Looking like the Enemy: Documentary as Memorial
In Looking Like the Enemy, a new documentary about the wartime experiences of Japanese American veterans in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, David Miyoshi describes an incident that happened to him during Marine officer training. As a young officer candidate during the Vietnam War, Miyoshi was ordered to get up on a podium and stand at attention in front of his fellow candidates. A drill instructor told the assembled trainees, "This is what the enemy looks like. Kill it before it kills you." Miyoshi was then told to "growl for me, gook," an order he quickly obeyed. His interpretation of the incident is surprising. Rather than getting angry, Miyoshi describes the event as a lark, dismissing the racial slurs because they were delivered in a "light, bantering, party atmosphere." He ends his account with a paean to the Horatio Alger version of the American Dream: "Buckle down and apply yourself and, like magic, things start happening very positively."
The documentary, directed, written, and produced by veteran filmmakers Karen shizuka and Robert Nakamura and currently screening at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, is full of such strange moments. As with many other documentaries about war, what makes this film interesting are not primarily the war stories themselves, but how the individuals choose to process, interpret, and retell these stories. This is certainly true in Miyoshi's case. While other interviewees exhibit similar desires to put a positive spin on their own experiences with racism, with Miyoshi, there seems to be more going on. Acknowledging that he has told this story on other occasions to other people, Miyoshi goes on to insist that, while he understands that racism exists, one can't fight for equal rights through the judicial system. In his words, "You can't legislate respect, you can't sue for it, you can't force somebody to respect you, you've just got to earn it." One gets the sense that he is responding to questions and criticisms raised outside of the film project.
Not surprisingly, this is exactly what is happening. Although the veterans in the film are all describing events that took place years and often decades ago, many of their responses are colored by issues that have come under recent debate within the Japanese American community. Last year, I worked as an assistant on this film, as well as on an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum entitled "Fighting for Tomorrow: Japanese Americans in America's Wars." The film, although a separate project, was planned as a central component of the museum exhibit, and it screens continuously inside the main exhibit hall.
One of the major issues in the community, the decision of whether or not to include the Bruce Yamashita story in the JANM exhibit, had interesting effects on both projects. Yamashita is a third-generation Japanese American (JA) who fought a five-year legal battle against the
Marine Corps, charging that he was a victim of racial discrimination during his training at Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. The Marine Corps acknowledged that discrimination had taken place, granted Yamashita his commission, and made sweeping changes in OCS training policies. The success of his case was hailed as a major civil rights victory, and a panel describing his story was to be included in the JANM exhibit.
However, four Japanese American veterans, all former Marines who criticized Yamashita's claims of racism against the Marine Corps, started a letter-writing campaign to get the Yamash ita story out of the exhibit. The four considered Yamashita a "wimp" who had used the race card to cover up his own deficiencies and felt that his inclusion in the exhibit would somehow taint the stories of the other veterans. This campaign sparked a running debate within the editorial section of the Los Angeles-based Rafu Shimpo, the nation's oldest and largest Japanese American newspaper. The four veterans were ultimately successful in getting the Yamashita story removed, but not before creating a controversy that drove a wedge between individual JA veterans and JA veteran organizations.
Many of the most outspoken veterans on both sides of this issue are featured prominently in Looking Like the Enemy. Bob Wada and David Miyoshi were two of the primary opponents of the Yamashita panel in the exhibit. Miyoshi came under particular fire from several other JA veterans after he used his own "growl for me, good" story to criticize Yamashita's racial discrimination suit. Although Miyoshi intended his story to show that racist language and racial slurs during basic training are either examples of good hearted ribbing or part of the "toughening up" procedure essential to Marine training, his example backfired. Letter writers denounced Miyoshi as a yellow Uncle Tom, evoking images of Stepin Fetchit and cowering black slaves to describe Miyoshi's actions. In this context, his argument in the film that one can't "sue for respect" is a not so-subtle jab at Yamashita's legal action, just as his retelling of his own OCS experiences is in response to the attacks he received in the pages of the Rafu Shimpo.
Later in the film, attorney Ernest Kimoto responds. A 20-year-veteran of the Marine Corps, Kimoto was a major supporter of Yamashita's legal fight, as well as one of the harshest critics of the anti-Yamashita campaign. in his interview, Kimoto reasons that, given the sacrifices made by Asian American veterans, no Asian Americans should ever have to face racial discrimination in the military. His choice of words "inappropriate references to their ethnicity"—reads much like the additions made to the OCS training manuals in the wake of the Yamashita case. For Kimoto, any justification for anti-Asian racism in the military ended when Asian Americans "signed up in all the services and served with honor."
In many ways, the Yamashita case revealed a major split in how JA veterans processed their experiences with racism. Were governmental acts of racism, like the "internment" of Japanese Americans during World War II, merely historical aberrations? Or were these acts representative of a system that was racist at its core?
While the documentary is full of arguments for both sides, perhaps the most unusual argument comes in segment entitled "Choices." In this segment, Archie Miyamoto, a Korean War veteran, gives a chilling defense of the military system's "glass ceiling." He begins with a hypothetical situation: If you had to pick a division commander, would you pick Miyamoto, a 54" "Oriental," or would you pick a big, good-looking white guy? His answer: Of course you would pick the white candidate.
"I don't think we can kid ourselves, is there a glass ceiling. I don't think it's an intentional glass ceiling or anything else, I think it's human nature being what it is.... You're going to pick the one that looks the most outstanding, and most Caucasians, lucky for them, they're physically big and they're good looking. And Orientals are kind of smaller and...[pause] And when it comes to leading men into combat, which one are you going to pick? The big athletic type or this little guy?"
