Minidoka survivors on U.S. government’s violation of Americans’ civil rights


Producer Rory Banyard’s film, “Betrayed: Surviving An American Concentration Camp,” explores the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans by the United States government during World War II. The Nichi Bei Foundation will screen the film online during its 11th annual Films of Remembrance Saturday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. PST. The film may be viewed through March 13.

The annual film showcase commemorates President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. The event will feature virtual screenings and panel discussions with filmmakers.

Through the voices of survivors of the Minidoka camp in southern Idaho, “Betrayed” discusses the government’s violation of their constitutional rights and the impact of the incarceration on the Pacific Northwest Nikkei community, as well as on the greater Japanese American community.

The film shows Nikkei being assembled for removal in 1942 by train and buses, first to the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp, and then to Minidoka. “We were stripped of our civil rights … we were stripped of everything,” complains a former camp prisoner.

The government orders declared that everyone of Japanese ancestry would be “evacuated … both aliens and non-aliens.” Kay Sakai Nakao, a Bainbridge Island, Wash. resident asks, “What the Sam Hill does non-alien mean?” She notes that the government didn’t dare say they were incarcerating U.S. citizens.

Most Nikkei from the Pacific Northwest were herded to Minidoka, which at its peak held 13,000 prisoners. They complain about the stark conditions — boiling hot summer weather and the freezing cold winters, as the film shows prisoners filling up bags with straw to use as mattresses.

No one in Congress opposed the forced removal of all persons of Japanese blood from the West Coast, a former prisoner states in the film, although a government study — the Munson Report — showed that the exclusion of Japanese Americans was not needed, that there was no “Japanese problem” on the West Coast.

The film relates how three Nisei — Minoru Yasui of Oregon, Gordon Hirabayashi of Washington and Fred Korematsu of the Bay Area — resisted government curfew orders as well as the order to “evacuate” the West Coast to go into concentration camps. The trio lost their individual legal cases in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Creating Divisions
The film exposes the government’s actions that created division among the inmates by instituting a so-called “loyalty questionnaire” in 1943 to determine the inmates’ loyalty — Question 27 asks if the Nikkei would be willing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in combat; Question 28 asks if the respondent would forswear allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. The Issei felt that if they answered “Yes” to No. 28, they would be stateless persons because they could not, under racist American law, become U.S. citizens.

A large majority of inmates answered “Yes-Yes” to questions 27 and 28, but a significant number also answered “No-No.” These protesters, known as the “No-No Boys,” were branded as troublemakers and sent to the Tule Lake segregation center.

There was more resistance in 1944 when the government reintroduced the military draft for young Nisei men. Many of them went into the Army but 300 decided to resist — including 40 from Minidoka — as long as their parents were still incarcerated, the film explains. The Minidoka resisters were convicted of draft evasion and served up to three and a half years at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington.

The U.S. government also formed the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as a segregated military unit to fight in Europe, and they fought valiantly to become the most decorated unit of its size in Army history.

Many people, mostly young Nisei who passed the so-called “loyalty questionnaire,” were allowed to leave the camps for other areas away from the West Coast. By 1945, only 8,000 people remained at Minidoka, according to the film.

Even after the war ended, many Japanese Americans feared returning to the West Coast because of anti-Japanese violence, especially in California, the film notes. There were a few exceptions — some Nikkei from Bainbridge Island and Juneau, Alaska, were welcomed back to their homes after the war.

Nevertheless, the Japanese community remained divided — many Nisei who served in the 442nd RCT hated the “No-No Boys” and draft resisters of conscience, while families of the resisters were often mistreated by fellow Nikkei. “I couldn’t go to church anymore,” a woman laments in the film.

Many outraged Sansei, who learned belatedly about their families’ wartime experiences, sought justice for the Nikkei victims of the government’s actions by holding Day of Remembrance events — initially in Seattle that attracted 2,000 people in 1978 — to make the public aware of the Nikkei experience. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Sansei were instrumental in the fight to gain redress for all Nikkei who were incarcerated. The fight for redress culminated with President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that included an official government apology and compensation of $20,000 for each surviving inmate. Most Issei had died by August 1988.

The vindicated Nikkei now have the moral authority to protest scapegoating of others — Muslims after the 9/11 terrorism — and supporting the immigrant families from Latin America, and their children who were locked in cages, a former prisoner declares in the film.

Only in recent years have people spoken of the trauma experienced by Japanese Americans, says psychotherapist Satsuki Ina, pointing out that many Nisei died early because of suppressed rage. While the film shows a group of Nikkei protesting the mistreatment of immigrants, she points out, “No one stood up for us then. With today’s violation of human rights of immigrants, we have to speak out; we will commit civil disobedience as a way of upholding our values.”

A Cautionary Tale
Producer Banyard, originally from the UK and a resident of Portland, Ore. for more than 25 years, stated via e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly that this film grew out of a project for the National Park Service about Minidoka. “We realized that there would be a larger national audience for a Minidoka film; ‘Betrayed’ will be broadcast nationally on public television this May.”

The filmmaker thought he knew the story of the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans until he started this project. “The story of the incarceration is so much worse and more devastating than one would think from casual knowledge of this history. There are still so many important lessons from this piece of history, primarily about racism, the value of civil rights, and their fragility.”

He believes the film is “a cautionary tale about what happens if we don’t stand up for people whose rights are being threatened. In that sense the lessons of the incarceration will always be relevant.”

Not A Victim Narrative
Writer Frank Abe, who appears in the film, stated in an e-mail, “I was impressed that Rory’s archival research turned up film of the first Day of Remembrance … It’s a great way to open the film as it captures the moment when many of those who were removed from Seattle to Minidoka first stood up for redress and reclaimed the history of camp as their own.”

The Seattle resident said he was glad that Banyard’s film “isn’t another victim narrative of camp, but something that digs into the more complicated threads of the draft resistance at Minidoka and the postwar campaign for justice through redress. So, I’m pleased I had the chance to contribute to the film.”

In the film, Abe talks about the Munson Report, first revealed by Michi Weglyn in her book, “Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps.” The Munson Report informed FDR that the Japanese in America posed no military threat and that the Nisei were in fact “pathetically loyal” to the U.S.

Unaware as a youngster about the Nikkei incarceration story, Abe recalled that his father, who as an immigrant teenager was imprisoned at Heart Mountain, “made it sound like a summer camp.” It was only during a break from college that Abe read Bill Hosokawa’s “Nisei: The Quiet Americans.” “I had my mind blown by the pictures and story of real American concentration camps. And like every Sansei, I was outraged.”

Taken from Bainbridge Island
Lily Kodama, a former inmate who appeared in the film, was 7 years old in 1942 when she and her family were forcibly removed from their Bainbridge Island home and incarcerated at Minidoka in the desolate Idaho desert.

“I have memories of my time in the concentration camp,” Kodama stated in an e-mail. “At that time when I was a child, my mother — and I believe most of the mothers — tried to make life as normal as possible.

As long as Mama is with you, life can be tolerated no matter the circumstances.”

As an adult she feels the imprisonment of all people based solely on race without due process “is unconstitutional and demeans our democratic government, something that should not happen again to anyone.”

Asked to participate in the film by its producers who were interested in survivors’ stories, Kodama added, “I feel that any media that tells this historic event is important for alerting citizens that terrible wrongs may be committed by democratic governments.”

“Betrayed” will be accessible from Saturday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. PT through March 13. An online discussion of the film will be held Feb. 26 at 3:15 p.m. For more information visit:

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