May 30, 2021
An Interview with Frank Abe
Upon the Release of His New Book
“WE HEREBY REFUSE: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration”
Hello Frank. Congratulations on your new book.
I’ve seen quite a number of books on the Japanese American Internment. Your book was able to take a new perspective on the subject. When George Takei’s book came out, I was really impressed with how much he was able to cover in a graphic memoir. I began to wonder how the subject could be covered in some new way – I think you’ve done it.
Thanks Leonard, that means a lot coming from an avid reader like you. I admit it was bold to bill this as “the story of camp as you’ve never seen it before,” but from the early reader response it feels as if the message is getting across. The Seattle Times just called it a “page-turner.” There’s a “we” in the title by design. This is not the story of just one person. “We hereby refuse” was the phrase by which the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain crossed the line from protest to resistance, but in our title the “we” takes on a second meaning as the collective cry of all those targeted solely on the basis of race, whether or not they took action or spoke out.
First of all, how would you describe your book – is it a graphic novel, graphic biography, or graphic memoir? Could it also be classified as historical fiction?
We Hereby Refuse is a dramatic story based on true events. Every line on every page is drawn from the historical record. That’s by design. Even where we must reconstruct private conversations between two people, every line is true to the moment and to their character.
The truth was far more compelling than anything we could invent. It’s not fiction, but it reads with the depth and texture of a good novel, a novel with drawings.
I first saw a preview of your book at the 2018 Tule Lake Pilgrimage and became excited about it, especially since it was partially about someone that I knew (Hiroshi Kashiwagi). Tell us about how this book came about. When did you first start thinking about doing this book?
A manga was certainly not on my radar. I had been thinking how I might adapt stories of camp resistance for the stage or screen when this opportunity presented itself. The mission of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle is to connect everyone to Asian American history through vivid storytelling. They grasped the power of the graphic novel to do just that, and got an NPS Confinement Sites Grant for a series of three graphic novels, of which this is the second, and the four of us answered the call for proposals.
It took some time to study the genre to understand how to write these stories visually. I’ve always been haunted by the postmodern techniques of a graphic novel called Maus by Art Spiegelman, who drew his father’s Holocaust story with the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, Americans as dogs, and Poles as pigs. I was also inspired by the black comedy of a French graphic novel, The Death of Stalin, which was later the basis of an equally funny Armando Iannucci film. From Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a book that formalizes the study of comics, I learned the vocabulary of graphic novels as juxtaposed pictorial images in a deliberate sequence. And from my New York filmmaking friend Greg Pak, who now writes superhero stories for DC and Marvel and reinvented James Bond’s Oddjob for Dynamite Comics, I got the Word template for writing a graphic novel script – it’s in his book, Make Comics Like the Pros.
I thought having different art styles to tell the stories was good. Was that planned?
The Wing Luke wanted to give a chance to two writers and two artists, a mix that could have spelled disaster. At AACP you’ve probably seen books that were written by committee, which often leads to watered-down content and safe choices. Fortunately, the four of us were able to work toward a singular and provocative vision of the story, one that wove the stories of three characters into one continuous timeline, so that the reader can experience the passage of time in camp just as the incarcerees did.
That meant not taking the easier path of each artist and writer taking different chapters and throwing them all together at the end, and we worried until the very last month how the two styles of art would work together. I like to say the color drawings by Ross Ishikawa are expressive, while the black-and-white sketches by Matt Sasaki are expressionistic. It simply wasn’t possible to find some middle ground, or to ask one to draw in the style of the other.
Two things I think help pull together the book into a whole. One was to drive the story forward with a firm hand and a strong voice across all three characters. The other is the tasteful use of typography and color by the book designer, Dan D Shafer of Seattle. His design succeeds in pulling together two different art styles across three different characters in one continuous timeline. He makes our story cohere as a book.
Did Hiroshi Kashiwagi have a chance to actively contribute to the book before his passing?
