Interned by the USA: A composer’s tale

Interned by the USA: A composer’s tale


norman lebrecht

November 19, 2018

From the New York University Journal:

One day in 1942 when Film Scoring professor Paul Chihara was a child, his family was rounded up and sent to live in an internment camp. Even though they were American citizens, he and his family, minus his father who had been arrested and taken away to a prisoner of war camp the year before, spent three years of his youth in Minidoka, Idaho, because they were Japanese-American.

The Royal Scottish Orchestra has commissioned Professor Chihara to compose a work for speaker and orchestra based on the words of statesmen and politicians of the early years of World War II, when the United States government rounded up and incarcerated people of Japanese descent.

“A Matter of Honor” will premiere at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on March 22, 2019, and the American premiere will take place in Los Angeles at Soka University on April 3.

The score of “A Matter of Honor” is a musical memory of those three years of Chihara’s childhood growing up behind barbed wire and surrounded by armed guards on the enclosing walls of the internment camp. It references the music he heard every day, the Big Band songs, the Japanese pre-War pop songs, and some classical music that his fellow prisoners managed to perform.

Chihara and his assistant, Jennifer Fagre, wrote the libretto from the actual words of the most influential men of the era: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Earl Warren (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and General John DeWitt, Lieutenant General in charge of the defense of the West Coast, as well as contemporary words of Japanese-Americans interned at the time of the War. The title of the work is from a quote from the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who served in the 442nd Infantry regiment of the American military.

“Minidoka was not Stalag VII,” notes Professor Chihara, “nor was the relocation of the Japanese Americans during World War II like the Holocaust. Our experiences were pale compared with those unspeakable tragedies. But it was a tragedy nonetheless, and a grave injustice to fellow American citizens, as well as a complete disregard for the constitution or the hallowed laws of our land, somehow completely ignored by politicians, judges, free press, and the ACLU.”



  • I wish Paul Chihara much success with his very important project. Such an incredible and racist injustice. My parents were living in one of those interment camp barracks when I was born. After the war, the government sold them off. There was a camp in Lordsburg, New Mexico, not far from our family farm in Deming, NM. My grandparents bought one of the barracks, transported it to the farm, and fixed it up, plastering, a better roof, a porch, some heaters, and things like that. And then my newly wed parents moved in. It wasn’t until much later in life that I understood the significance of the building.

  • V.Lind says:

    *But it was a tragedy nonetheless, and a grave injustice to fellow American citizens, as well as a complete disregard for the constitution or the hallowed laws of our land, somehow completely ignored by politicians, judges, free press, and the ACLU.*

    Aside from restricting the situation to American citizens, Professor Chihara’s words seem to have recent echoes. I know the US is not the only country to have interned “enemy aliens,” as some called Japanese or German descendants (including, in the UK — as I understand it — some Jewish refugees from Germany). But when the US needs an enemy, its own founding principles seem to evaporate.

    Full marks to the Royal Scottish Orchestra for this imaginative commission. I hope the piece is a success, so that its resonances may continue to be made.

  • Paul has dealt with the scars of his youth through his creativity. He is complex, but ever-bright.

  • Sharon says:

    I agree that internment was wrong but it did provide security functions.
    1. It prevented Japanese spies from slipping into the Japanese American community
    2. It protected Japanese Americans from being harassed, assaulted and perhaps even killed from people on the street who believe that all people who look like the enemy are the enemy

    However, this was not done to people who had German accents. Whatever the rationale for internment it stinks of racism

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      It was because of the Bund, the German Nazi sympathizers in the US that these interments were done. They were interconnected. But the danger on the West Coast was far more imminent than from German-Americans in the Midwest. There were spies and loyalists already present, as well as Japanese submarines. We were in far more danger than people realize, with German submarines on the East Coast as well.

  • Yoyo Mama says:

    Thank you for not equating it with the Nazi death camps. The confiscation of their property was unacceptable, but the internments were not done lightly. There was danger.