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From Internment to Containment: Cold War Imaginings of Japanese Americans in Go for Broke Edward Tang

Following Roosevelt's statement is a list of numerical facts about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Infantry Battalion (another Nisei unit from Hawaii). The record consists of their numerous medals and honors as well as other combat statistics. Out of the approximately 18,000 men who comprised the 442nd at one time or another, they earned 18,143 medals and seven Presidential Citations while suffering 9,486 casualties. As these impressive numbers come into view, the audience sees a montage of tired but determined soldiers' faces marching past the camera. The uniformed bodies of the Nisei thus appear within American memory as the predominant Cold War focus as opposed to the faces behind the barbed wire of internment camps. The statistics also hide other significant numbers about internment: the sixteen assembly centers where the Issei and Nisei first congregated, the fourteen internment camps in which they were imprisoned, and the hundreds of millions of dollars figured from their losses in property, profits, and wages over a one to four-year span, depending on the length of their incarceration. [43]

Despite its shortcomings, Go for Broke on the most basic level is an extraordinary testament to the accomplishments of the 442nd, giving due credit to the men who fought and sacrificed for the nation. Reviewers praised the authenticity of Go for Broke because of its use of actual veterans from the 442nd regiment, and the film is historically important in allowing these men to represent themselves. [44] The film openly celebrates ethnic pluralism as well, in which the Nisei retain some aspects of Japanese culture, but mainly to assist the American war effort. Battalion members speak Japanese as coded messages over the radio so that German soldiers would not be able to understand transmitted orders. The Nisei also mutter curses in Japanese behind Grayson's back as one of the few ways to resist his authority and earlier attitude toward them. On the whole, this salute to cultural uniqueness never threatens to mar the Japanese Americans' efforts to assimilate into the larger society because many of the soldiers emphasize their readiness to adapt to their circumstances. The film intimates that the 442nd was just like any other army regiment in which ordinary GIs, whatever their grumblings, endured the hardships of basic training and overseas campaigns. But unlike most other regiments, the Nisei soldiers had to prove their courage in battle time and again despite having their families imprisoned back on the mainland.

In this sense, Go for Broke is a memorable document because of its subtext of internment as well as its emphasis on Nisei characters that move beyond typical Hollywood stereotypes of Asians. Internment as experience and memory clearly informs the film by providing a compelling narrative undercurrent that defines the Nisei characters' identities, motives, and actions. What audiences learn from the Nisei soldiers in Go for Broke, however inadequately, is the rampant prejudice practiced against them. When gathered in their barracks at Camp Shelby, the recruits voice their frustration in which prewar jobs were scarce for them despite their high level of education. A few soldiers send packages to and receive letters from family members in the internment camps. But the moments are all too brief since the film highlights how segments of this population volunteered to demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism.

Within the film, three of the soldiers from the 442nd represent the varying moods of hopefulness and anger at their situation, from which they weigh the successes and failures of the American experiment in ethnic diversity. Tommy (Henry Nakamura) is the pint-sized optimist; Sam (Lane Nakano) is the self-assured leader; and Chick (George Miki) is the surly pessimist. Tommy, an orphan whose parents were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, volunteers to avenge their deaths. Though thwarted in his desire to fight the Japanese, he constantly assures his colleagues that everything will turn out for the best once they prove their fidelity to the nation through military service. Sam is the protagonist from which audiences learn the most about the interned families when he receives letters from his fiance. In one correspondence, the woman recounts to Sam how the 442nd has lifted the spirits of those in the camps. But in a later mailing, Sam's patience get tested when he hears that his brother, released from a camp and finding a job picking beets in Idaho, only ends up getting harassed by the local white population. Sam for a split second turns dour, only to have his mood bolstered by his friend Tommy.

Chick consistently reveals his discouragement if not utter disdain for a nation that had rejected the Nisei's claims of citizenship in the first place. Chiding Tommy, Sam, and the others for their seemingly blind devotion to the nation, Chick explains that he had arrived from Iowa, and though never having been interned, joined the army since no better employment was available at the time. Chick becomes more agreeable, however, when the film historically reenacts the 442nd regiment's triumphant rescue of the 36th Texas Division, which had become surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains of France. In a convenient narrative twist, Sergeant Culley, the racist bully and friend of Grayson's, is part of the trapped contingent, and once liberated, welcomes Chick as his equal and comrade. The two extremes of characters, the Texas bigot and the Nisei cynic, thus find common ground in the larger conflict against the Nazis.