Yes, in two ways. First, Hiroshi was a public figure who wrote about himself and expressed his feelings in his poetry, plays, memoirs, and oral history interviews. This enabled us to draw much of his narration and dialogue from his own words and thoughts. In this, the AACP publications of Shoe Box Plays and Swimming in the American, both edited by Tamiko Nimura, were indispensable in creating his character on the page. For example, I lifted his complaints about being sick of saying “yes” to everything in camp from dialogue that is spoken by his alter ego in his play, “The Betrayed.” Tamiko had favorite moments she wanted included in his narration.
But secondly, Hiroshi was generous in sharing his stories with me over the years. One of our last meetings was over coffee at Yakini-Q in San Francisco Japantown. We talked about The Little Theater at Tule Lake and how he sent for the script of a play called “The Valiant” because he wanted to play the lead role, and that provided some texture to his camp life. While looking over photographs, he made a passing comment about a classmate named Alice whom he recalled was “kind of sweet on him;” that gave me the idea for a composite character who could become his confidante throughout the turmoil of segregation and renunciation.
Hiroshi passed in late 2019 and we’re sorry we weren’t able to show him the final result. But he put his trust in us, and we worked hard to do him justice.
You’ve written a biography ("John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy") and made a documentary ("Conscience and the Constitution") in the past. Did you consider doing this book in traditional nonfiction book format or maybe as a documentary?
When I wrote my pitch for this project, I saw I was describing what Conscience should have been if we’d the time, money and patience to tell the entire story of camp resistance as a TV mini-series: the Amache draft resisters, the military resisters, the petition campaigns by Issei mothers at several camps to protect the lives of their sons. There was just so much story out there left to be told, so doing this as a graphic novel proved to be a timely way to get more of these stories out. And from the early response it’s clear that people find visual storytelling to be more accessible and engaging than a book, or a documentary film. That’s not going to stop me from writing books, but the graphic novel can match the epic sweep of a movie at a fraction of the production cost.
“We Hereby Refuse” is told from the perspectives of three real life people - Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Mitsuye Endo, and Jim Akutsu. How did you decide which individuals to use? I know you knew Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Jim Akutsu. Tell us about any connections you may have with them and why they were chosen.
I’ve known both Jim and Hiroshi for decades, so the outlines of their story were very familiar to me. Frank Chin and I interviewed Jim in 1997 after we learned he’d been friends with John Okada, and that Okada had based the protagonist of his novel No-No Boy on the events of Jim’s wartime experience, if not Jim’s much feistier personality. Jim lived near me in Seattle’s Rainier Valley and I’d see him around town. Jim provided us with a fresh story of draft resistance, and as this was a project of the Wing Luke we wanted to set at least one of our stories in Seattle.
I first met Hiroshi in the 1970s at one of the pioneering forums held by the Center for Japanese American Studies at Pine United Methodist Church in San Francisco’s Richmond District. He was among the first Nisei to go public as a no-no from Tule Lake, and over the years I’d see him at his readings and plays. Hiroshi as a character gave us entry into both halves of the Tule Lake experience: the refusal to register, and the later movement for renunciation of U.S. citizenship. It also made sense as he was Tamiko’s uncle by marriage.
What was it about their stories that made you believe they were what you needed to tell the book’s cohesive narrative? Was it more a case of three individual that you wanted to tell the story about and the message naturally came once you selected the individuals or did you have a goal and you matched the individuals to your goal? Mitsuye Endo is largely forgotten even though her Supreme Court case was so important to those that were interned. I’m glad she was covered in your book.
It was a little of both. The way we present it, the three main expressions of camp resistance were: the legal challenges taken to the Supreme Court, the legal challenges by the draft resisters who were tried in U.S. District Court, and the refusal of incarcerees to register and the renunciation at Tule Lake. That is the overarching narrative, and these three characters provide the elements of that narrative.
The one character we’d never met was Mitsuye Endo. We are more familiar with the names of Korematsu, Hirabayashi, and Yasui, but a big reason is because they lost their cases at the Supreme Court; this enabled Peter Irons to reopen their criminal convictions in the 1980s when he and Aiko Herzig independently uncovered evidence in the National Archives that had been suppressed from view by the high court. The coram nobis cases made national news. Two of those plaintiffs also have daughters who’ve carried on their legacy through films and foundations.
