When Jeanne Sakata was growing up near Watsonville, California, her parents never talked about what happened to them during World War II. Like thousands of other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, Sakata’s family had been forcibly removed from their home and sent to an armed camp.
“In my own family, there was no talk of the camps. I think my father, my aunts and uncles, were traumatized by being teenagers and being ripped out of their homes and put behind barbed wire," she says.
Although people she knew were silent about this chapter in their lives, Sakata learned more about it in the 1960s and 70s, when a younger generation of Asian-Americans grew more assertive about their ethnic and cultural identity and history.
As California residents, Sakata's family experience during the 1940s was like that of most every other West Coast Asian Americans she knew.
So Sakata was surprised one day when she flipped on the television to a PBS documentary about a second-generation Japanese American man named Gordon Hirabayashi.
The 1992 film by Seattle journalist John DeGraaf, called “A Personal Matter,” chronicles Hirabayashi’s decision to disobey Executive Order 9066, which called for the forced internment of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast.
“I said, who is Gordon Hirabayashi?” she says. She had never heard of him or his actions during the war.
Hirabayashi was a student at the University of Washington in 1942. After Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, the government enacted a curfew for all Japanese Americans. Hirbayashi violated that curfew.
Then, as both a Quaker and a pacifist, he decided that, in good conscience, he could not obey the Executive Order to relocate to a camp. He was ultimately sentenced to a prison term for violating curfew imposed on Japanese Americans. He hitchhiked down to Arizona, sleeping in ditches along the way, to reach the prison.
Sakata was stunned by this story of wartime resistance, and the long legal struggle Hirabayashi and his supporters waged against the U.S. government.
When Sakata’s acting career brought her to Seattle, she discovered a trove of correspondence with Hirabayashi stored at the University of Washington’s Special Collections. She spent her off-hours in the library, reading through the material. And although she had never written a play before, Sakata envisioned a one-man show about this young man.
Her play had its world premiere in 2007, but it wasn’t performed in Hirabayashi's home state until 2014. Hirabayashi died in 2012.
Now “Hold These Truths” is part of ACT Theatre’s 50th anniversary main stage season, the play’s first full Seattle production.
Sakata is thrilled with the positive audience response to her first play.
But for her, the story of Gordon Hirabayashi’s resistance, and his pride and confidence in himself as an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, was personally transformative.
“Even though I was a child (after World War II)," she says, “I think I internalized that sense of shame and that sense of ‘I am less than’ as a Japanese-American.”
Sakata says meeting Gordon Hirabayashi and chronicling his story helped her come to terms with discrimination she faced and implicit racism in the world around her.
“I think that listening to Gordon, and listening to the redemptive quality of what he did, was a great healing in my own life,” she says.
Jeanne Sakata’s one-man show about Gordon Hirabayashi, “Hold These Truths,” runs at Seattle’s ACT Theatre through Aug. 16.