Hawaii Five-O tackles Pearl Harbour and Japanese American internment, and it was incredible


I can’t figure out why lists of positive, progressive representations of Asian Americans on primetime television keep forgetting Hawaii Five-O. Really.

When we think about Asian Americans on television, we will rattle off several of the usual suspects — The Mindy ProjectCommunity, Lucy Liu on Elementary, Ming Na Wen on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Glenn on The Walking Dead. But then there’s bizarre pop culture blind spot for Hawaii Five-O, a show that features three (count ’em three) regular Asian American cast members: Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly; Grace Park as Kono; and Masi Oka as Dr. Max Bergman. It also gives a home to a breath-taking rotation of Asian American guest stars, including Brian Yang in the recurring role of Charlie Fong.

(Funny story: I was at an exhibit opening for Secret Identities’ Marvels and Monsters, and was introduced to Yang — there to promote Linsanity — by photographer Corky Lee. Lee said to me, “do you recognize this guy? He’s famous!” I stared at them both blankly and said, “err, no.” “Really,” asked Yang. “I’m on Hawaii Five-O!” “You are? Huh.” “Do you watch it? Don’t you recognize me?” “Yeah, I do watch the show. But…. huh, no, I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you at all.”

Ooops. This is why I’m terrible at networking. I’m sorry, Brian Yang! )

Brian Yang plays Charlie Fong. In my defense, I WOULD recognize him now.
This is Brian Yang. He plays Charlie Fong. Yes, I should’ve been able to recognize him…

Sure, Hawaii Five-O will never be mistaken for a fabulous crime procedural. It’s formulaic and campy, and an unabashed vehicle for gratuitous bikini shots and/or Alex O’Loughlin’s abs. And, sure, the two main characters — McGarrett and Danno — are about as White as the driven snow.

But, against this backdrop, Hawaii Five-O also is quietly doing some amazing things for the Asian American community.

One of the most ground-breaking events was last week’s episode commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbour. And, strangely, it aired with virtually no fanfare from the APIA community.

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Former Japanese American Internee Answers Questions in “Ask Me Anything” Feature on Reddit

George Takei will be performing alongside a star-studded cast of Asian American Broadway and TV actors in the upcoming musical, "Allegiance", which tells about life in an internment camp.

A Japanese American woman, now a grandmother, was interned at Tule Lake during WWII. Recently, on Reddit, she was featured on their “I Am A…” schedule. For hours, she answered user-submitted questions, which were translated and typed up by the woman’s daughter and granddaughter.

Through the course of the interview, the granddaughter learned that her grandmother was a “no-no boy”, having answered ‘no’ to two loyalty questions distributed to internees a year prior to the end of internment. Those questions were:

  • “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”
  • “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”

Having been born a United States citizen, the IAmA internee featured on Reddit spent a great deal of time agonizing over her answers before choosing to answer “no”. In so doing, she renounced her American citizenship and became statesless; after internment, she eventually regained her citizenship. She writes (with her granddaughter adding comments in the brackets):

We renounced our citizenship about a year before we left [the internment camps] to stay with our parents. One of the questions was “Did we have any loyalty to the Japanese Emperor?”. Many people didn’t like that question. We were born in America. Why would we have any loyalty to the Japanese Emperor?

(She’s referring to the loyalty questions. She didn’t talk about it this time, but she usually tells me that after the questionare came out, they had meetings every night to try to figure out what to answer. At the time there were rumors going around that everyone would be shipped back to Japan. If they said they weren’t loyal, they would be alienated in Japan (as well as the United States). If they answered yes, she would probably be able to stick with her parents.)

I also learned through this post about the internment camp stockades, basically a jail built to hold unruly interns. It’s described here:

She didn’t know much about them at all. I personally had never heard of it until I went to the pilgrimage. I was like 14 at the time so I don’t remember much, but here’s what I do remember. I remember that it was built to only hold somewhere around 30 people and something like 100 people ended up there. It was built using really nice concrete, so it’s the only building that remains standing. Someone was really nice and donated a cover that was built over it so it would be preserved. We got to go inside and it was really dark and creepy and there were poems on the wall (and graffiti from taggers). It’s not surprising though. If people would go through and dig up a cemetery, graffiti on a wall is nothing.

The full feature is quite fascinating. This link contains the cleaned up version of both questions and answers (minus Reddit user comments).

While we’re on the topic, check out the website for Allegiance, an upcoming musical starring George Takei and the incredible, incredible Lea Salonga, which follows a story set in Japanese American internment camps. The show opens at the Old Globe in San Diego Sept 7-19.