Dignity and a Haircut

American Pastime and baseball under mass incarceration

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Courtesy of Nisei Baseball Research Project (http://www.niseibaseball.com)

Photo: Courtesy of Nisei Baseball Research Project (http://www.niseibaseball.com)
Johnny Nakagawa, left, was the Nisei slugger often compared to Babe Ruth.
American Pastime and baseball under mass incarceration

American Pastime
Screenplay by Desmond Nakano and Tony Kayden
Story by Desmond Nakano
Warner Bros., 2007

Dignity. If there is one thing that unifies most peoples’ struggles to survive forms of oppression, it is the fight to maintain human dignity. Whether it’s the enslavement of Africans, the colonization and attempted genocide of Native Americans, the exploitation and abuse of workers, or any other efforts of systematic domination of a group, at a minimum people survive and resist simply out of a struggle to maintain their human dignity.

The same can be said of Japanese Americans, 120,000 of whom (both citizen and noncitizen alike) suffered race-based mass incarceration in so-called relocation camps by the United States government during World War II.

Collectively and individually, Japanese Americans’ dignified survival took many forms, including creating Japanese language poetry clubs, designing rock gardens, crafting furniture from scrap lumber, constructing ofuro baths, playing music, making art out of found materials, striking and protesting their imprisonment, and even just working to pass the days in the camps.

And of course, there was baseball.

One of the ways Japanese Americans sought to make their lives in the camps just a little bit better was to organize baseball teams and leagues where ballplayers could play, others could watch, and all could perhaps forget for a moment that they were imprisoned behind barbed wire under the watchful gaze of armed guards.

American Pastime tells this story through the experience of the Nomura family, taken from their Los Angeles neighborhood and forcefully relocated to Camp Topaz outside of Abraham, Utah. While incarceration interrupts their lives and places great strains on their relationships, the gaze of the film falls on the two Nomura boys, Lane and Lyle.

Lane is the rebel. He loves and plays both jazz and baseball with equal passion, gets into trouble for drinking, manages to get beat up by racists in town, and even enters into a risky interracial relationship with the daughter of white military sergeant Billy Burrell (the commanding officer of the camp and an aging baseball prospect in the New York Yankee farm system). But Lane is a rebel for good reason. He is a baseball pitcher, and he lost his baseball scholarship to San Francisco State University because of internment.

Lyle, on the other hand, is the “good” son. He is obedient, doesn’t cause problems, listens to his father, and even joins the 442nd Infantry?a segregated regiment of all Japanese American soldiers who earned great fame as fighters during World War II.

After Lyle goes off to war, Lane becomes the central character in American Pastime. We get to watch him go through all of the alienation, pain, suffering, and even intermittent good times that happen during day-to-day survival in the camps. But while Lane serves as the protagonist, the struggle for dignity ultimately binds both brothers.

Nearing the final act of the film, when Lyle returns home a war hero—minus one leg, he heads for a local barbershop run by Ed Tully, player for the local semi-pro baseball team and resident racist of Abraham. Tully refuses to give Lyle a haircut because he doesn’t cut “Jap” hair and the story culminates in a baseball game where the Camp Topaz team squares off against the local Abraham semi-pro team, predictably led by Sgt. Burrell and Tully the racist barber.

Suffice to say, without giving up too much more of the plot, sometimes dignity simply rests upon the outcome of a ballgame and a haircut.

There is a lot to like about American Pastime. It is easy to follow, and middle to high school students should have no problem keeping track of the major plot turns and characters. It also illustrates the power of baseball—aided by an undercurrent of the power of jazz—to bring folks together and survive difficult times. American Pastime also thoughtfully delves into several of the central themes of the internment experience. Citizenship, life in the camps, cultural strains, familial strains, racism, the 442nd infantry, and childhood under incarceration, among others, are prominent themes in the story.

