Search form

Donate Today

Borders & Heritage

<em>Nihonjin Face</em>: Lessons From the Past

“This is a story that happened to my parents, my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles.”

March 24, 2017

When President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, Janet Hayakawa’s grandfather became angry.

Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. America then declared war against the Empire of Japan. There was fear and suspicion of Japanese Americans, in spite of the fact that most were United States citizens.

Roosevelt’s executive action authorized “the removal of any or all people from military areas deemed as necessary or desirable.” The West Coast, home to 120,000 Japanese Americans, was defined a military area. That led to the forced exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans into ten incarceration camps across the country.

Janet Hayakawa’s grandfather said he would not stay in a country that would imprison his family. He had immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, worked as laborer, became a farmer, married and was raising his children as Americans.

“He asked my grandmother whether she wanted to return to Japan. My grandmother said ‘All our children were born here. I’m staying here with our kids.”’

Hayakawa’s grandfather repatriated to Japan. Her grandmother and the children were sent to a camp at Tule Lake, in northern California.

“That really broke apart the family. They never saw him again because he ended up dying in Japan.”

Playwrights Tere Martinez and Janet Hayakawa (left to right).

When Janet Hayakawa and Tere Martínez were commissioned by Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts to create a play about the incarceration and the Civil Rights Movement, they were determined to convey the pain, injustice and anger felt by many Japanese Americans sent to the camps.

They wrote the play Nihonjin Face, meaning “Japanese face.” The title was meant to reflect that, at that time, people of Japanese descent were judged, not on their character or citizenship, but for looking like the enemy.

The play would go on to inform and educate, touring schools and other venues around the state to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous executive order and the impacts of the incarceration. The themes of the play are even more timely in the wake of the Trump Administration’s controversial executive order barring refugees and banning travel to Muslim-majority countries along with a massive crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

“We wrote this play prior to when a lot of these things that are going on today started coming to the forefront,” says Hayakawa. “But we intentionally dropped little bits into the play about immigration, about civil-liberty issues today — and one of the contemporary characters does struggle with that. So there’s way more relevance than we had anticipated and that’s what makes it powerful today.”  

Nihonjin Face is a coming-of-age story that centers on the Hashimoto family of Tacoma and, in particular, 10-year-old Tomiko. Tomiko is struggling to understand the war, her family’s forced incarceration and life in a concentration camp.

“I’m from Tacoma. I’m American and I speak English,” says Tomiko.

But her mother quickly reminds her how others see her, as she says, “You have a Nihonjin face.”

Hayakawa also added personal details of her family’s camp, such as their identification number, images of the Tule Lake camp and her grandmother’s thick Japanese accent.

We see Tomiko mistreated by a soldier in one of the play’s powerful scenes.

In one emotional scene, Tomiko sees a snake scurrying toward the camp’s barbed-wire fence. An armed soldier in a tower yells at her.

“You, by the fence. What do you think you’re doing? Step away from the fence if you know what’s good for you.”

“Okay, please don’t shoot,” a frightened Tomiko replies.  

The soldier yells back, “Mumbo, jumbo — all your names sound the same.”

As the story evolves, Tomiko and her family leave the camp and resettle in the Chicago area. There, in the 1960s, her camp experiences motivate her to become a civil-rights activist.

Fast forward to 2017, Tomiko is an 84-year-old grandmother who returns to Tacoma. In a conversation with her grandson Tommy, she tells him about life in the camp. Surprised by what she endured, Tommy wonders if what happened to her could happen to him.

“Well, take a look at what’s going on in the world today. What do you think?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Tommy replies.

“The fear is palpable,” says Hayakawa.

“We need to talk about it as a democracy.” Adds Martínez, “The play calls for action so that people can take a stand.”

Nihonjin Face was performed at 31 venues, including 26 schools in Western and Central Washington. A total of 15,400 people experienced the live performances. 


Enrique Cerna

The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley.  Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.

Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.

More stories by Enrique Cerna

There are 1 comments

Read Comments Hide Comments

I was very moved by the glimpse of this play. I live in the New York area and would like to be notified, if possible, as to when the play might appear on the East coast. I would love to go see it.
My congratulations to the writers on their accomplishment.