At just 5 years of age, George Takei was classified by the American government as an "enemy alien" and forcibly imprisoned in an internment camp with his family in 1942. Growing up, he noticed how very few people knew about his family's horrible experience. “I read all the history books that I could get my hands on, and there wasn’t a word about this chapter of American history,” explains Takei. Today, he's part of a growing movement of Japanese American artists who are using film to tell the history of how more than 120,000 American citizens of Japanese descent were wrongfully imprisoned by the state from 1942 to 1945.
Reclaiming History Through Film
In the 2018 film American, Takei takes on the role of WWII veteran Clinton Nakamoto of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. While working as a docent at the Japanese American National Museum, Nakamoto experiences flashbacks to the internment camps as well as the battlefield, prompted by inquisitive museum visitors. Meanwhile, in the AMC horror series Terror: Infamy, Takei is joined by actor Derek Mio as Japanese Americans in the war, retelling Japanese ghost stories in an attempt to somehow conjure the actual dread of being interred. More than 70 years later, the history of Japanese American internment camps is finally getting the mainstream cinema treatment. “This is a piece of American history that has been severely under-taught and underrepresented in film and TV,” explains Terror: Infamy showrunner and co-creator Alexander Woo.
Understanding why these events are missing from history books as well as most modern media entails examining the history of Japanese emigration to America, as well as the state of the two countries today. Looking at modern-day Japan, you'd be hard-pressed to think of any reason why its citizens would want to leave relative stability for the volatile politics and economy of the U.S. Boasting a per-capita GDP of $42,942, Japan is currently one of the richest and most literate nations in the world. In terms of entertainment and leisure, the results of the country's economic success are outlined in ExpatBets' guide to modern day Japan pachinko gaming machines are more popular than ever, heritage and tourist spots are well taken care of, and new resorts and casinos are on the rise. However, it wasn't always like this in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The First Japanese American Emigrants
Japan was a very different place back in the late 1800s. The country was going through the Meiji Restoration as the end of the 19th century approached, which drastically changed its sociopolitical and economic landscape. While these changes spurred a bright new era which eventually shaped modern Japan into its above-mentioned description, they also came with much conflict and violence, prompting many Japanese to seek out other opportunities across the world.
In 1908, the U.S. and Japan signed a "Gentleman's Agreement" to mutually regulate the growing number of immigrants. This was met with opposition from white Americans, who often saw the Japanese as competitors to the American way of life. As World War II came in the late 1930s, anti-Japanese propaganda further fanned the flames of racial tensions, which eventually became unmanageable in the U.S. when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Executive Order 9066
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 as a reaction to Pearl Harbor. The policy ordered the summary incarceration of 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children in poorly maintained internment camps located in desolate areas across the western parts of the continent. The order was executed without trials nor due process, leading to the unjust deaths of 1,862 Americans of Japanese ancestry, killed by tuberculosis and/or other medical problems under state imprisonment from 1942 to 1945.
In short, America is ashamed and afraid of its racist past. And while the government has been mostly successful in keeping these events forgotten, today's Japanese American filmmakers are taking matters into their own hands, pulling this dark chapter of history from the shadows and into the cinematic limelight. We can only hope that these current efforts at educating people about America's lost histories through film will continue to prevail in the near and distant future.