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Film Review: ‘Right of Passage’

By November 23, 2015December 2nd, 20152 Comments

By Gerald H. Yamada

Recently, I was invited to a screening of “Right of Passage,” a documentary on the complex legislative strategy that led to the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (aka “Redress” or “HR 442”).

I found the documentary to be seriously flawed in that the DVD fails to recognize that it was the emotional connection that President Reagan had with a 1945 ceremony in which he participated to honor a 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) soldier killed in action that made Redress a reality for the Japanese American community.

The DVD also fails to give any credit to the two individuals who changed President Reagan’s mind, which resulted in the  president signing HR 442 into law.

One of the most insurmountable obstacles facing the proponents of the Redress legislation was how to win over President Reagan, who had announced two years earlier that he would veto the legislation if it were passed by Congress.

The DVD concludes that “what changed President Reagan’s mind is a mystery.”

In fact, there is no mystery.

The decisive strategy that changed the president’s mind was developed by Grant Ujifusa, who was the strategy chair of the JACL Legislative Education Committee, which was formed to support the efforts to pass the Redress legislation.

Ujifusa knew that President Reagan, as an Army captain, had participated in 1945 in awarding the Distinguished Service Cross to the family of Sgt. Kazuo Masuda, a member of the 442nd RCT who was killed in action in 1944. The town fathers of Fountain Valley, Calif., refused to allow Masuda to be buried in its cemetery until Gen. “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell personally intervened, resulting in Sgt. Masuda being buried there after the award ceremony that took place on the porch of the Masuda family home.

Ujifusa felt that if President Reagan could be reminded of his participation in the ceremony honoring Sgt. Masuda, he might change his mind. Ujifusa recruited the help of his friend, then-New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who used a special line of access for Republican governors to send the president a letter from June Masuda, dated Nov. 19, 1987, reminding him of the day that he participated in the ceremony honoring her brother.

During the fall of 1987, Gov. Kean spoke face to face with the president on several occasions to urge him to reconsider and sign HR 442. The strategy worked.In a Feb. 14, 1988, meeting with Ken Duberstein, Reagan’s chief of staff, Ujifusa was informed by Duberstein that the president had changed his mind and would sign the legislation.

About the same time, Gov. Kean received a call from President Reagan informing him that he read June Masuda’s letter,
remembered the events related to Kaz Masuda, changed his mind and would now sign the Redress legislation.

The president signed the Redress legislation on Aug. 10, 1988. Just before signing HR 442 into law, the president fondly reminisced about the award ceremony for Sgt. Masuda and expressed the nation’s gratitude for the 442nd RCT saving the Texas “lost” battalion.

The president referred to the 442nd RCT’s pursuit of “the ideal of liberty and justice for all” to be a part of “the American way.”

The DVD fails to give Sgt. Masuda and the other Nisei soldiers who all served with valor during WWII the credit for the success of HR 442 that is owed to them.

The significant roles that Ujifusa, Gov. Kean and June and Sgt. Masuda played in changing the president’s mind are not included in the DVD, although Ujifusa and Gov. Kean were interviewed for the DVD.

The DVD’s narrative is factually flawed by failing to give credit to Ujifusa and Gov. Kean for their contributions. Rather, the DVD misdirects the narrative by creating a false “mystery” by asking whether the president watching the 1955 film “Bad Day at Black Rock” or a meeting with Sen. Alan Simpson might have changed the president’s mind.

Ujifusa was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun Award in January 2012 for reversing President Reagan’s opposition to HR 442. The DVD appears to challenge the judgment of the Consul General of New York, the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the Japanese prime minister and the Japanese emperor that Ujifusa and his efforts were the critical factor in changing President Reagan’s mind.

Finally, “Rite of Passage” fails to present a fair and balanced approach in concluding that Mike Masaoka, a JACL wartime leader, suggested that Japanese Americans be “branded or stamped” in order to participate in a farm release program in the Midwest during WWII.

The DVD relies on JACL minutes from a special emergency meeting held in March 1942 reporting on the Tolan Committee Hearings on the West Coast.

The DVD does not state that Masaoka denied this allegation in 1988. Nor does the DVD include the finding released in the Lim Report, published in 1990, that analyzed the same JACL minutes and found that it could not definitely conclude that Masaoka made the suggestion.

By simply stating its own conclusion based on its reading of the JACL minutes and without any further analysis or supporting evidence, the DVD presents its biased view on a disputed point not relevant to a documentary on Redress.