Ghostly Historical Knowledge -
SCT’s The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559
A recent Holocaust study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and published by The Washington Post, found that two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll could not identify what Auschwitz is. Of those surveyed, 41 percent of all respondents and 66 percent of millennials were not able to correctly categorize Auschwitz (arguably the most famous Nazi-death camp) as a concentration camp (Zauzmer “Holocaust Study”). These numbers, and their implication that young people across the US possess an egregious lack of historical knowledge, are staggering and dangerous. To me it suggests that public education, parents, and social organizations are failing to meaningfully introduce genocide, historical trauma, and the importance of tolerance to our kids. This should scare the shit out of us.
I wanted to begin my critique of the Seattle Children’s Theater’s recent production of The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 with these statistics about Auschwitz because I believe it underpins the necessity and urgency of the social and political work being done at SCT. If millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz is, I struggle to imagine the statistics for identifying lesser recognizable state-sanctioned xenophobic historical cues such as Manzanar, Tule Lake, or “Japanese-American internment.” But I’d say this isn’t just a millennial historical knowledge gap. Louise Hung, writing for Global Comment, surveyed 150 Americans between 23-75 with varying levels of education, asking what they knew about Japanese-American internment camps. Most had a vague recollection that many Japanese-Americans were displaced during WWII. Some even reported having read Howard Zinn or Snow Falling on Cedars. Most interesting of all: almost half the people surveyed mentioned George Takei, either his new musical, Allegiance, or his outspoken campaign to educate Americans about the reality of the internment camps. However, despite the general recollection of many, Hung reveals that the majority of people surveyed thought the internment camps “weren’t that bad”, compared to other historical examples of state-sanctioned displacement/internment. This should also scare us.
The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, narrated by 12-year-old Ben Uchida (an American-born son of Japanese immigrants), explores the psychological and material challenges of what life was like for Japanese-Americans in incarceration camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The plot offers a swirling mix of West-Coast wartime history and haunting memories of trauma, and it poses the question of how and why white America succumbed to fear, violence, and paranoia which jeopardized the lives and livelihoods of Japanese-Americans during WWII.
Ben narrates the story of his family, forced from their home in San Francisco and relocated to a fictionalized internment camp (a thinly-veiled Manzanar) after the passage of FDR’s Executive Order 9066. The reactionary order, which lasted from 1942 to 1945, relocated around 120,000 people of Japanese descent living along the West Coast, where they were thought to pose the greatest threat to homeland security, and moved them inland to makeshift camps in remote (and often harsh) climates. The action was justified by the US government as a matter of national security (sounds familiar) though more than two-thirds of those interned were American citizens and roughly half of those were children. Executive Order 9066 resulted in one of the most egregious assaults on civil liberties in American history.
Please forgive that seriously Cliff-noted version of Executive Order 9066. Here’s my take on the play itself: it’s about the nature of fear (of the Other) and the way that history haunts us all. Ben’s storytelling takes on two primary layers: his own experience grappling with being incarcerated by his own government and the lingering trauma of his father’s suicide (yes, Mr. Masao Uchida hangs himself near the end of the play). See Brendan Kiley’s article in The Seattle Times if you want to know more about how the audience full of kids reacted to Mr. Uchida’s suicide. While there is much to say about the play itself, I think it’s more important to consider the history behind the play and why it matters that SCT chose to perform this play for children.
The play asks its young audience to consider their own relationship to historical trauma and racial difference in the current political moment where overt xenophobia has reached a fever pitch nationwide. Through the whole play I kept having flashes of the “Muslim registry” and “America first” rhetoric that is alarmingly common right now. Famously in 2016, Carl Higbie, a former Navy SEAL and Trump mouthpiece, told FOX’s Megyn Kelly that the registry would have a legal precedent based on FDR’s Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese internment camps. Here’s the excerpt of their conversation from Kat Chow’s NPR article:
Kelly: You know better than to suggest that. I mean, that's the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl.
Higbie: Right. I'm not saying I agree with it, but in this case I absolutely believe that a regional-based ...
Kelly: You can't be citing Japanese internment camps as precedent for anything the president-elect is gonna do.
Higbie: Look, the president needs to protect America first, and if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry so we can understand, until we can identify the true threat and where it's coming from, I support it.