American Pastime is also better than the other mainstream movies dealing with Japanese American incarceration during World War II, namely Snow Falling on Cedars (1999, Universal Pictures) and Come See the Paradise (1990, Twentieth Century Fox). While it has the glossy and slick feel of these Hollywood productions, it is actually a film that comes from within the Japanese American community itself. So not only are the writing and acting solid, but the characters are more fully human—unlike the above-mentioned mainstream Hollywood films.

Despite its strengths, American Pastime isn’t perfect in its portrayal of the camps. So while I strongly support teachers’ use of this film, I would also encourage keeping a critical eye here.

For instance, one character in camp who, aside from being a great hitter, is supposed to be of Japanese and Native Hawaiian descent. The problem is that almost every time this character appears on screen (save the one scene during relocation and incarceration itself), he carries an ukulele and happily sings everywhere he goes. So at the same time American Pastime breaks stereotypes of Japanese Americans, it reinforces stereotypes of Native Hawaiians.

Additionally, American Pastime does not give camp resisters their due as an important part of the Japanese American community. Instead they are given only a glancing look and just written off as being disloyal.

And this points to a larger critique of the overall camp narrative constructed in American Pastime. Like many other mainstream portrayals of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, this film is largely concerned with proving that Japanese Americans are just as “American” as everyone else—hence its preoccupation with both the 442nd and “America’s pastime,” baseball.

The problem is that Japanese Americans shouldn’t have to prove anything to anyone. The real issue is the racism and xenophobia that led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps in the first place. Despite these criticisms, American Pastime is a good movie. It makes many aspects of the Japanese American internment experience accessible to viewers, and, despite some Hollywood-like predictability, it does so in an entertaining and engaging manner. With supplementary materials, American Pastime is definitely worth showing in middle and high school classrooms.

Supplementary Resources for American Pastime

A Classroom Guide for American Pastime

By Gary Mukai
Nisei Baseball Research Project
(NBRP), 2007

This guide provides some superficial and very basic lesson plans for teaching American Pastime. While it wholeheartedly avoids more serious issues such as racism, it does provide some lessons around music, culture, and baseball metaphors that some teachers might find useful.

Diamonds in the Rough: Baseball and Japanese-American Internment

By Gary Mukai, in collaboration with Kerry Yo Nakagawa
Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) and the Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP), 2004

This more substantial curriculum focuses on baseball in the internment camps generally. Again, while this curriculum does not provide much in the way of complex analysis and neglects to deal with issues of racism or Japanese American resistance, it does provide some entertaining lessons as well as a fairly thorough background essay on internment.

Nisei Baseball Research Project

Kerry Yo Nakagawa, Project Director
4728 North Glenn Avenue, Fresno, CA 93704

This organization is leading the charge to raise awareness about baseball in the internment camps.

Baseball Saved Us

By Ken Mochizuki
Lee & Low Books, 1995, 32 pp.

An excellent children’s book that also focuses on baseball in the camps.

The Densho Project


An outstanding online resource for teaching about incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. This site includes hours of streaming oral histories of internees, searchable transcripts of these oral histories, electronic images of actual documents pertaining to incarceration, and a thorough site for educators with lesson plans that focus on background information, civil rights, immigration, and incarceration. Registration is required but free.

The Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive ( JARDA)


Another excellent online resource for teaching about incarceration that houses a large collection of art, photographs, and document images. JARDA also offers lesson plans to support the use of their materials.

Rabbit in the Moon

Directed by Emiko Omori
Produced by Emiko Omori and Chizu Omori

This award-winning memoir/documentary shares memories of the incarceration of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Through interviews and personal reflection, sisters Emiko and Chizu Omori paint a complicated familial and community history of the camps filled with generational divisions, collaboration, and resistance.

Wayne Au is a Rethinking Schools editor and an assistant professor in the Department of Secondary Education at California State University-Fullerton. He is the author of Unequal By Design (Routledge, 2009), and the editor of Rethinking Multicultural Education.