Nisei in American society, despite the setbacks of incarceration.
That message of good Americanism would change two decades later, when redress activists would underline the shame of forced removal. First (more gently) the 1965 CBS program “Nisei: The Pride and the Shame,” and later (more forcefully) the 1976 TV-movie “Farewell to Manzanar” would lay bare the negative side of the camp experience. Yet even in the 1950s, the JACL recognized that publicity, whether on television or in Congress, would have positive results.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D candidate in history at UC Santa Cruz. He is a columnist for the Japanese American National Museum’s blog Discover Nikkei, and had contributed to The Rafu Shimpo, Nichi Bei Weekly, North American Post, and International Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.