Go for Broke gave voice and visibility to the Japanese Americans even as it evaded the more demanding subject of the internment camps and the systemic racism that conjured them. But in the mid-1950s, few voices contested the tragedy of internment and its broader meanings, emphasizing instead the vigor and endurance of the Japanese Americans. The Saturday Evening Post in 1955 even appeared to excuse the nation's treatment of Japanese Americans by hinting that this catastrophe actually helped their social status: "Amid such shattering experiences California's Japanese-Americans naturally could not suspect that, by an ironic twist of fate, they were destined to become major beneficiaries of the long and savage war between Japan and the United States." Surely, the article continued, "[a]s a direct result of the Pacific war, Japanese residents of California have lifted themselves higher in a few postwar years than they had done in the preceding half century." [45] Foreshadowing descriptions of the "model minority" in the 1960s, Reader's Digest optimistically reported in 1956: "Today these . . . Japanese-Americans are enjoying a prestige, a prosperity and a freedom from prejudice that even the most sanguine of them had never hoped to attain within their own lifetime." [46] Overly cheery in rhetoric and dismissive of the racism still encountered by Japanese Americans, the article cited several examples of their success, from increasing college enrollments and accomplishments in science to the Nisei's military service and the Issei's ability to apply for U.S. citizenship. As virtual success stories, the writer suggested, the Japanese Americans proved that despite passing moments of racial discrimination, American democracy was thriving.

To emphasize how assimilated the Issei and Nisei really were, several writings highlighted how they appeared more American than Japanese. In one case, police and the FBI suspected an Issei, Kotaro Suto, of espionage after the attack on Pearl Harbor and searched his home. But all the supposed secret papers they found, observed the Reader's Digest in 1954, were "unredeemed Liberty Bonds from World War I, copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and a dog-eared Boy's Life of George Washington." The Saturday Evening Post also remarked on the successful integration of the Japanese in America by noting what a Japanese diplomat said about Nisei soldiers stationed in Japan: "I don't know what the United States does to Japanese who are born there, but it does something which makes them even more foreign to us than other Americans are!" The article recorded as well how Miss June Aochi, the 1955 Beauty Queen of the Lil' Tokyo Festival in Los Angeles "speaks no Japanese." In deference to her elders, she could "bow and nod her head in the distinctive Japanese manner," but this ancient custom, the writer assured his readers, "is losing its hold even upon the older generation in the United States." By marking the dissolution of "foreign" elements within the Japanese American communities, these articles acclaimed the triumph of the white American mainstream. [47]

These self-assured observations stood in distinct contrast to how others perceived the extent of Japan's adaptations to U.S. power. Collier's remarked in 1956: "The new Japan is fermenting a mash of new ideas and old customs . . . mixing political democracy with feudal loyalties . . . . The nation that once meekly did what a handful of leaders told it to is now outspokenly divided on every major issue." The writer assumed that American ideals and policies would benefit Japan in casting off its more traditional ways, only to fret: "Japan is on her feet—but headed where?" [48] Such unknowing, ironically, was the price of introducing democracy and its ensuing contentiousness to a hierarchical society. Japanese Americans, on the other hand, presented an altogether different story. As popular periodicals in the United States would have it, the Issei and Nisei became more successfully "Americanized" by shedding any cultural aspects of being Asian. As a consequence, they also served to mask the nation's own racial hierarchy and iniquities. With a prevalent sense of uncertainty about Japan's intentions in the Pacific, white Americans looked to the assimilation of Japanese Americans as reassuring, that whatever its faults the nation's cause at home and abroad was incontrovertibly just.

Go for Broke coincided with this cultural narrative of assurance by minimizing the dreadful history of internment, providing instead a portrait of Nisei soldiers as prototypes of the model minority stereotype to advance the nation's larger mission to rewrite its past and celebrate its values. As a product of the Cold War, Go for Broke also fitted within the culture of integration, in which Americans attempted to engage global allies, especially in Japan, as a way to contain communism overseas. It is this intersection of foreign and domestic agendas that make Go for Broke a historically significant film.

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Edward Tang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

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