by George Takei
Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster
New York, 1994, 406pp, $14
The boyhood and young manhood of a Japanese American actor who is much more than Star Trek's Mr Sulu
emories are our most precious possessions. They are the ultimate connective links to our past. My internment camp remembrances may be only a child's fragments of history, incomplete, disjointed and simplistically intense. But I treasure every piece and broken shard, every brief and unfinished wisp of memory I have. Especially of that strange and dreamlike night when something woke me up‹a sound, a discomfort, or perhaps intuition. I don't know what. Something stirred me from my sleep.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, many young Japanese American men, like most American men of their age, had rushed to their recruitment offices to volunteer for service. These genuine acts of loyalty were answered with a slap in the face. The men were summarily rejected and classified 4C, the same category as enemy aliens. Those already in the military at the time of Pearl Harbor--and there were approximately five thousand young Japanese men in uniform at the outbreak of the war--suffered the humiliation of being stripped of their weapons. Some even had to endure the outrage of being thrown into the stockade like common criminals. The fever pitch of anti-Japanese hysteria was epitomized by General John L. DeWitt, the commanding general of the Western Theater of Operation. DeWitt stated, "A Jap's a Jap... It makes no difference whether he is an American or not. Theoretically he is still a Japanese, and you can't change him."
But with the war effort consuming manpower, President Roosevelt made a 180-degree turn in policy. He declared in February 1943, "No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship regardless of ancestry." Japanese Americans could now volunteer to serve in the military.
The substance of American citizenship--most vitally, freedom and justice--was torn away from us, but now we were not to be denied the "responsibility" of citizenship. Japanese Americans had the right to be killed for a country that had humiliated them, stripped them of property and dignity and placed them behind barbed wire, That was the sticking point of Question Number 27.
Question Number 28 was as subtly insidious as Question Number 27 was blunt. The stealth of this question was in the single sentence asking respondents to "swear unqualified allegiance" to the United States and in the same breath "forswear...allegiance...to the Japanese emperor." If one answered yes, intending an affirmative to the first part, it was also "forswearing" a presumed existing loyalty to the Emperor of Japan. If one were to answer no to deny any such preexisting loyalty to "forswear," then the same no also rejected allegiance to the United States. It was perceived by many as a trap question. The two questions became an incendiary combination that exploded in turmoil in all ten internment camps, from Manzanar, California to Rohwer, Arkansas.
When the dust finally settled, it is remarkable that so many internees answered "yes-yes" to the two questions. This paved the way for recruitment officers to sign up young men for military service. The large number of men who signed on is a tribute to their extraordinary determination to make true the ideals of the flag to which they had pledged allegiance daily in their classrooms, even in camp.
For my parents, the struggle to answer the Loyalty Questionnaire was torturous. My father was raised and educated in America. He had chosen this country as his home. Until the war broke out, his plan for himself and his family had been to build our future here. But he had been born in Japan, and U.S. law denied naturalized citizenship to Asian immigrants, though their children born in the U.S. would be citizens. Question Number 27 asked if he would be willing to serve in combat for the United States, a country that not only rejected him for citizenship but incarcerated him because of his race. At forty years old, with a wife and three children all interned by that government, he was being asked to go on combat duty for such a country.
Question Number 28, in essence, asked him to be a man without a country. My father felt no particular allegiance to the Emperor, but Japan was the country where he was born. It was the place where he still had relatives and memories. This question asked him to discard all that and swear allegiance to a country that would not have him. For my father, this was ultimately the point where he had to say enough‹no more! It was not no longer a question of any citizenship but of simple dignity. He answered "no-no."
For my mother, Question Number 27 was almost laughable in its preposterousness were it not so anguishing. She answered no. The most tormenting question for her was Question Number 28. She was an American citizen, born in Florin, California. Her children were all Americans and knew only this country. But she was married to a man her country rejected for naturalization and now considered an enemy alien. Her native country uprooted her family and brought us all here to this crude one-room barrack in Arkansas. And now this inquisition, this insult piled on top of injury. Question Number 28 was asking her to choose between her country and her husband, her birthplace or her family, one or the other.
It was this scene that I had witnessed in that brief waking moment in the dark of that kerosene-lit night. I saw the moment when Mama was making the decision to answer no-no on her Loyalty Questionnaire. It was an act that was going to have her categorized "disloyal" by the U.S. government and the beginning of Mama¹s eventual loss of her American citizenship.
My final memory of Rohwer, like my first, eight months before, is framed by a train window. At the mess hall that morning I said my goodbyes to my friends. The ladies were sniffling as they bowed their final farewells to each other. Some of the teenage girls were embracing and crying out loud.
At the train by the main gate, Daddy shook hands somberly with everybody lined up to see us off. Then we got on. From the window, all I could see was a sea of sad faces--faces of people who had become our friends. Mama said we will never see them again. The black barracks that had seemed so stark in their uniformity when we first arrived now had identities. They had become the homes of friends. The guard towers were no longer ominous sentinels but simply a part of the landscape. And even the barbed wire fence had become just a familiar playground enclosure. All this now we were leaving forever.
The lurch of the train as it started to move was the tug that broke the emotional grip. The sorrow was uncontainable. Some ladies wept as if there were no bottom to their grief.