Not all Japanese Americans endured their World War II internment with quiet stoicism. Not all second generation (Nisei) young men welcomed the chance to prove their patriotism by serving in the armed forces of the very government that was holding their families captive. A more complex, turbulent and intimate story of the internment camps is revealed in Emiko Omori’s new film, Rabbit in the Moon.
Rabbit in the Moon, an award winning selection at the 1999 Sundance Film festival, airs nationally on Tuesday, July 6, 10:00 PM ET (check local listings) on POV, the acclaimed PBS showcase for independent non-fiction programming. It will also be featured as the next installment of the Television Race Initiative.
Rabbit in the Moon, uncovers a buried history of political tensions, social and generational divisions, and resistance and collaboration in the camps. With fascinating archival and recently recovered home movies, Omori and her older sister Chizuko, who were children when they went to the camps, also confront their own family secrets –especially the silence surrounding the death of their mother only a year after the family’s release. They correspondingly confront the collective silence among Japanese Americans about the social antagonisms and insecurities that were born in the camps and that still haunt community life 50 years later.
“At first, this was going to be a film about the painful choices that Japanese Americans had to make during Internment, and the consequences of those decisions today.” says the younger Omori, who won the Best Cinematography award at Sundance. “It wasn’t until I interviewed my sister Chizu that I realized that our own story was a snapshot of that time. Rabbit in the Moon, is ultimately my perspective on what happened 50 years ago. We’ve taken some risks in exposing the divides in our community, but until we have a full picture of what happened, our history is incomplete.”
The Omoris recounting of their family’s breakdown mirrors the situation in the larger, forever altered Japanese American community. Families lost privacy and intimacy in the camps; many first generation (Issei) fathers had been picked up earlier and were detained in separate Justice Department camps. Out from under their controlling parents, teenagers, including Chizuko Omori, ran around in gangs.
More serious divisions appear between first-generation Issei and second-generation Nisei, between citizen and non-citizen, and, inevitably, between those eager to cooperate with their captors and those inclined to resist.
Rabbit in the Moon dispels the myth that all young Japanese American men marched off to prove their loyalty by fighting in segregated units of the U.S. Army. Many refused to enlist while denied the equal protection of the law, and they later resisted forced induction when the draft, astonishingly, was introduced into the camps.
Harry Ueno, a central figure in an incident at the Manzanar camp, describes the protests and strikes against poor living conditions that boiled over in riots, which were suppressed by the army with guns and tear gas. One profiled skirmish highlights the deep and still-enduring internal rift between the dominant Japanese Americans Citizens League, which advocated full cooperation with camp administrators, and those who resisted.
Omori also interviews Frank Emi, an internee who organized resistance to the draft when it was introduced into the camps in January 1944. Emi advocated for the restoration of citizenship rights for the draftees and their families before asking them to join the U.S. Army. He was ultimately sentenced to federal prison along with other resisters.
The cruel logic of the internment camps, Omori suggests, was made manifest by a loyalty questionnaire that prefigured the McCarthy oaths of the next decade. The questionnaire required elderly Issei to abjure their allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, rendering themselves stateless, while their children were required to swear allegiance to the U.S. or become stateless themselves. Anyone who challenged this choice between family and country was branded “disloyal” and sent to a special incarceration center at Tule Lake. In her narration, Omori remembers how “the questionnaire sliced through the camps like a knife. In Japanese tradition, the lunar landscape is a rabbit pounding sweet rice. What the government asked of us was to stop seeing the rabbit.”
After seven years crafting Rabbit in the Moon, the Omori sisters now reveal the deep, social unease that the camps instilled in the Japanese American psyche. Shortly after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, a distant relative contacted Emiko to return her mother’s ashes to her – remains that had been missing throughout the family’s silence about the camp experience. “Now that we have confronted our past, we are, in an odd and fitting way, reunited…” says Omori.