Film details Monterey citizens’ wartime support of Japanese American neighbors

“Enduring Democracy: The Monterey Petition” still

Located in a dusty filing cabinet in an old Japanese American Citizens League building in Monterey, Calif., a local historian made a remarkable discovery in 2013: A 16mm film from 1938 showing local Issei and Nisei having fun at the wharf and playing baseball, and a large stack of signed petitions demanding the restoration of civil rights for these same Japanese Americans.

With World War II still raging against Japan in 1945, many Californians did not want Japanese Americans to return to their homes on the West Coast after three years of imprisonment in desolate concentration camps. One Salinas-based farmer made his feelings clear in a full-page ad he placed in a local newspaper: “We do not want you back.”

In response to this ad, outraged local citizens immediately wrote letters to the editor in defense of their Japanese American friends, many of whom were neighbors who worked with them in the fishing and farming industries for years before the war. They wrote a petition. This petition and the story of the people behind it serves as the basis for “Enduring Democracy: The Monterey Petition,” a new documentary film set to screen at the Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest, which kicks off in-person and online Oct. 28.

Written and directed by David C. Schendel, the hour-long documentary film tells the story of the Japanese American incarceration in the context of Monterey’s Nikkei community, and how their friends came to their defense when they needed it most.

Here, in part, is what these citizens wrote in 1945:

“The majority of these people will relocate in different parts of the United States. Some, in the coming months, will return to their homes here on the Monterey Peninsula. Among them will be veterans of this war and relatives of Americans who are now fighting for democracy on all our war fronts.

These families have made their homes here for many years and have been part of the life of our community. Their sons are making the same sacrifices as our own boys.

“…We, the undersigned, then believe that it is the privilege and responsibility of this community to cooperate with the National Government by insuring the democratic way of life to ALL members of the community.”

It was signed by 500 local citizens, the most prominent being famed author John Steinbeck.

Sansei attorney Donald Tamaki, who is featured throughout the film, added this: “The Monterey Petition is a textbook example of what this country should be about. I think it’s a lesson for all time.”

Descendants of the petition signers also reveal why their loved ones felt compelled to sign. “My dad believed that what happened was wrong,” said one.

For those familiar with the camp story, much of this film you have seen before. However, what makes “Enduring Democracy” fresh is the lesser-known story of the courage and compassion it took for American citizens to stand up for what was right, and how the democracy they were defending is still very much in need of defense today.

The Silicon Valley Asian Pacific FilmFest runs Oct. 28-29 at the AMC Sunnyvale Dine-In Theater at 150 E McKinley Ave in Sunnyvale, Calif. and through Nov. 6 online. “Enduring Democracy: The Monterey Petition” will be available to stream online only. Both an online and an in-person pass costs $25. Individual film packages and tickets are also available for purchase: https://svapfilmfest2022.eventive.org/welcome.

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