Although writing can help decipher history, it’s our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Japanese American Youth Answer World War II’s Allegiance Question

By Christine McFadden, Correspondent
First published April 15, 2011

What would you do if you were forced to declare your allegiance to a country that betrays your constitutional rights?

When faced with the government’s loyalty questionnaire while incarcerated in Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, Roy Nakano’s parents took a bold stand.

Asked about their willingness to serve the United States and swear “unqualified allegiance” to America in question No. 28 of the infamous loyalty questionnaire, Nakano’s parents both answered that they were “undecided.” Both U.S. citizens born in Hawaii, they cited the “existing racial discrimination and prejudice” of the “unconstitutional compulsory evacuation,” as their reason, stating: “As long as I have citizenship, I wish to remain neutral.” 

As a result, Nakano’s parents and their family were transferred to Tule Lake. Once there, they took their protest a step further and both renounced their U.S. citizenship. 

“I would not have had the guts to do what they did,” said Nakano, an attorney in Southern California and one of the founders of the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR).

It’s a question many younger Japanese Americans may not want to think about: What would you do if you were in your grandparents’ or your parents’ shoes during WWII and were asked to declare allegiance to the country that incarcerated you? 

While many teenage Yonsei say they would have asserted their rebellious intentions, under the same circumstances, they say they would ultimately stay subdued in the face of war hysteria and mass incarceration. 

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, JAs were looked upon with suspicion and forced in many ways to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Some joined a segregated unit of the U.S. Army to prove their allegiance, others took a stand, while still others renounced their American citizenship in disgust.

“Allegiance,” a new musical play about “love, loss and heroism in the backdrop of the Japanese American internment” has sparked controversy by trying to address the question of allegiance.

The musical by Jay Kuo, which aims to open in New York City next year, features a scene with an actor playing WWII JACL National Secretary Mike Masaoka, who called for JAs to be calm and cooperative with the president’s order for a mass evacuation. In a stage reading performed before an audience, which was recorded and placed on YouTube, actor Paolo Montalban said it’s “a little known fact that Masaoka worked with the U.S. government to implement the Japanese American internment.”

The scars of the allegiance question during WWII still affect the JA community today. And many say that if faced with the same circumstances, they would have done nothing different.

Joan Coe, whose mother Mary Hara was incarcerated as a young teenager at Minidoka near Twin Falls, Idaho, would not have rebelled. 

“You have to go with the flow,” said Coe, a Sansei. “You had to do it — you’re a minor. You’re a kid, and you’re going to do what your mom and dad say and you’re going to be sad about it and you’re going to be embarrassed, too. It’s humiliating.”

Hara was the youngest of seven children, born in Gresham, Oregon to Issei parents. No matter how confused, scared or angry, Coe said she would not have violated Executive Order 9066, the curfew orders, or rebelled in any way unless she felt immediately physically threatened. 

“Right now, you and I have hindsight, and you can see it’s wrong, but at that time they’re telling you it’s for your protection,” said Coe. “The government is convincing you it’s for your own good. The government tells you to go, and you go.” 

Both of Hara’s brothers served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated JA unit of the U.S., but Coe’s 16-year-old Yonsei son Alexander said he would not have made the decision to serve.

“I’d be much more likely to run away or something than to join the military division [442nd] or take it to court,” he said. 

Many Issei and Nisei often describe their wartime experience as something that could not be helped — shikata ga nai.

“I would ask my dad, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it [the internment]?’” said Connie Masuoka, a Sansei Portland JACL board member. “We would go round and round about this and then he would get mad and say there was nothing he could have done.”

“I used to think my father’s answer was a poor one, but actually it was an honest one. Would I risk going to jail or prison by breaking curfew or refusing to join the military?” she said. 

Justin Hayase, who co-founded the Japanese American Student Union at Yale, recognizes that being raised as a Yonsei “is very different from the world that my Nisei grandparents lived in.” 

“Having gone through a college environment where speaking out against injustice is encouraged, I would more than likely react more like the Korematsus and the Endos, based on my experience,” he said.

During WWII, Korematsu defied the evacuation orders and took his battle all the way to the Supreme Court. Mitsuye Endo similarly hired a lawyer to represent her legal protest against the forced evacuation.

In spite of these statements of rebellion, Hayase points out the different time periods and ultimately has a change of heart. 

“I can say this now because a precedence has already been set,” he said. “I would imagine things were much scarier 70 years ago, and JAs simply didn’t have the resources that we might utilize today in fighting against injustice.

“To be honest, I suppose if I were alive in 1942, I likely would have reacted in the same way that the majority of JAs did, which was a reaction of stoic endurance and survival,” he added.
Rachel Seeman, a 19-year-old student in California, says she could see herself rebelling inside the internment camps, although she would have been torn between wanting to show her allegiance to the U.S. and defending her Constitutional rights.

“I would have been very angry and fighting for my rights … I can’t see myself having any other choice,” she said.

Katie Nakano, a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said although she is sympathetic of her grandparents’ plight during WWII, if she were forced to answer the allegiance question at the age she is now — 18 — she would be “extremely rebellious.”

Coe, who was born in the 1950s, noted the generational differences between her generation and the youth of today.

“Kids were more compliant then, and that’s the way I am,” she said. “That’s my generation. We did as we were told.”

Today’s generational differences notwithstanding, many Yonsei would have admittedly taken the same path if they were placed in their grandparents’ shoes during the incarceration. 

“Looking back at the way my grandparents responded to the camps, I’m extremely grateful to them,” Hayase said. “They persevered through the hardship, and they didn’t let it break their spirit.”

“Their suffering was their motivation to work harder to give their grandchildren the opportunities that were taken away from them, and today I use that knowledge as my own motivation.” 


  1. This is a very informative article and makes me feel sad that this happened in America. Strange how there is no truly free place, isn't it?

    Would the same thing happen today? I wonder if we have really changed much in 70 years?

  2. Very Informative! This was a terrible stain on our history. More than 30 members of my family in WWII living in Eastern Europe, never even made it off the trains into the extermination camps. Mans inhumanity to man, and will we ever learn to be more compassionate when we have differing ideas? To find common ground and agree to disagree instead of pointing fingers.

    On a more positive note, Origami is so soul healing and a beautiful art form and also functional in selected models: Please visit and join for stress relief and folding fun:

  3. heartbreaking what man does to man, in this country and every other.


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Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. In addition to studying cultures, I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

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