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  • On Japanese American Remembrance and the Liberal Limits of Dissenting Citizenship
  • Doug S. Ishii (bio)
Then They Came for Me: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties, Alphawood Gallery, Chicago, June 29to November 19, 2017.

Growing up yonseiin an all-American, Japanese American family, I was raised with stories about the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment: a group of men who sustained high casualty rates to prove their loyalty to a country that incarcerated them based on their race. Their ranks included my grandfather. My other grandfather proved his American identity through language, as part of the Counter Intelligence Corps. This story of military service is not the only story that the Alphawood Gallery, in a partnership with the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC), tells in Then They Came for Me—a visual exhibit that used images and objects, largely culled from Richard Cahan and Michael Williams's Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II: Images by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Other Government Photographers(2016) and the archives and collections of the JASC Legacy Center, and a robust roster of multidisciplinary programming, to educate about Executive Order 9066 and its relevance for the Era of 45. On October 22, in one such Alphawood-sponsored program, I and a dear colleague watched the stage recording of the musical inspired by George Takei's World War II incarceration experience, Allegiance(2015). In the penultimate number of act 1, the woman protagonist Keiko and Frankie, whose name recalls Frank Emi of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, go to the dance in the camp's mess hall. Frankie leads the show's exuberant number "Paradise," with the refrain "Put up and shut up, 'cuz you're in Paradise!"—which inspires many of the attendees, including Keiko, to direct actions, such as draft resistance and the covert circulation of radical criticism. Through one of Allegiance's three competing story lines, the sympathetic portrayal of Keiko and Frankie reframes the postincarceration narrative through what Sunaina Maira calls dissenting [End Page 335]citizenship: "an engagement with the nation-state that is based on a critique of its politics and not automatically or always in compliance with state policies" that also "encapsulates the contradictions of challenging the state while seeking inclusion within it." 1To bring these two incarceration narratives together, this transition in political perspective, from one of assimilative citizenship through combat to one of a dissenting citizenship that questions the distribution of rights, reflects the paradigm shift in which Then They Came for Meparticipates.

Then They Came for Memobilizes cultural institutions for the public good as part of ongoing but easily ignored social justice organizing in the Midwest. But, for the exhibition's concluding weekend on November 13, the Alphawood Gallery brought together the performer Arish Singh; the noted Asian American activist Helen Zia, who entered the spotlight during the trial of Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz for the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin; and Serve 2 Unite's Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was murdered in the 2012 Oak Creek Massacre, for a discussion, "Hate Crimes: From Vincent Chin to the Present." In his comments, Kaleka opined, "sometimes we get so tied into the explanation of things . . . how do we get people to feel again?" In this political climate in which empathy for the aggrieved seems like a minimal goal, feelings matter; but, as disaster, endless war, and the militarization and privatization of everyday life illustrate the failures of the racist nation-state, feeling feels like a cop-out. These affective politics reflect Rebecca Wanzo's theorizing of sympathetic storytelling, a political form characterized by progress narratives, suffering hierarchies that occur amid the homogenization of suffering, the privileging of therapeutic intimacy, and the disqualification of some people's pain. 2The exhibit's humanization of Japanese Americans' racializing suffering by the state that supposedly would prevent such suffering engages what Lisa Lowe has called "the economy of affirmation and forgetting," in which "liberal affirmations of individualism, civility, mobility, and free enterprise simultaneously innovate new means and forms of subjection, administration, and governance." 3Restrained by liberal citizenship, Then They Came for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 335-351
Launched on MUSE
2018-06-26
Open Access
No
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