Patriotism Behind Barbed Wire

Western theater at the Japanese internment camps of World War II shows that the camps were far from German concentration camps.
Patriotism Behind Barbed Wire
The ruins of the Tule Lake Relocation Center, located in Modoc County in northern California. (Magnus Manske/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
A great many Americans know about the confinement of Japanese-American citizens and the camps into which they were interned. Today, it’s considered a stain on American history. What is less well known is what occurred inside the camps. It’s tempting to conclude that the camps were akin to European concentration camps where daily horrors were inflicted upon the internees. They decidedly were not.
Yet this, in fact, is often called the “real” perspective by internment camp scholars. My own research into internment camp life suggests something different: The young Nisei (American citizens of native Japanese parents) were understandably bewildered by their imprisonment and demonstrated their patriotism through, among other means, theater.
The Honouliuli Internment Camp was the primary internment camp for the Hawaii island chain from 1943 to 1946. (Ronald Harry Lodge/ <a href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>)
The Honouliuli Internment Camp was the primary internment camp for the Hawaii island chain from 1943 to 1946. (Ronald Harry Lodge/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
Scholarship on internment camp theater is not extensive. The leading scholar on internment camps in the mid-1990s, the late Roger Daniels, said there was nothing to research on this topic. However, my research suggests that camp  newspapers regularly documented what I identify as two types of theater: high school theater and barrack theater. Both types involved Nisei participating in an activity that was frowned upon by their parents’ generation. Both sought to assert their status as full-blooded Americans, one via a kind of forced assimilation and the other by peaceful protest through art. 

High School Theater

Roosevelt’s administration, demonstrating what I believe to be a sense of culpability over the wrongful, knee-jerk internments, looked to assimilate the Nisei at the high school level. Large high schools were built at every one of the 10 camps. Students devoted a good deal of time to extracurricular activities such as sports, various clubs, and theater. 
Under the guidance of Anglo-American teachers who chose the plays and directed the cast, they mounted productions in the high school gymnasium-auditoriums, capable of seating a couple hundred spectators. The plays were usually full-length, light-hearted or farcical “teenage angst” plays such as “Mumbo-Jumbo,” “Who Gets the Car Tonight?” and “Spring Fever.” These scripts called for large casts and those not selected to perform were put to work on costumes, scene design, lighting, sound, ticketing, and publicity. Announcements for the productions were featured in the camp newspapers.
The Anglo-American administration defined the goals of high school theater: to provide for the Nisei counter-programming to the isolation of internment and to serve as a way for them to assimilate into American life, an odd objective indeed for people who were American citizens by birth. 

Barrack Theater at Tule Lake

A very different theatrical phenomenon occurred at the Tule Lake (CA) camp. On July 28, 1942, the camp newspaper, The Tulean Dispatch, announced the formation of a self-sufficient Nisei drama club, unaffiliated with the high school. It promised to teach internees theater skills, such as voice, diction, lighting, costuming, and make-up. 
Leading the charge were two internees: Perry Saito and Sada Murayama. Perry Saito became a minister and was featured in a 2005 article in the Western Historical Quarterly entitled “The Colonel and the Pacifist.” Much less is known about Sada Murayama, but I believe she was the driving force behind what was called The Tule Lake Little Theater. Internee remembrances of Murayama describe her as a refined lady with unwavering support for the United States despite her confinement. 
Of even greater interest is the “manifesto” of the Little Theater, printed in “The Dispatch” on Aug. 13, 1942:
  1. To acquire cultural refinement through appreciation and participation of dramas;
  2. To give entertainment through our efforts;
  3. To develop talent in various phases of dramatics;
  4. To serve as an escape from reality.
These brief tenets tell a nuanced tale. As with theater at the high school, this was an attempt to teach skills not normally pursued by young Japanese. These skills would, in turn, help to fill a cultural gap in a population perceived to lack refinement in Western arts. Entertainment was, of course, a goal but so was the “escape from reality,” which are both common goals of theater.
Set in an internment camp, however, these goals also contained a message for Caucasian captors: Despite what might be considered a “foreign“ appearance, the interned Japanese embraced Western (especially American) art. They were, after all, Americans! This, of course, begs the follow-up question they could have asked themselves: So why are we here?
About 40 internees participated in the Tule Lake Little Theater, which produced three short plays per evening: a comedy (after which, children too tired to stay up would go off to bed), a tragedy, and a fantasy. Barrack 408 was repurposed as a black box theater with a raised stage and a backstage area defined by curtains. Unlike high school theater, the Little Theater was self-sufficient. While Caucasian administrators were ever-present, it was the Nisei who took care of all theatrical components, both artistic and business-related.
Eugene O’Neill’s “Ile,” was on the bill for the Little Theater’s first performance (significantly, on Dec. 7, 1942). This one-act play about isolation, loneliness, fear, and, eventually, madness, seems an apropos choice for the Little Theater as it gave a psychological representation of the internments themselves.
A map of the internment camps that the United States moved Japanese-American citizens to during World War II. (Public Domain)
A map of the internment camps that the United States moved Japanese-American citizens to during World War II. (Public Domain)

The Registration Fiasco of 1943

In 1943, the Roosevelt administration, hoping to form an all-Nisei battalion to fight in the war, decided to offer a questionnaire to the internees, the answers to which would serve to separate “loyals” from “disloyals.” This became known as the “registration fiasco” and it effectively ended the Tule Lake Little Theater productions.
Aside from the usual demographic questions (name, address, etc.), the final two questions on the questionnaire were the most controversial and adversarial:
  • Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
  • Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or 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?
These questions proved to be last straw for many internees. Once the results were tallied, it was obvious that a good proportion of Nisei answered “no” to one or both of these questions. Labeled “disloyals,” they were sent to Tule Lake, which was renamed the Tule Lake Segregation Center. Western theater ceased to exist, replaced by native Japanese theater forms such as Kabuki and Noh. Tule Lake became a place of violence, occupied by people who no longer desired to show their patriotism onstage or anywhere else.
In hindsight, the “disloyal” Nisei’s reactions are understandable; the reaction of the majority of the Little Theater’s participants is less so (what would be called a “fake” response to internments). But the somewhat surprising efforts of the interned Japanese to prove they were assimilated is as “real” as any response that contradicts it. It was heartfelt, courageous, and honest. And it utilized theater to make a statement we don’t often hear today among the guardians of the arts: “I am an American and proud of it!”
Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected] 
Robert Cooperman is the founder of Stage Right Theatrics, a theater company dedicated to the preservation of our Founding Fathers' vision through the arts. Originally from Queens, New York, he now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he earned his doctorate at The Ohio State University.
Related Topics