If whites are, "lucky for them," big and good looking, then Asians are small and, it is implied, not so good looking. What makes this scene especially jarring is the photo placed at the end of this sequence, taken when Miyamoto was a young Army officer. Miyamoto—with his stylish '50s haircut and flight jacket— is in fact a very good looking guy.
In another segment, entitled "The Picture," we see the theory put into practice, as Robert Utsumi, a career Air Force officer, describes being passed over for promotion. Expressing surprise that he didn't make major, Utsumi shares his concerns with a white officer, who explains: "It's your picture." It is the photo in his personnel files, the photo of an Asian face, that is causing the problem.
To give the appearance of racial neutrality in promotion decisions, Army officials removed a form that indicated the service person's race from all personnel files. Of course, Army officials still wanted to know the color of the individual under consideration, so to get around this "problem," they simply replaced the form with a photo of the NCO or officer. Looking like the enemy, in this instance, resulted in a lost promotion.
But Utsumi's story reveals the gray area between the two interpretations of U.S. racism. Ultimately, Utsumi receives the promotion and subsequent promotions through the help of a white superior officer. Instead of writing the standard annual performance review, the white officer wrote a favorable review every three months, pressing for Utsumi's promotion. Given these circumstances, is this a case of institutionalized racism, or just a momentary act of racism that was "fixed" by a system that is ultimately fair and just?
In other stories, however, veterans descri be much greater losses. In "Sergeant Redd," Green Beret medic Lance Matsushita describes being assigned to a new unit in Vietnam and immediately getting a "funny feeling" about the other soldiers. His suspicions are confirmed when he is sent on a mission alone and given absolutely no instructions on what gear to take out with
him or what to do. As his white captain tells him, "You'll figure out something." The only person who helps him is Sergeant Redd, an African American soldier and the only other person of color in the unit. Redd helps him out with all of his gear, gets him his rifle and ammo, and introduces him to his interpreter. Two weeks later, Redd is the one picked for a dangerous solo mission. Despite requests from Redd and Matsushita, the unit captain insists that Redd go on the mission as the sole American, against standard Green Beret policy, because "that's the way I want it." While on the mission, Redd radios back that all of the Vietnamese soldiers with him have fled during an attack, leaving him and his interpreter alone. After they lose radio contact, search parties are sent out. The segment ends with a short, simple description of the result: "We found him, put him in a body bag, and sent him home."
Other stories are equally disturbing. In one segment, Vince Okamoto talks about an injured Japanese American soldier who is nearly thrown out of a helicopter to his death when the order is given to "jettison the gooks." Unable to speak because of a fractured jaw and a heavy dose of morphine, the soldier is saved only when he is identified by an African American soldier as one
of their own. The white crew chief's response: "Sorry about that." In another segment, M.ike Nakayama describes looking in on a Vietnamese family eating a meal and thinking about how much it looks like his own family back home. That is, until he notices the father telling the daughters to hurry up and finish their dinner so that they can get back to "work." The daughters are prostitutes, and outside the home is a long line of Nakayama's fellow U.S. soldiers.
In "More White Than Black," World War II veteran Ronald Oba describes the JA soldiers' reactions to life in the segregated South. When JA units are assigned to a base in the deep South for combat training, many of them get their first glimpses of a part of the country where restrooms, drinking fountains, buses, and eating establishments are either "white only" or "colored only." For many of these troops, convenience became the key issue. When the line for the white restroom was too long or the front of the bus too crowded, they would simply use the restrooms and areas reserved for blacks. The whites in town became "very disturbed" and complained to the white colonel in charge of the JA troops. The colonel told the troops that they must use only the areas designated for whites. When a JA soldier asked why, the colonel responded, "Because you're more white than black."
This bizarre explanation is an apt example of the confusion surrounding issues of race and racism within the JA community. In a country that typically sees race only in terms of conflict between blacks and whites, it is often difficult for many to place the JA experience within that history of U.S. race relations. For many JAs, anti Asian racism is something that happened in the past, something that, like the "internment camps," should be forgotten. While reception of this
documentary has been largely positive, these sentiments continue to pop up, with some veterans complaining that the film dwells too much on the negative or that it is too depressing (as if a film on racism and war could be anything but). Many veterans seemed to want the JANM exhibit to be a memorial and a tribute, and the inclusion of this documentary within that "memorial" can be seen as drawing undue attention to the more negative aspects of the JA wartime experience.
However, memorials can serve several functions. in the final segment of the documentary, Vince Okamoto describes taking his eight-year-old son to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Okamoto, a captain in the U.S. Army Special Forces who lost several of his men in the Vietnam War, brought his son to a section of the memorial that held 37 of their names.
As he read their names, Okamoto began to weep. Okamoto's son, who had never seen his father cry before, was visibly upset. As they were leaving, his son asked him several questions about the Vietnam War, questions that Okamoto did not have answers for. His son's final question: "When I grow up, will I have to go off and fight in a war?"
The film ends with lingering shots of Okamoto and his son at the memorial, fingers touching the names engraved on black stone, Dan Kuramoto haunting, spare soundtrack coming to the fore. Watching the quietly emotional reactions of museum visitors to this segment—often similar to the reactions that Okamoto describes on viewing the Vietnam War Memorial—one can't help but draw parallels between war memorials in general and documentary films about war. They are places where people can begin to try to sort out the unthinkable, the grotesque, the unforgettable. Like "the Wall," this documentary, as well as the exhibit that surrounds it, serves as a memorial for many who come to see it.
Perhaps not the kind of memorial that some would have liked—a tribute to bravery, to glorious battles won, although these elements are certainly there. Rather, Looking Like the Enemy functions more like the sprawling list of names on the Vietnam memorial, as a stinging reminder of the human costs of these conflicts and of the stupidity and uselessness of war.
Robert B. Ito is a writer based in Los Angeles.