Endo chose to remain private after the war – as she put it, “I don’t go about broadcasting that I am that person, I’ve shown people what I can do” – and her children did not actively advocate for her memory. Because she won her habeas corpus petition at the Supreme Court, it could not be re-litigated in the 80s, and as I understand it from the scholars, the justices wrote the decision in her civil case in a way that avoided any Constitutional issues.
Because we’d never met her and heard her voice, I worried how we could create her as an authentic character on the page. Fortunately, Tamiko found an academic journal article with personal anecdotes recalled by one of Endo’s best friends, and letters she exchanged with attorney James Purcell, who had recruited her for the case. To confirm some details about her personality and her case, I met with her son in Chicago, and with Purcell’s daughter in San Francisco. That, combined with scraps of her grammar and syntax from two brief oral history interviews, was just enough. The result is readers can now know Endo as a person, and not just a name on a legal brief.
All three of the main characters seemed to be reluctant heroes with some regrets. I think Hiroshi even felt a little coerced or not completely in control of his decisions and stand. He wrote about it in his books. The times we live in changes how we perceive their acts of resistance. Initially they felt ostracized and many in America thought they were un-American. Now many of us think of their stance as heroic. Sometimes the word “hero” gets used a little too liberally.
Recently I heard some author say that there’s a difference between fighting against oppression and going along with orders as an obligation to the wider community.
Tell us your feelings and thoughts about heroes and appropriate acts of resistance.
Presenting these as “three heroes of the resistance” would only have led to deadly stereotype. These were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. To really understand their resistance, we have to show what they’re pushing up against – extraordinary circumstances like mass removal and incarceration, the incompetent administration of a questionnaire, and the betrayal of the community’s right to protest by their own community leadership.
In this there are no heroes or villains. Instead what we show are the military officers and civilian bureaucrats – and their cooperative partners in the wartime JACL – who place obstacles in the path of our three protagonists. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about seeing things clearly and putting the proper names to things.
I often have thoughts about what I would do if I were in their shoes and living in their times. Would I do the right thing and what is the right thing? Then I think about what may be happening in our times and whether or not I could and should be doing more for others. Is there a message you’d like to share with the readers about how we can examine our situations and know when to stand up and take action?
You actually describe the note upon which our book ends. While writing this over the last four years, I had Hiroshi’s last line as “if America turns again against a people because of their race,” because we always used to talk about the camps as something that might happen again if we weren’t vigilant. Then with the Muslim travel ban and then family separations on the southern border and kids in cages, it became obvious that line had to be changed because the country had changed. It was no longer a question of “if.” It was happening again. But out of that numbing dread, the Japanese American community organized to stand with those being targeted on the basis of race, religion, or immigration status. Having the experience in our families of exclusion and racism gives us a certain moral authority when talking about it. And with that moral authority comes the moral responsibility to stand in defense of others who are similarly targeted. I was pleased to see Japanese Americans nationwide rise to the challenge, as we have Hiroshi say in the book, and be the friend we didn’t have when we needed one the most.
Changing the subject – you were also once an actor and recently organized a reunion event for the Nichi Bei Foundation on the 45th anniversary of the film “Farewell to Manzanar.” How did that go?
It was fun. It was a unique exercise to produce an event for projection on the big screen of a drive-in theater, which was the only way to hold a public screening in the thick of pandemic isolation. It came in the busiest month of the year for me, but Kenji Taguma (President, Nichi Bei Foundation; Editor-in-Chief, Nichi Bei Weekly) is one of those people to whom you have to say yes when he asks. It took him a matter of days to secure the screening rights to a film that has historically been hard to clear.
