The Nichi Bei Foundation will screen “We Said No! No! A Story of Civil Disobedience,” a J-Town Pictures documentary by filmmaker Brian Maeda, highlighting the civil disobedience in America’s World War II concentration camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans. The film screens in San Francisco’s Japantown on Feb. 25 and in San Jose’s Japantown on Feb. 26.

The film notes that with the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States, the government rounded up more than 120,000 Nikkei to be imprisoned in American concentration camps. The film shows the Japanese American Citizens League and its 25-year-old executive secretary, Mike Masaoka, advocating for all Nikkei to cooperate with the government and go into the concentration camps.

Maeda, the film’s producer/director, was born in one of those camps, at Manzanar in the eastern California desert.

The U.S. government created a controversial so-called loyalty questionnaire to determine if the Nisei would be eligible for military service. Question 27 asked if the individual would be “willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”

Question 28: asked if the recruit would “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”

According to J-Town Pictures, about 10 percent of the population of the 10 War Relocation Authority camps answered “no-no” to the questions, and the U.S. government forcibly removed these families to Tule Lake, which became a segregation center. At its peak, the population of Tule Lake grew to 18,500, out of which some 5,500 renounced their U.S. citizenship in preparation for their “repatriation” to Japan.

“Something Fishy”
In the film, a former Tule Lake prisoner, activist Bill Nishimura, seems puzzled by the questions, pointing out the Nikkei predicament, having been forced from their home, having lost their freedom and livelihood and being incarcerated in American concentration camps.
Nishimura thought there was “something fishy” about the questionnaire. “The government is up to something … I didn’t answer the questions. And on the blank space, I wrote, ‘When my civil rights are restored, I will answer the questions.’”

Also featured in the film, Masako Nishi relates how her father, Inouye-sensei, a respected judo instructor, kept a detailed diary written in Japanese while imprisoned in a military stockade within Tule Lake. His crime was that he attended a meeting where the Nikkei prisoners questioned the legality of their incarceration, citing the lack of due process, and the violation of the constitutional writ of habeas corpus.

Adding insult to injury, because U.S. officials were aware that the incarcerated Nikkei could grow their own food, they forced the Japanese farmers to grow crops not only for Tule Lake but for the other nine camps as well.

In acts of civil disobedience, the prisoners carried out a seven-day hunger strike, while Violet Matsuda, a fellow prisoner, managed to procure the services of the American Civil Liberties Union. Meanwhile, the extremist pro-Japan group Hoshidan carried out attacks against those they considered inu, informers. In another incident, guards killed Shoichi James Okamoto when he walked too close to the fence and ignored their orders to stop. The authorities fined the shooter $1 for the cost of the bullet.

The filmmaker, who revealed taking almost 10 years to make this film, declared the imprisonment of Nikkei was not only racially motivated but also “economically motivated by special interest groups … The Japanese then controlled almost 70 percent of the produce industry, from Washington into Oregon and California to the Mexican border. They also dominated much of the fishing cannery business, from Portland down to Terminal Island … So, a lot of this definitely had to do with racial economics.”

When the government rounded up and incarcerated Japanese Americans, there weren’t any prominent, sympathetic Nikkei, noted Maeda. “The most prominent Japanese today would be Shohei Ohtani, and if he was playing during World War II … and the government tried to lock up Ohtani, the American people would have been in an uproar. We didn’t have the popularity then … and we didn’t have anybody in politics.”

Maeda, a Nisei graduate of UCLA in cinematography, has always wanted to show films from a Japanese American point of view. He started J-Town Pictures in 1990 in order to tell the tumultuous and often untold stories about Asian Americans. He said his parents didn’t talk much about their concentration camp experience. “It was kinda shameful, to them.”

‘An Outstanding Film’
California State University Fullerton History Professor Emeritus Art Hansen, who for decades has been documenting the resistance of Japanese Americans to their unjust wartime treatment by the U.S. government and the leadership of the JACL, praised Maeda, “for producing a film that drives this point home in a very graphic and altogether telling manner … Most of Brian’s characters in his film square with the research material he uncovered about them … My opinion is that it is an outstanding film in virtually every respect.”

Maeda’s focus on the experiences of two women in the Tule Lake story, Rosalie Hankey (Wax), an anthropologist to whom many of the prisoners confided, and Violet Matsuda (De Cristoforo), one of the protest leaders, was “an inspired and fortuitous choice,” Hansen stated, “with Rosalie starting out the film as its heroine and Maeda ultimately choosing to cast Violet in that role.”

Hansen agreed that this film should educate the public about what the U.S. government did to Japanese Americans during World War II.

“We Said No! No!: A Story of Civil Disobedience” (2022, 74 minutes) will be shown Saturday, Feb. 25, from 10 a.m., at the AMC Kabuki 8 at 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown and Sunday, Feb. 26 at 10:30 a.m. at the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church in San Jose’s Japantown at 540 North Fifth St. It will also be available online from Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. through March 12 at 11:59 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.filmsofremembrance.org.

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