However, the historical heavy-lifting of this play is not limited to Japanese-American internment’s echoes in Trump’s Muslim registry; it also reveals dubious (even more buried) connections to the 19th century rhetoric of anti-American Indian policies and the 20th century policy of relocation for American Indians following WWII. Lydia Heberling, DeConstruct’s resident American Indian expert, explains the connection, writing:
“Dillon Myer led the War Relocation Authority from June 1942 until it disbanded in 1946. During this time, as a result of FDR’s executive order, he orchestrated the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans, removing them from their homes on the West Coast and relocating them to camps in remote places, such as the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona (the Poston camps). After the war, Myer led the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1950 to 1953, where he advanced a policy of termination and relocation of federally recognized American Indian tribes.
In a strange reversal from Japanese internment, Myer desired to remove Indians from their remote reservations and relocate them to urban centers in order to relieve the federal government of their responsibilities to tribes and assimilate individuals into mainstream American culture. That Myer was the architect of both Japanese internment and American Indian tribal termination and relocation, which were designed to promote a particular vision of national belonging, reveals a complex relationship between the nation and its others that continues to be the foundation for ongoing national discourses of racializing, segregating, and, sadly, criminalizing. Both internment and relocation dislocated peoples from places (home/homelands) and from objects of cultural significance (only one suitcase); both exhibited a flexing of state power designed to racially exclude and deny citizen rights; and both sucked.
Moreover, the phrase repeated through the play, “The only good Jap is a dead Jap,” is evocative of General Philip Sheridan’s 19th century claim, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan, a decorated Army general who fought in the Civil War as well as the Indian Plains Wars of the mid to late 19th century, was known for his genocidal “scorched earth” policies towards Native peoples. This phrase has been adapted over time to police race and citizenship, with violence, as we see in The Journal of Ben Uchida. The redeployment of this particular cultural discourse, which originated in reference to American Indians, against Japanese-Americans again underscores the roots of racism that polices ideas of national belonging.”
Sitting down to write a critique of Seattle Children’s Theater’s recent production of The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 did not come easily to me. (You might have been able to surmise this by looking at the time lag between production dates and the publication of this critique.) As a child, probably 8 or 9, my mother took me to see a children’s theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank in St. Louis. After the production I remember being indignant that no one ever told me that so many Jewish people, even kids just like me, were murdered because they were “different” from those around them. This play opened a door for me: a door to exploring history through art and what it means to have empathy and curiosity about those who are different from us rather than fear. I became obsessed with reading every book I could get my hands on about the Holocaust (there’s a surprising amount of YA literature on the Holocaust suggesting that this age group is hungry for historical knowledge). Fast-forward 14 years and I’m writing an undergrad thesis on the aesthetics of genocide film. Fast-forward another 8 and I’m finishing a dissertation on the cathartic and political possibilities of disaster literature (and this critique of Ben Uchida).
I’m sharing this snapshot of my own journey to remind folks that children should be challenged (both emotionally and intellectually) by encountering the ugliest, most complicated parts of history at a young age. Historical knowledge, especially conveyed through performance, is a powerful tool – one that I think children are particularly poised to benefit from. I believe that plays like Ben Uchida can transform a child’s relationship to the historical trauma, their capacity for empathy, and lay a foundation of curiosity with far-reaching consequences because this was my experience. (We should also give a shout-out to the possibility of radical transformation in adults who have the privilege of navigating challenging conversations about history on the car ride home from a performance like Ben Uchida.)
Perhaps the SCT website puts it best, saying, “In our dedication to providing bold, honest narratives to children, we aim to inspire empathy and compassion. Theater is a safe place to explore and honor the past as we prepare for the future”. Challenge yourselves and challenge your kids to learn more about the complicated, ugly histories of our past to change the present. Support the kind of art that cries out “never again” and burns this message into memory. Oh, and thank God for George Takei.
- The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Produced by: Seattle Children’s Theater
- The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Adapted by: Naomi Iizuka
- The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Based on: the Dear America series book by Barry Denenberg produced with special permission from Scholastic
- The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Directed by: Desdemona Chiang
- The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 February 8 – March 4, 2018 performed at the Eve Alvord Theatre
- Review Lead: Steph Hankinson // Review Team: Lydia Heberling, Jenny Van Houdt, & Emily George