Are you Mike or are you Frankie?

Audiences of “Allegiance,” a new American musical making its world premiere in San Diego at the Old Globe theater are faced with a question: Are you Mike or are you Frankie?

No one wants to be a “lap dog” like the protagonist Sammy is portrayed. Sammy supported the controversial figure Mike Masaoka who, as the National Secretary and Field Executive for the Japanese American Citizens League, advised the Japanese Americans to cooperate with the government relocation plans, even though he himself never lived in an internment camp. Like Mike, who was sometimes called “Moses,” Sammy believed that by cooperating Japanese Americans could prove themselves to be good Americans.

Others felt that protest was a better avenue. In Heart Mountain, it was the Fair Play Committee that organized a protest against the loyalty oath. They and other no-no boys suffered the repercussions.

Musicals often are simplistic. They need a bad guy. In “Allegiance,” Mike Masaoka is the bad guy–he’s not evil so much as self-serving and misguided. His influence drives Sammy to turn against his family because his sister is married to a no-no boy, Frankie, and his father lives with them. The no-no boys suffered decades of discrimination. They were viewed as traitors by many in the Japanese American communities and they were openly criticized in the literature and the newspapers of those ethnic groups. This is to say, that they were ostracized to a great extent by a population that was already regarded with suspicion in post-World War II American society.

That’s something that should strike home to Japanese Americans everywhere, but particularly in Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley. West Covina was the last home for Frank Emi. With every appearance of the character Frankie Suzuki, it was hard not to think of Frank Emi’s face and defensive pride. He was a leader of the Fair Play Committee and spent 18 months in a federal prison. He much later would work for the government, first in a post office and later in the California state unemployment office.

It is also easy to criticize facets of Japanese culture such as “gaman” (endure) or shigata nai (there’s no help for it) because we’d like to think as Americans that we would not allowed such things to pass. We are not sheep. Yet we must remember that the first thing that the government did was round up the leaders, destroying the established structure of the community.

Second, I personally don’t believe that Japanese and Americans are so different. Although anecdotal experience is a fallacy in argumentation, this is what shapes my opinion. When I reported racism to a human resource person against the downtown Los Angeles branch of the Japanese Travel Bureau International, word got out. The Japanese Americans and even the white Americans drew back, waiting for the dust to fall. In my protest against unfair and even illegal practices by Yahoo Search Marketing, similarly, the predominately Caucasian co-workers withdrew. They were told not to speak with me and they did not.

In the case of JTBI, I was standing up and reporting the discriminatory practices against a black woman. For most people, it wouldn’t be worth endangering their job for another person, particularly someone they only met once. At Yahoo, during a time when co-founder Jerry Yang had been called a moral pygmy, I was being discriminated against by a manager, perhaps because as an Asian American woman I wasn’t deferential enough to the Asian American manager.

That wasn’t new. The same thing had happened when I was working at the Rafu Shimpo (which was easily defined as a hostile environment for women at the time) and the manager I was under openly stated that I was being reprimanded because I was a girl and not a guy. Despite this, I was kept under the same editor as if I wouldn’t be punished covertly. Again, at the Yahoo, I was kept under the same manager and then passed on to her best friend. My evaluations suddenly were negative on subjective elements.

I was punished for my impudence at the Rafu Shimpo and at JTBI and Yahoo. I know I am Frankie and I deeply admired Frank Emi. I don’t know what gave Frank Emi the courage to stand up to the government. I do know where I find my source of strength, it is in religion.

Since the 1964 murder of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese there’s been an interest in the social psychological reaction labeled the “bystander effect” or the “Genovese syndrome” which is characterized by a diffusion of responsibility, meaning that people are less likely to act if they assume others will.

Mike Masaoka took action. The question now is: Was it altruistic? Because when planning a course of action individuals weigh the cost of helping and consider if helping might endanger oneself.

So while it is easy to condemn Mike Masaoka because seven decades later we see things differently. I wasn’t a fan of Masaoka while he was alive. Yet I feel uncomfortable seeing him demonized. There are musicals that handled the dilemma of the common man facing uncomfortable choices during war with more subtlety such as “Cabaret” or “The Sound of Music.”

“Cabaret” had one man watch his friends and neighbors turn toward the Nazis or decide to take chances by embracing love and their religious identity. In the more saccharine “The Sound of Music” we saw the conflict between Austrians and the Nazis. Some might not have agreed, but they would do what it takes to get by.

Perhaps the Mike Masaoka supporters will finance their own musical or their own interpretation of this musical in years to come. At least the musical “Allegiance” isn’t afraid to take a position.

“Allegiance” continues until Oct. 21, 2012 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. For more information, visit their website.

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