After 45 years it’s only the younger generation of cast members who are still with us, and they were happy to assemble on Zoom to share their stories of doing scenes with Mako, Pat Morita, Nobu McCarthy, and Yuki Shimoda. Musician Peter Horikoshi reminded me that many in the Bay Area worked as extras in the mess hall and mob scenes, or know someone who did, so I thought it would be fun and different to hear from them as well. Novelist Shawn Wong, who had two speaking lines, recalls sitting on a mess hall bench and feeling the emotion from the Nisei who had lived through that scene in camp in real life. Writer Toshio Mori has a close-up in the mess hall. Edison Uno was there. Shawn remembers Mako saying to him, "This is not acting." You can see the reunion for yourself. We cut a longer version of the conversation to share on the Nichi Bei’s YouTube channel and Kenji just had it posted.
You played Frank Nishi – a character loosely based on Fred Tayama (someone that appears in “We Hereby Refuse”). I got to interview Frank Chuman, the Manzanar hospital’s Japanese head administrator, about what happened at the hospital during that riot. What more have you learned as a result of your performance and since about Fred Tayama? Was the making of that film the main impetus for your lifelong career of getting out the story of the incarceration?
I was already on a path to telling these stories through my involvement with Frank Chin’s groundbreaking Asian American Theater Workshop in San Francisco, where I got to know writers like Shawn, Toshio, and Lawson Inada. One of the first things I did after being cast as Frank Nishi, a JACL leader from Los Angeles, was to look up Art Hansen’s seminal monograph on the Manzanar revolt in a 1974 issue of Amerasia Journal, where he dismantles what he called the “prevailing WRA-JACL perspective” of pro-Japan terrorism in the beating of Fred Tayama in favor of the “ethnic perspective” – mass frustration with the government’s decision to “bypass the community’s natural Issei leadership to deal with its own artificially erected JACL hierarchy,” a frustration that targeted Tayama upon his return from a JACL emergency meeting in Salt Lake City.
Art recently told me that his piece was also the source that James D. Houston acknowledged using in writing the riot chapter for Jeanne’s book. I knew Jeanne and Jim from UC Santa Cruz. So I was working with the same source material that both John Korty and the Houstons used in writing their screenplay, which helped me to understand the dynamics of Tayama/Nishi’s character and how to play his feeling that he was doing the right thing, even as he was collaborating with the camp administration.
The beating of Tayama led to the arrest of Kitchen Workers Union firebrand Harry Ueno, which sparked the Manzanar revolt. Someone just asked if I wrote that scene into our new graphic novel because I had played it in the movie. The answer is no, I actually had to shoehorn it into the graphic novel because the revolt was such an early and spontaneous explosion of camp resistance, and we needed it to set up the following page with Mike Masaoka pleading with Dillon Myer to segregate the dissidents to protect his own members. It was just one more piece in the overarching narrative of our story.
Like many biopics and memoirs that don’t go into too much detail about the rest of the characters’ stories, we are left wanting to know what happens. Tell us some more about what happens to your main characters after their World War II experience.
It's only hinted at in the epilogue, because as we drive toward the end we’re focused more upon making connections from America’s past to our troubled present. They all married, found jobs, and raised families. Jim Akutsu got the job he wanted as an engineer with Seattle City Light. In addition to his writing, Hiroshi Kashiwagi developed the West Coast’s largest collection of Japanese language materials at the Western Addition Branch of San Francisco Public Library and was inducted just this month into the California Library Hall of Fame. Mitsuye Endo resettled in Chicago, married Wayne Tsutsumi whom she’d met at Topaz, and raised three children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of north Chicago.
So what’s next – do you have another project you’d like to share with us?
I’m editing a new anthology of camp literature for Penguin Classics with my John Okada co-editor Floyd Cheung. I’m open to writing another graphic novel, but it would have to be a compelling story to which I could bring something new. I was glad to discover that writing action and dialogue to go with the drawings for this project came naturally, once we’d laid the foundation of a workable story and mapped out the scenario. It’s a process I plan to continue in developing a work for the stage or screen. So my next move may be a return to my roots in the theater.
Thank you very much for doing this interview with us. We wish you all the best for the promotion of your book.
Thanks. We’ve all become expert in giving virtual Zoom presentations but I’m looking forward to meeting with readers in person as things open back up.
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